Reflecting on 9/11 – New York

Approaching the 20th anniversary of the attacks, I like many others, have been reflecting on 9/11 and New York.

My family and I were on holiday in New York in the summer of 2001. It was our first trip back to the USA since we had left from living there in February 1998. Little did we know, as we visited the sites, what would unfurl a few weeks later. There are some photos below, including a couple from 2008 when we returned via a cruse ship sailing at dawn into New York

Missing Towers
NYC 2008 no towers

One summer morning, we queued by the elevators to reach the Top of The World observation deck on the 107th floor. It was not a bright blue morning sky that greeted us. Not like the blue we saw in the pictures weeks later. It was cloudy and hazy. A day or so before, we had been at the top of the Empire State looking across the city at the towers. Now, we looked the other way and watched the ants in the squares below. Virtually every view of the city contained the iconic landmarks.

The Attack

We were back home in UK, when like the rest of the world we watched in fascinated horror as the buildings were hit and then fell. I was at work when others called me to look at the news coverage. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Like many others I thought it was a plane accident to start with. We’d watched the planes heading along the Hudson river. Stared out the windows at the cityscape as we flew into JFK a few days before. Then, the second plane hit and there was no doubt.

There were phone calls home and concern about relatives and friends who may or may not be in New York and Washington. I had former US military colleagues in the Pentagon (all safe it turned out, but some close shaves). Many contacts who visited New York. Then, there was the fear of an attack in the UK.

Air Defence

I was quizzed about what might be happening. My new civilian work colleagues of just a couple of years, knew I had been in the RAF and some knew that was in Air Defence. Our office was adjacent to an airfield. I could imagine the scrambles of jets and alerts rushing round the system. I could imagine my RAF colleagues manning consoles and radars, as they tried to check every single plane flying in and near UK airspace. Just in case the conspiracy was across the world.

I stated loudly in the open plan office, that the USA ‘would go to war over this.’ My comment was met by some disbelief. I had no pre-knowledge, other than my time serving directly with the US military. Such an attack could not go unpunished. I had seen intelligence from a few years before. It was used it in classified lectures I gave that mentioned the rise of Islamic extremism, across the World. Nothing specific to an attack on the USA. There had been attacks earlier that year and in previous years. The signs were there. We didn’t know until much later, how much the CIA knew and failed to tell the FBI.

The Holiday

When we stood atop the towers looking at the stunning views, it was just a spectacular visage at the start of a holiday. New York was very crowded and not suited to our young children. They were more used to quiet country towns. As parents, our heads were full of keeping an eye on the children, where we should eat, and the travel plans for the next few days. Central park was a notable exception of tranquillity.

We headed West from Newark to LA, in the following days to visit friends near San Diego. A few days later, we went to Tucson with more friends before a trip to the Canyon and Vegas. We flew back from LA to London. The children went back to school. My wife and I with our respective jobs. I’ve posted some photos, with the addition of a couple from our next visit in 2008 including driving past the then construction site.

The mess that Afghanistan became, has been highlighted with the chaotic withdrawals this summer, The anniversary of the attack that sparked the NATO invasion is not just a twenty year mark. It is something that happens every day and every year for those who lost loved ones in the attacks.

Many Anniversaries

It’s not just 10, 15, twenty or eventually 50 year occasions. It’s every birthday or wedding anniversary missed. Children’s graduations and other events missing a parent’s attendance. Then, we have the anniversaries of those that lost loved ones or had them returned injured in the wars that followed; highlighted in recent weeks with the events and more deaths in Afghanistan.

Now, is not the time to comment again on the fallacies or justifications of those wars. Instead, I can recall a happy holiday. The gasps at the views and famous landmarks lost. The other pictures I haven’t posted, of my young children, both now grown adults with my daughter living and working as a teacher in the USA.

Skylines have changed, children have grown, yet twenty years have gone in what seems a blink of an eye.

A New York Return?

