It was a slow day at work. We were just beginning to feel the bite of the Dot-Com collapse and we knew, even though we hadn’t quite admitted it to ourselves yet, that shadows were gathering and that, if things didn’t clear up, some of us might become what is so charmingly termed “redundant”. You know, when a company’s so-called “most important asset”, the staff, learns that it is the only asset the company is willing to part with, and that in times of crises, the “rank and file” becomes the “cannonfodder”.
We would soon be thinking of other things.
I must have been thinking about the tragedy in Estonia as well. A man had produced home-brewed booze with what turned out to be methanol (or wood alcohol), and before anybody found out it was too late. Eventually, more than 60 people would die. This story would soon vanish from the news. Or at least be relegated to page 24, right under the Personals and the “Massage” adverts.
It was around 3 in the afternoon, local time, when Linda came through the office asking, “Have you heard there’s a fire in the World Trade Center?” Visions of the old disaster movie The Towering Inferno flashed through my mind.
Linda went on to tell us that, apparently, a plane had crashed into one of the towers.
Soon we heard that BOTH towers were on fire. The first version of the story I heard was that a plane had hit one tower, and debris from the crash had hit the other tower and set that on fire as well. Others said that two planes had hit the towers independently of each other. I couldn’t believe that; such accidents don’t happen twice in a single day.
Then came the news that one of the towers had collapsed. Soon followed by the news that both towers had gone down.
Peter called home to his wife to learn what was happening. I heard him saying “PENTAGON?! What do you say, the Pentagon?” At this point I realized that something was terribly amiss, if the Pentagon was involved. Was this the beginning of World War 3? Then Peter hung up and turned around. “My wife says the Pentagon has been hit by a plane!”
I finally understood just how bad this was; that there could be no doubt this was deliberate and not some terrible accident. During a stay in the United States in the summer of 1998 I had heard of the bombings of the U.S embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. I remembered the names “Al-Qaeda” and “Bin Laden”.
I began to search for news in earnest. All the news sites were by now completely inaccessible – swamped by requests from all over the world. In the end I managed to get on to “The Fray”, Slate.com’s discussion boards, where ordinary Americans were commenting on the day’s news. It became my best news source that afternoon.
As soon as I could, I made my excuses and went home. I wanted to watch the news on TV. The ‘net was (and is) great but it was hard to see what was fact and what was rumors. Everybody on the train home were very quiet and subdued. They had all heard the news.
I spent the evening watching the scenes in New York and Washington over and over again, with Danish and English commentary, in horror. The North Tower on fire, the plane hitting the South Tower, people jumping to their death to escape the flames. Then the towers collapsing, seemingly in slow motion. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for those trapped on the upper floors, waiting for the inevitable or jumping to their deaths to escape it. I hope I never will understand what it was like.
I also remember watching celebrations on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.
Like everybody else, I knew the world had changed that day.
You could argue that the world didn’t change, only our perception of it. But our perception of the world, the way we see it, changes our actions and through them, the future. A lot of perceptions changed, and a lot of things began to happen that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.
For one thing, I don’t think the United States would have invaded Iraq and they certainly would have stayed out of Afghanistan. The reason I am not sure about Iraq is that both George W. Bush and some of his closest advisers were spoiling for a fight with Saddam Hussein and they might have found some other pretext even without the 9/11 attacks. Imagine what America could have done with the trillions of dollars the nation has spent on bringing peace, prosperity, and democracy to two countries that, for all I can see, don’t want any of these.
Security measures in airports and everywhere else allowed governments in the United States and Europe to expand their powers for the “public safety” and of course the “public good”, costing not only civil rights but also billions of dollars.
In Denmark the debate regarding immigration from Southern Europe and the Middle East had been raging for decades but the general opinion was that anti-immigration groupings were a bunch of xenophobes. Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen had said the Danish People’s Party (in Danish, Dansk Folkeparti) would “never be house-broken”, and people generally thought that the party, with their anti-immigration and islamophobic views, would remain a fringe party doomed to never gain real influence.
But the events on that Tuesday changed the focus on the immigration debate from “immigration” to “Islam”. Two months after the attacks, Denmark was the first Western nation to hold a general election. The election toppled the Social Democratic government and paved the way for a right-wing coalition backed by the Danish People’s Party as their parliamentary backing. This coalition would rule Denmark for ten years, with the Danish People’s Party rubber-stamping the right wing’s economic policies in return for harsher and harsher anti-immigration laws. I am convinced that, without the 9/11 attacks the right-wing parties would have sought their parliamentary support with the center or center-right parties.
Four years later, if the Jyllands-Posten had still decided to print a series of cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed, it would not have been seen as an expression of “Free Speech” but as a childish and immature demonstration that belonged in a kindergarten, not in a supposedly serious newspaper.
The attacks destroyed much more than two skyscrapers and a section of the Pentagon, and they cost many more lives than the 3,000 people who died in the buildings or on board the four planes that day.
Osama bin Laden hoped to strike a blow against the West with the attacks. Sadly, he succeeded. Mostly because the West played into his hands in the years to come.
Please note: The names “Linda” and “Peter” have been changed to protect the identities of my former colleagues. After all, they haven’t asked to appear on my blog.