The day the western world stood still… 11th September 2001

On the day…

Tomorrow is the eleventh anniversary of 9/11. I still remember my own experience of those events clearly.

It was just after lunchtime in the River Path offices. All of us were in the large open plan area, heads bent over our glass topped desks and absorbed in a dozen different tasks.

Then from far side of the office I heard someone say, “turn the television on”… and the next thing consternation from the tiny annex where the tv was, and something like “I can’t believe it…”

We all piled in, and then out and then in again.  It was both compelling and too just appalling to keep on watching.

As details filtered in about the origination of the two planes we realised one of our colleagues had boarded his transatlantic flight in Logan Airport in Boston almost at same time as the plane which had hit the second tower.

This was before Twitter, when blogs were barely heard of beyond a small and active community of mostly US based geeks. Email and bulletin boards were only means to connect with large numbers of people online.

Eleven years is a long time on the Internet…

Back then, no web based conversation on the still unpredictable politics of Northern Ireland would have been complete without a quorum of loud, opinionated often highly intelligent Irish Americans.

But connection based in the US that day quickly choked, and we waited to hear of the well being of our online ‘friends’ in New York…  In the end, none of my virtual companions had been anywhere near harm.

The nearest was a cousin who’d seen the towers fall from a traffic jam on the other side of the Hudson.

Eleven years is a long time in politics too…

No one in the west was ready for the destruction of the Twin Towers…

Michael Moore, who had spent the previous election campaign trying to convince Americans there was no functional difference between Bush and Al Gore, captured the moment the President was told of the attack on the second tower in Farenheit 9/11…

Moore makes great play of the fact that President Bush’s stunned silence, or the fact that had not act on intelligence citing a name, Osama Bin Laden, that was subsequently to haunt American public thought until his death on May 2nd last year…

But the west (and America in particular) had never previously contemplated dealing with its enemies at such close quarters. That attack on the commercial heart of New York  – and later on US military headquarters in Washington DC – changed things and changed them utterly both for the US and its allies.

Within the year, the US and a long tail of allied nations followed up 9/11 with a military invasion of Afghanistan. Not much more than a year after the same military strategy was extended into Iraq.

The lives of many thousands of men, women, children and seemingly endless amounts of treasure have followed, with mixed results.

In that time too, the capacity for ordinary citizens to cross communicate with each without reference to established centres has expanded rapidly too.

A more unstable and complex world…

The last two years have seen the Arab world making use of disaggregated comms systems (originated, for the most part. in the US) and at times descend into deeply unpredictable and bloody chaos.

Civilians, as David Kilcullen (author of The Accidental Guerilla) notes, have ‘rushed the field’. And they won’t be going any time soon. That may make the world a more exhilarating place, but also a more unstable one.

And it looks like we are still a long way from finding a consistent approach never mind means of dealing with it.

Footnote: This week’s #DigitalLunch (Friday, 1pm BST) will try to tease out these themes in more detail… We hope to assemble a panel of broad and diverse opinion and experience.

If you have other ideas about what we should explore in that panel or would like to get involved in some way, email Mick at [email protected].

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