One day, we’ll probably head back to New York. We were in DC driving past the Pentagon in December 2018. Maybe we will visit the new One World Trade Centre and take a ride to another observation deck. I know I will think back then to other towers and similar, but different views.

The new landmark may be very tall but is perhaps less distinctive than the former twins. If we go, we will certainly visit the memorial. Save for a couple of weeks, we could have been on top of the towers watching the hijacked planes head for us. Our names could be on that list. It was not a close escape but one of several weeks. Luck of time and distance, as many things in life are.

A colleague of mine was sailing towards New York that day. He was due to visit the Towers on the 12th. He spent a few extra days on the cruise ship before they were flown home when flights resumed. I have colleagues who visited the towers regularly. More worked in the Pentagon or they were frequent fliers on internal US flights criss-crossing the country for work or pleasure. I know others who were on-board planes at the time and the fear that swept though them. I was in an office, not where I had been a few weeks before.

A time for reflection, a time to mourn, but also a time to be thankful that I had the experience of standing in the breeze looking at the Statue of Liberty.

The Longer View

We need to sometimes take a longer view. The media (social and mainstream) would lead most people to believe that the world has never been so dangerous or that governments have never been so incompetent or evil. Whether its the latest news on Brexit, Trump’s Tweets, Putin’s evil intent or the chaos that is Syria and Yemen. There appears to be a tendency to ignore even recent history.

It seems apt that I take a personal perspective. This year marks the 40th year (in August) since I entered full time employment. I left school at 17 (Much to my parents annoyance) half way through my A Levels. It was unusual then to even take A Levels. University was for less that 20% of the population. I was in the vast majority. The UK was a very different place. A Labour Government was in charge under Jim Callaghan as Prime Minister and his infamous ‘Winter of Discontent’ was to follow that winter.

I had dreams of being a rock star (don’t laugh) instead, I became an Electronics Technician earning (via a weekly brown envelope holding the cash) £29 per week. Equivalent to about £160 in today’s inflation affected money. The inflation rate was 7.8%. It would rise higher along with interest rates.

The UK was known as the sick man of Europe which was the trading block known as the EEC or Common Market as it was commonly known. The UK had joined the EEC with Denmark and Ireland in 1973 – there was no referendum. It did have a referendum to remain in 1975.

The troubles were 10 years old in Northern Ireland, and that year 82 deaths were attributed to the conflict. The next year would be worse. The UK was still supporting the new Oman regime but elsewhere was not directly militarily involved, except of course the day to day cold war with the Soviet Union. To give some context to Middle East troubles including Oman this is a handy reference – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_modern_conflicts_in_the_Middle_East

Jimmy Carter was US President having beaten Gerald Ford in 1976. Ford of course had become President after Nixon resigned in August 1974. (pence for Trump?) The Iranian revolution would follow in 1979, with all the troubles that caused Carter. Brezhnev was the leader of the Soviet Union and would be until Nov 1982. He would be in charge when the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan in 1979 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet%E2%80%93Afghan_War.

It took the Soviet Union nearly 10 years to ‘get out’ of Afghanistan. The US supported the Mujahideen including Bin Laden with advisors and weapons. The US Ambassador to Afghanistan was murdered in 1979 initially blamed on a communist group. The US, UK and others still have troops there since the October 2001 invasion, and in Iraq since March 2003. How long will it be until we completely leave both countries.

In 1978, Germany was split East and West with Berlin a split city in the East. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, were still joined. Solidarity in Poland was still a couple of years off. The KGB was the security apparatus of the Soviet Union supporting the vassal states in the Warsaw Pact. A Bulgarian exile, Georgi Markov was murdered on a London Street by a poisoned umbrella pellet in Sept 1978. Odd murders by security services are not new.

The World Wide Web would not be invented until 1989 and have little relevance until the late 1990s. There were 16 million users world wide in 1995 when I was a military officer on an Exchange post in the USA. Now. there are over 4 Billion. The Internet of course existed in Military and scientific fields before that.

