I’m writing this post on September 12, but that’s accurate actually, because by the time the 9/11 attacks happened it was already September 12 here. I was a kid, home sick from school at the time, and so I had nothing to do all today but watch the looping news reports, the footage of those planes going into the towers again and again.
My first reaction, really, was that this was a whole new category of Bad Thing To Happen that I had never previously realised was a possibility. My dad worked near the top of a 20-storey office building in South Melbourne, and well, 20 storeys, 100+ storeys, it’s a distinction without a difference when you’re a kid growing up in low-rise suburbia. I was haunted by the thought of all those office workers like my dad – and any other workers trapped in those upper floors – who were unable to get down to safety, making phone calls to their families to tell them they loved them before they died. I must’ve asked my mum why so many people were jumping, because I remember her explaining to me that it’s painless, especially compared to burning alive; you’d pass out on the way down then die instantly on impact with the ground below.
I remember talking years later with a Lebanese-Australian guy who admitted to me that his first reaction was glee, seeing the Evil Empire which had caused infinite problems in his parents’ part of the world see a little of the misery come back to them that they’d inflicted without remorse abroad. Later on, he said, he developed a class consciousness and realised that the American worker was not the one who deserved to suffer for the sins of their state. But at first, oh, he felt a thrill.
When I told him that my first thought had totally been sympathy for the office workers, he was dismayed. “Bullshit,” he insisted, “there’s no way you were that class-conscious as a child.” I explained what I said above about my dad being an office worker in a building like that, and I don’t think he believed me as he shook his head, but didn’t continue to argue.
It’s undeniable that what followed 9/11 was years and years of war, devastation, and racist hysteria. I remember Afghanistan being cast as “the good war”, the “fair-enough war” with international backing, while Iraq was “the bad war”, the one the US got into when they got carried away with their own hubris. I asked Vivian the other day if he remembered this narrative, and he said he didn’t. At any rate, the frequent revelations in recent times about war crimes in Afghanistan, Australian soldiers shooting dead immobilised men and cowering teenagers, demonstrates that they were both “bad wars”. Even the recent fall of Kabul to the Taliban doesn’t really change that, even though many advocates of “humanitarian intervention” are being given ample airtime now to argue that it does. The thing is, I guess, that bad things happen around the world all the time, but most countries recognise that you can’t fix them just by sending in troops and “beating up the bad guys”. The problems are much more complicated than that, and the solutions have to begin with the oppressed people themselves. And when America’s “solutions” have involved extraordinary rendition, torture, the imprisonment of people indefinitely without fair trials, and air-strikes killing thousands upon thousands of civilians, is this even an improvement on what went before? But I digress.
Anti-Americanism was high here during the George W. Bush presidency. People were resentful that we got dragged into a bunch of expensive wars that didn’t benefit us at all, and that our involvement in them made us targets for terrorism ourselves. Our then-PM, John Howard, didn’t help matters with his stupidly enthusiastic lines like about Australia being America’s “deputy sheriff” in the Pacific. There was lots of grizzling about “dumb Texans”, the Deep South, and Bible-bashers – like, these were the people we were selling out our own national interest for. I actually had a lot of online friends who were American, so I was often the one pushing back on classmates, uncles or whoever I thought was going too far in their anti-American jokes. I remember talking about it with my dad, who impressed on me the important point that you can hate a country’s government, but that shouldn’t mean you hate the country’s people, who likely share more in common with you than the political class of your own country. But that was the kind of nuanced position it wasn’t trendy to have in those days (and still probably isn’t now).
Still, it did seem from here that America was in the grip of a collective hysteria, and that leaked over here as well, mostly among the Right. It was easy to make fun of the over-the-top tokenistic gestures, like the temporary renaming of “French fries” to “freedom fries”, but there were many more sinister manifestations. Racist discrimination, and even violence, against Muslims (and other brown people that cops or whoever mistook for Muslims, like Indians, and even Latin Americans). Fundamentalist Christianity seemed to be experiencing a high point at that time as well, to the point that I remember having to have class debates on whether evolution was real, or whether it was right that we decriminalised abortion – things that are almost entirely uncontroversial in Australia, but they were hot-button issues in America, so we must debate them! The Right, both there and here, pushed this “clash of civilisations” nonsense that tried to cast Muslims as primitive misogynists – and of course, the oppression of women is still used dishonestly by the Right to try to drum up racism in this way. We had countless pieces of legislation passed placing limits on our civil liberties, in what we were told were temporary emergency measures to cope with the apparently overwhelming threat, only it’s been 20 years and these measures have not only remained in place, they’ve worsened. It’s just that where 15 years ago, the line was, “You oppose this bill? Why? Do you support terrorism?!” now it’s “Do you support pedos?!” But I digress, again.
A few years ago Viv and I went to see a performance of “American Idiot” at the Comedy Theatre here in Melbourne. It was a great experience, and really brought me back to the heady insanity of those days (even as they looped it back to the present day, with Trump imagery in the graphics displays). It’s bizarre to me that there are people trying to present “Trumpist” right-wing abhorrence as a new thing, even reminiscing about George W. Bush’s presidency as “a time when the Republicans were still sane”. For the most part I have to assume the people saying such things are just too young to remember that time (or too privileged to even notice what was happening around them), because otherwise they lived through a very different 2000s than I did. And I was a white kid not really affected by much of it personally myself, but I had my eyes open, and I cared about what was happening.
It’s a shame that with everything that’s happened since 9/11, the actual victims of those attacks have been overshadowed. The US government worked so quickly to spin them into a justification to inflict a thousand times the suffering abroad that our initial outpouring of sympathy for those workers and plane travellers who didn’t deserve to die kind of receded in our memories. It’s only really in the last few years that I’ve read (or remembered) any stories about them, the ordinary people who were just living their lives when they were abruptly snuffed out. Regardless of the sins of the Evil Empire, that never should’ve happened, just as the deaths in war of hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis never should’ve happened. We should be able to take it for granted that we share a common humanity with everyone around the world, and it’s an indictment of our current system that the principle that instead predominates is “an eye (or maybe a thousand eyes) for an eye”. The sooner we can change it, the better.