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9 September 2002

Second thoughts

11 September - The attacks prompted a volley of opinion and a wave of emotion. Have the com

By George Hay

Michael Gove, assistant editor, the Times

At the time (15/9/01, the Times): “While England wept, while they were mourning in America, there were eyes unclouded by tears, hearts untroubled by sympathy. There were those here in Britain for whom the most appropriate words to speak over a mass grave were: ‘You had it coming’ . . . For every day since tragedy struck evil has found its apologists in our midst, drawn overwhelmingly from the ranks of the old left.”

Now: I still think my response was right. What I said after 11 September was broadly true of a significant section of the left, which often displays a tendency to “romanticise the rebel” . . . I believe there is a key moral distinction between the events of 11 September and, for example, military action in Afghanistan. With the former, the hijackers deliberately set out to kill thousands of people. With the latter, our forces deliberately tried to avoid killing innocent civilians. For the New Statesman to have said, in its famous editorial, that Manhattan bond traders had it coming seemed outrageous. I still believe that to be the case.

Robert Harris, novelist, columnist

At the time (18/12/01, Daily Telegraph): “At least Shaw and the western sympathisers for Stalin believed in something: for all their folly, they had a kind of intellectual grandeur about them, a coherent philosophy to defend. Today, the left doesn’t even offer an alternative – just endless nit-picking raised to the level of ideology.” And (25/9/01, Daily Telegraph): “I fear I have parted company, for the time being at least, with many of my old friends on the left, finding more good sense on the other side.”

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Now: I don’t think it’s possible to have a coherent political philosophy in today’s climate. I suppose you could say I’ve had a “glorious reunion” with the left, but I find it more and more difficult to have a fixed position: I find myself sympathising with the hard left on some issues, and libertarian Tories on others. My reasons for not attacking Iraq, for example, are the same as George Galloway’s and Tony Benn’s. At the moment, you have some very strange people in Washington who are parting company with reality, and over here a new Labour government which doesn’t believe in liberty. Holding a firm, unbending ideological stance in the present culture is very difficult. How would Marx have dealt with al-Qaeda? When one side of the debate does not care for preserving its own life, old certainties of left and right don’t apply.

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Amanda Foreman, historian

At the time (13/11/01, Guardian): “Even if it turns out that AA Flight 587 [the plane bound for the Dominican Republic that crashed due to mechanical failure in Queens, New York, on 12 November 2001] was doomed from the start, I still hate the terrorists all the more. I would like to kill the bastards myself.”

Now: I stand by what I wrote. I believe that the language of terrorism has no place next to the language of law. Blaming the victims for being attacked in such a barbaric manner is exactly the same, morally, as blaming a rape victim for wearing a low-cut dress. If a terrorist were threatening the life of an American, Brit, or any other innocent civilian, I would have no hesitation in killing that person.

Tony Blair, Prime Minister

At the time (“Community Speech”, Labour Party conference, October 2001): “Out of the shadow of this evil should emerge lasting good: destruction of the machinery of terrorism wherever it is found; hope amongst all nations of a new beginning where we seek to resolve differences in a calm and ordered way; greater understanding between nations and between faiths; and above all justice and prosperity for the poor and dispossessed, so that people everywhere can see the chance of a better future. We can’t do it all. Neither can the Americans. But the power of the international community could – together if it chose to.”

Now: Downing Street press office sent a transcript of the following statement to the House of Commons on 10 April: “Let me say this. Saddam Hussein’s regime is despicable. He is developing weapons of mass destruction and we cannot leave him doing so unchecked . . . Doing nothing is not an option . . . I repeat, however, no decisions on action have been taken.”

Polly Toynbee, columnist

At the time (26/09/01, Guardian): “On the old Nixon-in-China principle, this man [Bush] might direct the world towards peace better than some liberal president always fearful of redneck US opinion . . . Short of the fall of the iron curtain, few leaders have ever about-faced so fast . . . Before 11 September there was a European way, largely social democratic, and an American way, largely conservative . . . But those of us who saw the world that way have had to shift: in extremis, the divides between Europe and the US are second-order issues compared to the Taliban and Bin Laden.”

Now: I was optimistic when Bush did not do a Clinton instant missile launch, but waited to assemble a credible international coalition of support. I thought it signalled a new understanding in the White House that, in extremis, the US needs the world, as well as vice versa. Blair’s conference speech offered a vision of a new internationalist US that could/would set out to engage with the root causes of 11 September. But Bush reverted to primitive type: if he goes to war alone in Iraq against the world it will be a disaster.

Peter Wilby, editor, New Statesman

At the time (17/09/01, New Statesman): “American bond traders, you may say, are as innocent and undeserving of terror as Vietnamese or Iraqi peasants. Well, yes and no . . . Americans, unlike Iraqis and many others in poor countries, at least have the privileges of democracy and freedom that allow them to vote and speak in favour of a different order . . . These attacks, using deeply symbolic targets, have hit a civilisation that has grown complacent, selfish and in some respects decadent.”

Now: The mistake was not to express more sympathy for the victims, but there are only so many words in the English language that can do that, and most of them had been used; I was trying to take the argument on to new ground. People read the NS because they want something different. Ultimately, I don’t regret my essential point, which was to echo what Mark Twain said about the Jacobin terror during the French revolution: we devote millions of words to “the horror of swift death” but we too easily forget “the lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak” that has lasted for centuries . . . If I were writing it again I would use that rather than the Brecht poem I quoted (“in buildings thought indestructible”), which was rather unfeeling.

Doing it by the book

David Hare
David Hare was one of the few writers who did not wade in to what he calls the “carnival of opinion” after the WTC attacks. When questioned about his failure to issue a public statement on the issue, he told the New Statesman: “There is a tradition in the performing arts of being politically informed and therefore not finding political events unexpected. There is a tradition of political analysis. A whole lot of novelists looked stupid because they had no political analysis.”

Remember these?

Jeanette Winterson
Touch me. Kiss me. Remind me what I am. Remind me that this life is the one we make together.

. . . In the rubble of the twin towers, where pride has been dwarfed by hate, the smallness of what we are is too obvious. Whatever we do, it can be reduced to this. Whatever we build is temporary . . .

. . . Make no mistake, plenty of people prefer the world as terror. The world as love is just too hard to take . . .

. . . Do we ask ourselves why we pay security guards so little that they can’t be bothered to do their job? Do we wonder if capitalism and imperialism were the real co-pilots on those planes? . . .

Peter Carey
Time is broken . . .

So many friends were looking at the World Trade Center at this moment. They now have this nightmare branded into the tissue of their cerebral cortex . . .

From my doorway I saw MaryAnn from across the street. She was walking up and down with her baby in her arms. You could see, from the way she kissed her baby’s head, that she feared her husband dead.

Martin Amis
United Airlines Flight 175 was an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile aimed at her (America’s) innocence . . .

No visionary cinematic genius could hope to recreate the majestic abjection of that double surrender . . .

. . . This moment was the apotheosis of the postmodern era – the era of images and perceptions . . . within hours, Manhattan looked as though it had taken ten megatons . . .

The temperature of planetary fear has been lifted towards the feverish; “the world hum”, in Don DeLillo’s phrase, is now as audible as tinnitus.