Writing this is has reminded me how much has changed personally and how little has changed world wide. Yes, names have changed and regimes have changed, but global politics is as messy as ever. We still have Middle East conflict, US Presidential politics, and rows about Europe. We can add in the mix a rising China and risk of trade wars, climate changes, and the risks from population growth. Despite the current issues it still feels a better world than watching uncollected rubbish pile on the streets whilst walking to work because of yet another strike.

Intolerance

Intolerance dates from June 2014 – the subject continues with Woke, BLM and ongoing issues in 2021

After my excursion into religion last week I did think of writing on a less controversial subject like gay rights or paedophilia. This week’s headlines have been dominated by the events in Iraq whilst Ukraine nervously continues. Elsewhere, the impact of missing girls in Nigeria has not gone away nor has the continued fighting in Afghanistan even if it is now local troops fighting rather than American or UK troops, or the other NATO forces that have been deployed there and shed their blood as well. As with Iraq, coalition forces will soon have departed and we can fully expect Afghanistan to return to its historical state of occasional tribal warfare. The Pakistan forces have just launched a major offensive.

All of the conflicts have one thing in common – religious intolerance. Just as my previous blog attracted some comments it does not mean I shall give up on my view in that all religions behave appallingly, given half the chance, and yes I do include Christianity in that view. This time I am not focusing on historical inaccuracies or whether the Bible say this or that or the Koran , Torah, and onward into whatever belief system or set of rules that for one reason or another the individual believes is the truth.

One thing is clear they cannot all be right, they cannot all have their version of God and religious duty. At the moment the conflict spreading from Syria to Iraq is between different branches of Islamic faith, Sunni and Shia. With perhaps the ISIS or ISIA forces another version of Sunni. Once Europe was full of competing version of Protestants and Catholics, helped by tribal rivalries amongst warring families so to see the Islamic faith fighting their wars should not be surprising.

Then we have on-going issues between in Muslim, Sikh and Hindu faiths in India.

The common factor is religion, not resources for a change. Organised religion as a proxy for the power of individuals. Whether it’s a leader in Iran, Saudi, Syria or or the never-ending fight of the Jewish faith and Arbia still seen in the battles over the future of Israel and Palestine. It was not that long ago that Hammas and Hezbolah were taking their fight onto the streets of what passes for a modern city in Palestine.

Compare and contrast these activities with more secular liberal societies. Has Western Europe become immune to religious tension. Certainly on the scale seen in other nations. The argument falls down where we have Syria and Lebanon. Both partially secular on the surface. Assad’s regime was and is oppressive but there did appear to be some religious freedom.

1960’s Lebanon was seen as a typical Mediterranean European-like city before it descended into chaos which thanks to the activities of Syria and Israel (expelling Palestinians) remains on the precipice of civil war.

What of the role of West in all this, the West a loose term for the alliance of USA and it’s allies. Falsehoods led to the second war in Iraq. The world’s moral indignation after 11th September 2001 has been lost. Instead of concentrating on fixing Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Iraq was attacked and Afghanistan ignored until it was too late. Just like Afghanistan was ignored after the Soviet Union left until the Taliban were firmly in charge.

Now we have nations whose idea of the rule of law is secret courts and mass surveillance of their own citizens using carefully worded statements to explain how they comply with a law. We have had secret rendition, we still have Guantanamo and even here in the UK we need the new Supreme Court to tell us whether a trial, for the first time in our legal history, can be held completely in-Camera.  Is this the freedom we believe we want. Judging by the lack of outrage ot these events I suppose it is. I looked at the Newspaper headlines today. There were more stories about the sex lives of minor celebrities and various free offers than there were about any of these issues.

Judging by the number of people who bother to vote in the UK approx 30% in the latest local and Euro polls and approx 60% in last general election. No one cares. The scandal of MP expenses rumbles on but virtually all of the MPs were returned at the last election just because they wore a particular rosette. The average MP is elected with 35% of the vote from 60% of the electorate who bother to turn out. Democracy in action but at least it’s better than a religious dictatorship, although it’s no guarantor of freedom of expression, religion or action and as for equality don’t get me started.