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7 September 2011

Where were you on 9/11?

It is an event etched into our collective memory. We asked writers, politicians, and activists to remember where they were when they heard the news.

By Staff Blogger

The events of 11th September 2001 changed the course of history. As last week’s leader puts it: “Everyone of a certain age can remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard about the al-Qaeda attacks on the Pentagon and Pennsylvania and the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.” The sheer scale and audacity of the attack presented a new kind of threat for the globalised age, as did the shock of something happening on American soil, previously seen as untouchable.

In the New Statesman‘s 9/11 special, we asked writers, politicians, and activists to remember where they were when they heard the news. Here are their responses.

Elizabeth Turner, author of The Blue Skies of Autumn

I stood quietly on my own, watching the TV screen in my office at Channel 4 Television. I couldn’t quite understand what had happened, but the “Breaking News” tagline on Sky News was telling the world that a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York. I thought it was a small aviation accident but I watched in disbelief as a small black dot flew into the second tower and burst into a huge fireball. Everything around me moved into slow motion. I was aware of the rush of sheer terror that washed over me in that one, single moment. As quickly as it came, I pushed it away. I didn’t dare believe the impact of what had just happened. Even though I was seven months pregnant and knew that Simon, my husband, was hosting a conference on the top floor of the North Tower in the World Trade Center, I kept telling myself that this sort of thing only happens to other people. My husband wasn’t going to die in a terrorist attack when I was pregnant with our first child.

Simon Turner died on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001

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Jonathon Powell, former chief of staff at 10 Downing Street

I was down in Brighton attending the annual TUC conference, so I was using his office in No 10 to hold a meeting with Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland who had played an important part in the Northern Ireland peace process. Just before I went in to the meeting, I had seen pictures on TV of a plane flying into one of the twin towers but assumed it must be an accident. A few minutes in to the meeting, the duty clerk knocked on the door and said a second plane had crashed into the other tower. I said he must have got it wrong; it was just the TV rerunning the film. No, he said, it was a second plane. I abandoned the meeting, Ahtisaari excused himself and left, and Jeremy Heywood and I went into overdrive on the phones trying to make sure that no similar attack could occur in London by closing the airspace and reinforcing security in Whitehall. I spoke to Tony on the phone in Brighton; he had already decided to abandon his speech and return to No 10. He told me to get President Bush on the phone but we couldn’t: he was flying around the US on Airforce One.

The frantic activity was set against the backdrop of ghastly images of the attacks on a series of TV screens on the office wall in No 10. We followed them in horror as we organised the Cobra emergency meeting of ministers and put through a series of world leaders to Tony’s mobile phone as he travelled back by train.

Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief, AOL Huffington Post Media Group

My overwhelming reaction to 9/11 – I was at home in Los Angeles getting my two children, then ten and 12, ready for school – is inextricably bound up not with what happened on 9/11, but with what happened the next day. As the shock wore off and the enormity of what had happened began to sink in, the country’s reaction was not par­alysis, but action. Lines formed at blood banks, billions of dollars were donated to charities and volunteers had to be turned away from Ground Zero. The superficial media obsessions that had dominated our airwaves before that day – the now-forgotten non-stories about shark attacks, overage Little Leaguers and Gary Condit – gave way to serious discussions about how to repair our country, physically and spiritually. My deepest memory of 9/11 is how, after that tragedy, in a way and to a degree we have not seen since, Americans were eager to work for a common goal, desperate to be summoned to a large, collective purpose.

Stephen Evans, BBC journalist

I was sitting in a chair on the ground floor of the South Tower when the attacks happened. Suddenly there was an almighty bang, like the dropping from high up of a skip full of concrete. That clang still resonates today. At the time, the event seemed unreal. It was like a film set. The blue brightness of the day heightened the un­reality. My memories now are of the dignity of New Yorkers and their quiet outrage that a bunch of unelected men should dare to try to kill us, in our variety and innocence, to further their medieval views. It hardened my own politics, making me much less tolerant of a chattering-class view in Europe that “America had it coming”.

I remember sitting in a car on the day with a Chinese American and listening to the radio as we drove away from Ground Zero. She was trying to get to a maternity hospital, her thoughts flitting between the big event in her body and the big event we were fleeing.

