Let’s download the obvious straight away: terror begets terror. Nothing good could come of it. But at that moment there was hardly time to think. It was the moment of vertigo. We felt, on a very small scale, something similar to what those people who jumped from the top of the towers must have felt to flee the fire and die quickly. We fell. Then, over time, what happened happened and what is still happening. Then we only sensed that the world was going to change, for the worse.
Perhaps you will be tired of remembering September 11, 2001. I accompany you in the sentiment. It tires me too. However, that day is not quite over yet, and therefore insisting on the dark day has a certain usefulness.
In hindsight, certain details make sense. This former correspondent had attended a fashion show in New York two days earlier. Mallorcan designer Miguel Adrover presented a collection largely inspired by traditional Muslim clothing and garnered great applause. On September 10 I chatted with Adrover. He was a star and was pampered by Vogue and of The New York Times. On September 12, he and his Moorish clothes were exorcised. A few months later, Adrover’s company was bankrupt and the designer, with a cart and a horse, earned his day by taking tourists through Egypt. His life changed, like so many others.
Neither he nor anyone else knew yet what was to come that sunny September morning. The former correspondent traveled early by train from New York to Washington. Upon reaching the capital, the mobile phone rang. It was Berna González Harbor, from Madrid, to tell him that a plane had crashed into a New York skyscraper. Ten minutes later, the former correspondent was in his office in the National Press Building and it seemed clear that this was not a small plane, but a commercial airplane. In case there were any doubts, while the television cameras broadcast the fire in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, we saw live how another plane crashed into the South Tower.
I save you the chronology of events, which you know very well. After the impact of a third plane in the Pentagon, the Army deployed around the White House and the Capitol. Barriers were erected with sandbags. A few armored vehicles tried to position themselves in the entrances to the political heart of the United States, but there was no way to move among the thousands of cars that blocked the streets. People tried to flee without knowing where. Apocalyptic rumors circulated about dozens of other planes about to crash and the impending destruction of Washington. The former correspondent, who had not smoked for months, entered a tobacconist with the blind already half-lowered and bought a carton of Camel without a filter. The stomach felt giddy and asked for nicotine.
Let’s remain oblivious to the chronology. Hours later, the collective spirit in the United States began to change from stupor and horror to rage and the desire for revenge. The televisions broadcast the collapse of the skyscrapers and interspersed images of Palestinians and citizens of Arab countries celebrating the attacks. It was a matter of pointing out the enemy, Muslims in general, led by Osama bin Laden, founder of Al Qaeda and supposedly hidden in Afghanistan.
If you managed to distance yourself a little, you could understand. The proud superpower suffered an unexpected humiliation and those who had suffered the boot of the empire believed they were enjoying a revenge.
The celebrations would have been interrupted, perhaps, if those unhappy who were celebrating had listened to the messages of love and farewell that the passengers of the hijacked planes sent to their loved ones. Or if they had breathed the air of lower Manhattan, a compound of oxygen, hydrogen and toxic smoke, sweet and acid at the same time, made of dust and ashes of corpses. The great tragedy was breathtaking; the thousands of little tragedies were just unbearable.
The next day or the next, the former correspondent’s house (Military Road, Rock Creek Park, a middle-class suburb) was the only one on the street that did not display the American flag and was therefore excluded from the patriotic fervor with that the neighbors hugged each other. When Halloween came, it was the only house on the street that the children avoided on their journey to trick or treat (Trick or Treating). Any foreigner who did not wave the stars and stripes had become a potential enemy and should be put in isolation.
Traveling by plane (there were no flights in the United States for two days) stopped being a formality, or even a relative pleasure, to become what it is today. In his first air travel after the attacks, the former correspondent was subjected to a thorough search and questioning. In the line of suspects (the passenger became a suspect, and so on), behind him were a woman and her baby of a few months; the woman was carrying a bottle of milk and the policeman demanded that she drink from it. “It’s my own milk,” said the woman, with a grimace of disgust. She had to take a long drink, through tears, to get on board.
Now it seems to us that the Donald Trump Administration is the most bizarre thing that has ever passed through the White House. But it’s not like that. George W. Bush, the president who was president thanks to some supreme judges appointed by his father (George H. Bush) and some doubtful votes that his brother (Jeb Bush, governor of Florida) considered good, had surrounded himself with sinister types . Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Undersecretary Paul Wolfowitz conscientiously encouraged the rancor that burned in the heart of the average American and invented a War on Terror that, in addition to causing hundreds of thousands of deaths, poisoned democracy. U.S. Guantánamo, arbitrary arrests in third countries, the systematic use of torture, the promotion of racism, Islamophobia, lies, stupidity, patriotic delusions, made up the legacy left by George W. Bush. Trump simply made heavy use of that legacy.
The figure of the victim by delegation is curious. Months after the attacks, the former correspondent had lunch with Lou Reed and the question of the aftermath of 9/11 came up. Reed, who along with Susan Sontag was one of the few public voices who tried to see things in perspective (and, like Sontag, was accused of treason for it), said he was surprised by the fact that New York, the city that most had suffered, with the ruins of the World Trade Center still smoking and with thousands of pieces of the corpse pending identification, was already recovering from the emotional trauma, and on the other hand, in the interior of the country, where nothing had happened, the resentment and the conviction that the condition of victim gives the right to commit any barbarity. We have seen that in other places as well. If the real victim is reluctant to hate as much as he should, the imaginary victims regard him as a traitor.
More than one real victim fled from memory and hatred. The correspondent spoke in 2002 with an African-American woman who had managed to escape the North Tower fire shortly before the crash, descending the stairs at such speed that she destroyed her feet. Sad and lame, he explained that he had found a job in Scotland and that he was not planning to return to New York because he could not forget and because the American anthem, which was playing everywhere and at all hours, was on his nerves.
The fury of the “good Americans” was echoed in the press, including the most solvent, within the United States and abroad. Years later, The New York Times he had to apologize to his readers for the lies he had posted (signed by Judith Miller and others) to pave the way for war and revenge. Weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein’s involvement in the attacks, that sort of thing. At the time, however, readers were asking for euphoric or comforting lies. And no media wanted to be accused of lack of patriotism. The United States was to end Islamic terrorism and establish strong democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq. There was no possible discussion.
Twenty years later, the body of Osama bin Laden lies at the bottom of the sea. The Taliban defeated in 2001 have regained power in Afghanistan and have witnessed the shameful flight of the United States and its allies; so much war, so many deaths and so much money wasted, to return to the starting point. Out of the ruins of invaded and occupied Iraq emerged a new fanaticism, the Islamic State or ISIS, strengthened in the war in Syria. Al Qaeda is stronger than ever. Islamist terror spreads across Africa. Madrid, London, Paris and other cities have suffered brutal attacks. And one day a new atrocious attack will once again wound the western soul.
September 11, 2001 remains, to some extent, today.
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