Written 12 September 2001
Nineteen and a half hours ago, I was watching late evening television. It was a rainy winter's night here in south east Australia. On the other side of the planet in the east coast of the United States, it was 8.45 am. In New York, it was a fine early autumn morning. Idly, I flipped channels during a commercial break. "We cross now live to pictures from New York, where a plane is reported to have collided with one of the World Trade Center towers".
I sat, aghast, watching the image of smoke pouring out of the top of one of the familiar Manhattan icons. I flashed back to a helicopter transit flight, thirty years earlier, when I first saw the twin towers, illuminated above the night skyline as I flew from JFK to La Guardia. I thought of the car bomb there several years earlier. I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I rationalized. It couldn't be terrorism. Nobody would be so psychopathic as to fly a plane deliberately into a skyscraper. It was just the worst domestic aircraft accident ever. A tragedy but an accident. I yelled to my wife to tune to Channel Ten.
I sat glued to the images coming via satellite across the Pacific. On CNN - or was it a feed from NBC? I forget - the commentators were speculating wildly about the cause. Several minutes passed. Then in a blur, a small dark object flashed in from the right of the screen. The second tower belched flame and debris from its middle.
This can't be real. This mustn't be real. It is too hideous to imagine.
If real, it would be terrorism on a scale unimaginable. Madness and barbarism without human precedent. But it was real. Hideously real.
My wife joined me watching on the main television. I set up a second TV and we sat, without a word, jumping between five live transmissions from the US. They showed the second impact again. In slow motion. It was a commercial passenger plane. Almost certainly a Boeing 737. The commentators hadn't recognised this. They didn't for quite some time. They were even more bewildered than I was. Were there passengers on board? How many people were there in the buildings? Who was doing this?
Then CNN crossed live to a new picture. I don't know how much time had passed. It was the Pentagon, they said. It was billowing with gray smoke. War.
I called my brother. He wasn't answering his mobile phone. I hung up.
A little later, he called me. He was shaken. Had I been watching the television? Yes. He could barely express himself. Nor could I.
I had to stop watching. The buildings were spewing smoke. I turned on the PC and sent an email to a friend in South Carolina. It was headed "BASTARDS!!!!!!!" Rage was becoming my dominant emotion. I tried to rationalize what was going on by thinking about what might happen. A coalition of the US, Western Europe, Russia, Japan and perhaps China, against the madness. I tried to take some solace in thinking I would not like to be in Osama bin Laden's shoes. Presuming it was he who was responsible.
I rejoined the televisions. The commentators were speculating about the perpetrators. It was now obviously a terrorist attack. Sickening statistics were being quoted. 50,000 people worked in the twin towers. The video coverage was transfixing and torture. Time became blurred and meaningless.
Suddenly the second tower shuddered at the top. Dust and smoke replaced what had been its rectangular outline. It collapsed in a pyroclastic cloud of dust. Only one tower and a pillar of smoke remained.
I was bewildered again. Disbelief, horror, rage and compassion swirled in my mind in a sickening mix. I watched, mesmerized by the unimaginable. I don't know for how long. Well after midnight. A friend called on the phone. Was I watching? Yes. "No wonder we're reluctant to accept Afghan refugees", I said. He misunderstood me. "It's all part of the same problem. Different symptoms of the same problem". The shipload of refugees were sailing around the north of Australia as we spoke. I realized I had no more idea than the TV commentators who was responsible. I was lashing out at anything Islamic. Because the only possible explanation was some Islamic group. But that didn't explain the sheer demonic hatred that must have been necessary even to contemplate this... this madness.
I listened to Ehud Barach on BBC World TV. He made more sense than anyone who had been talking to this point. Interviewed by a BBC commentator. In my mind, bizarre flashbacks to film images of World War II.
Yassir Arafat was interviewed, live from Gaza. He was trembling, struggling for words to express his horror. That was not feigned.
Then the second tower collapsed. The icons had vanished. A little after 3 am I crawled into bed. Exhausted by the past four hours, unable to come to terms with what I had seen.
The radio came on as usual at 7 am. The horror of a few hours ago came back with a jolt. It was still happening. The statistics were getting worse. The numbers of passengers. The numbers of firefighters lost in the second collapse. The whole ghastliness of it hit me like a punch in the stomach. On television, late afternoon sunlight lit the New York skyline and the shroud of dust where the World Trade Center had been. Incomprehensible.
I watched well into the morning, as night fell on New York and Washington. The President spoke. Words of consolation and resolve. I was overcome by a feeling of complete unreality.
"Allah the Compassionate". The words drift into my consciousness, and become insistent. How can anyone who has read the wise words in the Koran possibly contemplate such inhumanity, such hatred? Why is so much of the world's terrorism apparently founded in Islam? The Palestinians I can at least understand. They are locked in an impossible struggle with Israel. It is impossible for both sides. But it is understandable.
How is it that religions that accept the teaching "Vengeance is Mine, sayeth the Lord" are capable of such callous disregard for humanity? The inhuman treatment of children walking down a road to go to school, people screaming at them and hurling rocks, just a few days ago in Belfast, shows the same mindless hatred.
What is it in religion that begets such hatred? Is religion the Yin and Yang - hatred and compassion - rolled into one?
I've heard several people refer to - and misquote - Roosevelt's "Day of Infamy" speech today. It is apposite. I recall the way the Japanese were then depicted as sub-human. It made the War easier to accept. But this war is different. There is no need to mis-cast the evil-doers as sub-human. They do it all by themselves. No-one who displays such supreme disregard for humanity deserves to be treated as a human. Yet we must, or we descend to the same level.
It would be comforting to be able to take solace from religion at this painful time, as so many are in America and around the world. But I cannot. I keep seeing the evil beneath the surface. I cannot contemplate religion without seeing the evil performed in its name. Perhaps it is a throw back to mankind's primitive tribal past?
But one must hope that the world can become a better place as a result of our efforts, or life has no meaning. Perhaps it is that despair that drove the suicide pilots? Or perhaps believing in Paradise makes it intelligible to them. Maybe that is why I cannot comprehend their actions.
I am in a state of numbness. Then, unbidden, Psalm 130 comes into mind.
Out of the depths have I cried unto thee,
David C Nicholls
Postscript, added 13 days later, almost to the minute two weeks after...
I've just been watching the breathtaking final episode of current series of The West Wing (played later here than in the US). The latter part introduces the Dire Straits track, Brothers in Arms. I played the LP after the program had finished. The lyrics (quoted in part, below) have a stark relevance to where we are now...
Through these fields of destruction
But the track finishes on a more disturbing note:
There's so many different worlds
Now the sun's gone to hell
DCN, 25 September 2001, 10.42pm AEST