Twelve years ago today, Mrs. Limey and I were aboard a charter flight to Crete. The journey had been largely uneventful until around an hour from landing, when the cabin crew grew suddenly and noticeably tense. They asked us, politely but firmly, to return the DVD players we had been watching, although with no explanation as to why. Clearly something was amiss.
What they knew, and we didn’t, was that 9-11 was underway.
We remained in ignorance right up until we reached our hotel room. Then, as is something of a holiday tradition, Mrs. L retired to the bathroom while I, rather than do something useful, like unpack, turned on the television to check out the exact number and nature of the available channels.
The television screen flickered into life, to reveal the unmistakeable skyline of New York. As I watched, a jet plane careened silently, as if in slow motion, into one of the Twin Towers.
“I suppose you’re watching the TV already!” came my wife’s accusatory voice from the bathroom.
“It’s some kind of disaster movie,” I reported.
“You could start unpacking, you know. We didn’t come on holiday to watch television.”
I didn’t reply. The truth had hit me that I was watching a live news programme. I sat slack-jawed as the Greek commentator babbled incomprehensibly over the arresting images, but, in reality, no commentary was necessary. What I was watching was all too clear. A passenger plane had lost control and had, tragically, dived into the heart of New York City. A massive plume of grey-white smoke was pouring skyward from a gaping wound in one of the Twin Towers.
By now my wife had emerged from the bathroom and was sitting beside me on the bed as the news programme looped the film of the crash over and over.
“Try to find an English news channel,” she urged.
As I flicked between channels, every second one depicted the now familiar cartwheeling collision of plane and tower. Eventually I found an American news channel, but it was clear that the whole world had stopped what it was doing and was watching this disaster in action, presumably with the same strange sense of surreal disbelief as me.
“…we have reports of a second plane heading towards New York…fighter jets have been scrambled as another plane is reported to have been hijacked…”
The whole truth dawned. This was no mere accident. America was under attack. Al Quaeda was making good on its frequent promises to wreak havoc on the West, and in a big way.
Needless to say, the holiday spirit was particularly hard to find that day and for days after. In cafes, bars, hotels and restaurants, people — staff, customers and passers-by alike — were glued to televisions. Where footballers would normally be squaring up to one another on a pristine green canvas, now were painted the grey-dusted survivors of the Twin Towers, stumbling through a perpetual fog of confusion, blood and twisted metal. Stories of heroism and adversity emerged hourly as we watched, literally unable to drag our eyes away from the screens; again and again the familiar giants fell, each repetition reminding us like a knife to the gut that there were real people inside whose families would never see them again.
And yet, what could have been construed as ghoulish fascination on the part of we onlookers very obviously wasn’t. My abiding memory of the shared emotion at the time is a strange, impotent empathy for the New Yorkers and, gradually, a growing respect for the infinite dignity that mostly typified their response: the small, still voices of calm, sorrowful but unbowed.
My wife and I were lucky enough to visit New York three years later. We hired a guide, a New York cabbie, who drove us around the city and told us of his experiences that day. He spoke proudly of the plans to construct a bigger, better building where the Twin Towers had been. He told us it was what the city wanted: a gesture of defiance and a refusal to be cowed. He took us to Ground Zero and let its understated eloquence speak for itself.
Looking back on 9-11, it feels now that we were all bit players in someone else’s story. On the periphery, perhaps, but touched by the events in a very real way. At that time we felt more connected, somehow, to other people, strangers in a faraway place. The pity is that it took an act of insanity to make that happen, which is why I cannot look at Syria now and abide the thought that we might stand idly by and watch a madman murder much of his population because “it isn’t our business”.
We’re all human. It’s all our business.