And I remember a Muslim I met who had escaped from the South Tower. She told me later that the attacks had made her think hard about her beliefs. She concluded that the faith of the attackers was a perversion, and that her own faith was true and strong.

Kay Burley, Sky News presenter

It had started as a quiet news day. I was corralling reluctant colleagues into a voice-over booth to help with a Safer Harrow campaign. In the studio later, there was little happening when my executive producer alerted me to an incident in New York: a light aircraft had crashed into the World Trade Center. There wasn’t much damage apart from a few broken windows and perhaps some slight structural concern about one corner of the North Tower roughly two-thirds of the way up.

Our camera position didn’t yet offer a shot to the other side of the building, where a jetliner that had been transformed into a flying bomb had ploughed into the building. We were live on the pictures when the second plane hit the South Tower. It was unbelievable. An expletive in my ear from my producer put it much more bluntly than that.

Soon we had several more camera angles available. We focused on debris falling from the upper storeys. It quickly became apparent that the “debris” was trapped souls, unable to find a way out of the buildings. They were jumping to their deaths and their families were probably watching. The mayhem in my earpiece was replaced with respectful silence. We cut to wider shots.

Ken Livingstone, former mayor of London

I was told about the events in New York at a meeting in my office at the temporary headquarters for the Greater London Authority in Romney House, Westminster. Someone came in to say put the TV on. Our meeting soon broke up as the assaults unfolded. It was when the second tower had been hit that the implications started to crystallise. It was impossible in those minutes to take in fully what was happening, though I remember someone saying that this was going to change all politics.

In the following months, we worked closely with Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s office and with the agencies that promoted air travel between the two cities to help overcome the sharp decline in numbers of Americans coming to London, but also to encourage Europeans to come here to help deal with the damage to London’s visitor trade. The biggest impact, of course, from which we are still learning, was on security and counterterrorism. From that point on, I feared London would face a similar attack. A lot of time and work went into resilience plannin

Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and The Border

I missed the attacks entirely. I found out about them on 18 September, when the police came into my room in north-western Nepal and accused me of being an “Osama Bin Laden activist”. There was another ten days before I could reach an internet café and read about the event. And it was a long time before I understood how much had changed. Before 9/11, I had been involved as a diplomat in East Timor, Kosovo and Bosnia – missions that were essentially humanitarian. After 9/11, for me as for hundreds of thousands of soldiers and other diplomats, the decade was dominated by Afghanistan and Iraq: 9/11 turned intervention into war. Western foreign policy since has been driven by fear, pride and guilt. The US and its allies have exaggerated the threat posed by “failed states”. We have overestimated our power to transform those states. And we became trapped in Iraq and Afghan­istan through our guilt at the loss of soldiers’ lives. Emotions, rather than any rational analysis, trapped us in these deserts.

We finish this decade, therefore, in Libya, still struggling to find a constructive and honourable approach to intervention that avoids the false security of total isolation and the long humiliation of occupying an alien land.

Moazzam Begg, former Guantanamo Bay detainee

The 11 September 2001 was not a particularly remarkable day for me. I had been living in Kabul, Afghan­istan with my wife and children since June that year, working on establishing a school which catered for both girls and boys under the strict rule of the Taliban.

Two days before 9/11, however, there was heightened tension after it was announced that the Northern Alliance leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, had been assassinated by al-Qaeda. I was told that things might get unsafe for foreign Muslims. I had no idea how unsafe . . .

On 9/11, I was sitting at home playing with the children when I heard a sharp banging on my front door. It was my friend and housemate Shaker Aamer, in an alarmed state, telling me that the US has been attacked. Who could “attack” the US, I wondered. Was it China, Korea, or Cuba, even? I’m ashamed to admit I’d never heard of the twin towers, and I didn’t see the images of the attacks until I arrived in Pakistan several weeks later: the Taliban had banned television in Afghanistan.

The world has been living with the consequences of that day ever since. Now, at least, I’m a free man. A decade later, Shaker Aamer, who had once informed me of events that were to change our lives, remains a prisoner in Guantanamo – without charge, trial or hope of release any time soon.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty

It was my second day at Liberty. Hot from the Home Office, I was supposed to help inject strategic thinking. I wondered what our focus should be for the next few years. The answer soon became all too obvious.

On returning from lunch, I caught a glimpse of the first plane hitting a tower on a screen in the press office. Then the horror of the second plane, collapsing buildings and the haunting sight of poor souls diving from skyscrapers rather than perish in the flames. No tragic accident, this was premeditated mass murder, and most of the next decade would be defined by the response to that day’s atrocities.

I was surrounded by virtual strangers, confused, shocked and worried about friends, family and former colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic. In truth, I spent hours, even days, thinking I might have made a mistake: that my recent career change might be the worst timing in the world. Was this the moment to move from the world of security to campaign for liberty and the rule of law?

Any doubts were soon dispelled by actions and rhetoric from Messrs Bush and Blair. Democracies – the US in particular – quite rightly had the solidarity of most of the world that day, but these gentlemen had the reverse Midas touch when it came to uniting people around universal values. I could not predict the sheer extent of the folly they called the “war on terror” – Guantanamo, Belmarsh, control orders, blanket stop-and-search and mass surveillance. I did not anticipate open societies doctoring intelligence and making illegal war soaked in lies. Worst of all, given the crimes perpetrated that September morning, I did not imagine the shame and horror of democrats choosing kidnap, torture and murder in reply.

I became a mother the following spring and Liberty’s director within two years of 9/11. I saw the best in humanity as well as the worst. We worked with lawyers, journalists and politicians to defeat internment and repudiate torture, and to watch public opinion turn away from authoritarian madness. Time and again, the Human Rights Act proved vital in the struggle. No wonder many in high places are keen to “replace it” with something more convenient and malleable. So now we must defend the act itself and show that we are not beaten. Our values of dignity, equal treatment and fairness survive.

Abdel Bari Atwan, editor, al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper

I was in my office at al-Quds al-Arabi in Hammersmith, west London, just before 2pm on 11 September 2001 when suddenly the phones in our newsroom started going crazy. A British journalist colleague got through to me on my mobile. “Turn the television on,” he said. I did so just in time to see the first plane crash into the North Tower. Everyone at the paper was crowded round televisions, watching in disbelief as smoke poured from the tower. When the second plane hit, a collective gasp went up and some people started crying – it was so shocking.

The same British colleague called me back. “What do you think?” he asked. “It’s al-Qaeda,” I said. “I am absolutely sure of that.” There were two reasons for my certainty. One: simultaneous, or almost simultaneous, suicide bombings had become the organisation’s hallmark (twin truck bombs were used in 1998 to bomb the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam). And two: Osama Bin Laden had hinted to me when I met him in 1996 that a major attack against the US was being prepared.

Nobody could have imagined, though, that a few men in a cave in the most remote part of Afghanistan’s Tora Bora Mountains could inflict such catastrophic wounds on the world’s greatest superpower. I was, and remain, astonished and horrified by those events.

Joan Bakewell, broadcaster

I walked into the entrance hall of the BBC’s Broadcasting House. We were about to record an edition of The Brains Trust. But something was odd. People were standing around stock still and looking in the same direction. My eyes followed theirs. They – we – were all watching a television screen set up in the reception area.

There appeared to have been a major accident: a plane had crashed into one of New York’s twin towers. Heavens, it wasn’t long ago I had been having a drink there in the bar at the top of the building. The lift to the top had taken ages, and there had been something spooky about being at such a height yet still grounded: from the bar, we had looked down on planes coming in to land at New York’s airports. Now it seemed one of them had gone astray and crashed into the tower. Moments passed as people rumbled their shock and distress. But then they froze. Another plane had crashed and the world had changed.

Clive Stafford Smith, human rights lawyer and director of Reprieve

Our team was in Lake Charles, Louisiana, preparing for a capital trial. That morning, I had an appointment, early, with the local pathologist.
As I walked out of our rented cottage, there was something on the news about a single-seater plane that had apparently strayed off course and struck the World Trade Center.

I drove over to the doctor’s office. He was not there – yet, I thought. But there was something odd about the neighbourhood. The sun was up, the tarmac beginning to steam away last night’s dew. Nothing was moving. No sound. Not even a dog barking.

Eventually I gave up and went back to the house. By then, the news channels had translated the Cessna into a jumbo. Then the cameras captured the second aircraft hurling itself into the building. The court hearings were all postponed. Nobody said so; they didn’t need to. Everyone was frozen. America was under attack – the first time since Pearl Harbor, the second time since 1812. Nobody understood what was happening, or what to do. So we drove the 210 miles back to New Orleans. In the city, people were looking up at the sky nervously. On the nightly news, Tom Brokaw asked why people would do this. Why did people hate America so much? It would be the last introspective question for several years.

Jason Burke, journalist

I’d been travelling in Algeria but was back in the office at the Observer on the day. I remember standing next to Paul Webster, the deputy editor, watching the television, seeing the second plane go in, and turning to Paul and saying, “That’s Bin Laden.” He said, “How do you know?” and I said, “I can’t think of anybody else who would do it.” So he said, “Well, you’d better get a satellite phone and some money and get a plane.” Which is what I did, to Peshawar.

Like anybody, I could not compute what was happening. I remember the sight of the second skyscraper going down, and people in the office reacting very strongly. I still was not in a reactive mode: I was incapable of relating what I was seeing to something that was happening. I remember going home to get my stuff to go to the airport, and having great difficulty processing the information. It took a long time. I still watch the pictures and feel the same thing.

I was away for three months. I was in Pakistan for a while, then Afghanistan, and came straight out from Kabul to merry scenes of B-52s bombing a hillside in Afghanistan. I got back to the office in mid-December, on the day of the Christmas party – it was very strange trying to compute that as well.

Sherard Cowper-Coles, former UK ambassador to Afghanistan

On 11 September 2001, I had started work, three days earlier, as Britain’s ambassador to Israel. Exhausted, I had just returned to my residence when my defence attaché, Tom Fitzalan Howard, rang and told me to turn the TV on at once: something strange and terrible was happening in New York.

For the next couple of hours I watched, horrified and fascinated, as the spectacle unfolded, first in Manhattan and then across the Potomac at the Pentagon. I knew that this attack – which I suspected had to be the work of al-Qaeda – would affect Middle East diplomacy and much else for years to come.

I decided to call the embassy team together to take stock. On my way to the office, I telephoned the heads of both main Israeli intelligence agencies to ask for their assessment. Both were still in shock, and had concluded that the scale of this was so huge as to be beyond the capability of any terrorist organisation. It had to have been organised by a state. We sent a telegram to London that night, reporting those and other, generally very worried, Israeli reactions. We spent the next few weeks reminding London and, through London, Washington that Israel should not be ignored in the initial (and now-forgotten) rush to reach out to the Arab and Muslim worlds. For example, it went down very badly in Tel Aviv that, shortly after the attacks, Donald Rumsfeld decided deliberately to omit Israel from a Middle East visit. It was a huge relief to the Israelis when Tony Blair decided to come to Israel on one of his whistle-stop tours.

Amira Hass, journalist, Haaretz

It was 4pm in Palestine and Israel when the Hollywood-style scene of the falling towers for ever invaded our imagery and vocabulary. I was at home, in Ramallah, and I have no recollection what I was writing for Haaretz when human disaster gained such immediate global visibility.

It was almost a year since the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising. My routine reporting laboured to remind the Israeli readers about our repressive military domination, and make visible the spiralling number of Palestinian civilian casualties, killed by the Israeli army. A doomed attempt. The Israeli vocabulary had space for Israeli pain and bereavement only. It made no causal link between supremacy and revolt, repression and revenge.

Did I betray my profession when I never wrote what one young Palestinian journalist had told me? She did not rejoice over the dead but was proud to see the symbols of empire attacked. Whether she represented the general mood among Palestinians, I cannot tell. But I could not quote her candid words while the cloud of smoke and dust still hovered above Manhattan. The trenchant comment would have been misinterpreted as an endorsement.

David Blunkett, former home secretary

I was returning from the police chief superintendents’ conference at Warwick University when the calls started to come in. Like other senior cabinet colleagues, I made my way to Downing Street and to Cabinet Office Briefing Room A (Cobra). What strikes me now, ten years on, is the calm, the grasp of the enormity of what had happened, but also the preparedness for what we thought would be an immediate co-ordinated attack on London.
That didn’t come, but the planning of further attacks did. Hence the appalling events of 7 July 2005 in London and the attempts in London and Glasgow in 2007. Our security and intelligence services were in the front line of protecting us and still are. It was not days, but weeks after that, on 15 October, that I made a statement to parliament laying out precisely what we felt needed to be done – the legislative changes required and, yes, the proportionality between respecting civil liberties and protecting the life and well-being of the nation.

Parliament responded at its best. Both the Commons and the Lords debated and in some cases amended the draft legislation. Through our free media, the debate raged, as it still does, about how we balance the liberty of the individual with the prevention of the most heinous attacks by those who hold our open society in contempt.

Time gives us pause for thought. It also allows us to reassess how to approach the challenges of the future. But anniversaries give us an opportunity to remember. My life changed on 11 September 2001. Much of the agenda that I’d set out back in June that year as the new home secretary was either dislocated or deferred. But, for tens of millions of people across the world, too, life changed for ever.

George Galloway, former MP

I was at home watching live television as the second plane hit the towers. I knew immediately this was an al-Qaeda-inspired atrocity and that the world would never be the same again. Within half an hour I was writing a comment piece that began: “Remember, remember the 11th of September: gunpowder, treason and plot.” It was a day like no other in my lifetime, and not because it was the first atrocity – nor even because it was the first 9/11 (that was the murderous, US-organised coup against the socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, on 11 September 1973).

Nor was it the worst atrocity of our times – the US-backed Israeli government, in which Ariel Sharon was defence minister, facilitated the massacre of even greater numbers of defenceless Palestinian refugees in the Beirut camps of Sabra and Shatila. But it was clearly a harbinger of a slaughter across the world that would, in the end, consume the lives and livelihoods of millions in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond, and which continues today. I said then that there would be war throughout the world and so there has been. Most Americans thought these planes had emerged out of a clear blue sky. In fact, they emerged from the swamp of bitterness and hatred created by western double standards and injustice towards the Muslim world.

Jarvis Cocker, musician

On the afternoon of 11 September, Pulp were rehearsing in a complex on Brewery Road, north London. We were preparing to play at a special concert organised to mark John Peel’s 40th year in broadcasting. One of our road crew came into the room and mumbled something about some “plane business in New York” but we didn’t take much notice. Then he came back in five minutes later carrying a small portable TV, and said: “I think you’d better look at this.”

The room where we were rehearsing had a window all along one wall, giving a panoramic view of London’s skyline. It was a beautiful, sunny day and, given what we saw on TV, it seemed only a matter of time before a jumbo jet ploughed into one of our buildings. Everything had changed. Aeroplanes were now weapons, rather than a means of transport. Landmark buildings could collapse in minutes. We had been waiting for the new century/millennium to define itself and now it had – and the outlook was not good. The outlook was heavy. We stopped rehearsing and went to the pub.

Tariq Ramadan, professor of contemporary Islamic studies, Oxford University

I was driving when I got a call: there was a terrorist attack in New York. My friend described the events to me and said, “It is horrible, unbelievable!” I was in Geneva then, and went home to watch the images.

I was shocked. My first reaction – the same intellectual and religious stance I still have – was to reject such behaviour and to condemn these actions. How had somebody decided to kill innocent people in such a sophisticated way? In the following days, I was quite incredulous, not really buying the official story. I had questions about the facts.

I decided to take a clear stand when I was invited to a press meeting in New York a week later (and it has remained consistent): to condemn
in the light of what I knew and to question anything unclear. It was clear that some Muslims thought it was Islamically right to kill innocents in the name of Islam; it was my moral duty to condemn such an understanding.

I never thought 9/11 would have such an impact and would be instrumentalised in such a way. The positive, out of so many negative consequences, is that it forced Muslims to clarify their discourse, to explain (for themselves and for others) what Islam is and is not. It helped them to be less naive and more lucid: the way forward will not be easy.

[See also: What do we remember when we remember 9/11?]

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