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Six lessons I've learned since the September 11 attack on the WTC

By Josh Szeps - posted Monday, 24 September 2001

Six lessons I’ve learned since September 11.

LESSON #1 – COMPLACENCY 101: The World, & the Security of America.

It wasn’t until then that we realised just how complacent we’d become.

Not until briefcases, carefully stowed in the overhead compartment, slammed into financial planner’s desktops, and their computers, and their faces. Not until tray tables and little packets of peanuts burst into elevator shafts. Or till doorknobs and post-it notes and fingernails and fax machines and Attendant Call buttons and noses and drinks menus from a swanky bar on top of the world all rained down, along with half a billion kilos of girders, and trusses, and columns, and airline creamer cups, and teeth.


And Australia sat there. Watching, from afar, in the middle of the night as it unfolded. Pouring a third stiff drink with trembling hands as the flickering TV clumsily revealed god-only-knows-what as the night wore on. And the commentator isn’t sure – he can’t make it out, but – through the dust – he can’t see… "I don’t want to be alarmist", he says, his voice wavering, just after midnight, as the camera rolls silently, focused on an impenetrably thick blanket of dust – he doesn’t want to be alarmist, but – through all that dust "I can’t see … Tower Two"… he can’t … make it out. No – holy hell, no. Neither can I.

And at sunrise, six hours later, I’m still there. In front of the TV. Drinking tea. Gasping, in unexpected waves of fitful sobs. My head propped scruffily on a limp palm. Hoping, quietly – shamefully – that maybe some country will claim responsibility so that by the time I wake up, 500 ICBMs will have removed that country and all its supporters and residents from the face of the earth. It’s a stupid, fleeting idea from an exhausted, shattered mind, and I know it. So I go to bed.

LESSON #2 – FRIENDSHIP 101: How to Kick a Pal While He’s Down.

What surprises me over the following few days is the response from citizens of countries which America considers its allies: Australia, England, Canada. In letters to the editor, in forwarded emails, on public radio talkback and in pubs – as well as the quiet, burning anger I feel – there are a surprising number of snide, flippant, pseudo-intellectual remarks about Cuba and Noriega and Cambodia and Palestine and Iraq and how – sure it’s tragic, don’t get me wrong – but how America’s been doing this sort of thing for years. What goes around comes around. Welcome to the real world. It’s terrible, but let’s face it – Uncle Sam had this coming.

"I think this will be good," my neighbour said to me over a green salad. "It’s going to bring Americans into the real world and make them more appreciative of what they’ve got." Some other critics have been slightly more veiled. "It's tragic and I don't support the attacks..." they protest, from their study rooms and lecture halls and collective action group meetings and editorials and bar stools, "but..." (and – like when racists say "I'm not racist but" – there's always a "but") "... I can understand why it happened. American oppression brought this on itself."

Such a rationale may have sounded eminently reasonable to whoever was sitting in seat 14A or seat 36G or seat 9J; or to whoever was standing at the urinal in the Tower pondering what emails he’d have to send that morning; or to whoever was inside the lift as it, along with the building, plummeted a hundred floors; or to whoever’s throat was slashed with a stanley knife in the cockpit. Yet we will never be sure whether these people supported the laudable mission of Bringing American Oppression Back On Itself, because they were torn into pieces before getting the opportunity to consider whether they wanted to be involved.

One of our best and oldest mates had its heart ripped out last week. Anyone who responds to that with a cerebral justification of Why The United States Is In The Wrong is implicitly defending the terrorists. Don’t bother appending that convenient qualifier of "I’m not saying it was right, but…" – we know what you’re saying. You’re saying you’re on the side of killers. You’re saying that evil had a point.


LESSON #3 – HYPOCRISY 101: The Rift Between Rhetoric and Reality.

Measured critical analysis of American policies – as opposed to snide denouncement of the nation as a whole – is always valid. U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East and Latin America, has commonly been callous and short-sighted. Yet the foreign policies of other countries have commonly been every bit as fitful and self-interested as America’s. Why it is singled out for disproportionate worldwide denigration is a different matter.

Enormous power brings with it far-reaching influence, and far-reaching influence magnifies mistakes. A country capable of monumental goodness must also be capable of monumental blunders. We can’t have it both ways. We cannot have a force powerful enough to do enormous good – a force which can demolish the Nazi Empire at its height, help broker peace in Northern Ireland, defeat Stalinism, and halt brutal genocide using billions of dollars’ worth of laser-guided missiles – and then expect it to be small and unassuming enough not to leave big ugly footprints when it missteps: when it deposes South American dictators and too much blood gets spilled; when it extricates itself from Vietnam and shatters eastern Cambodia; or when its funds flow to the most abusive and reactionary elements in Israel. America isn’t hated because it’s peculiarly bad; America is hated because it’s peculiarly visible.

Other Western countries, not saddled with the guardianship of such vast power, get off more lightly. When Australia was complicit in the horror of East Timor for decade after bloody decade, or when it tolerated massive destruction of Papua New Guinea’s crucial Ok Tedi river system on the part of its proudest local company, or when it pushed for and gained criminally lenient concessions on greenhouse gas emissions, the world didn’t hate it. "The world" didn’t notice. Australia’s reach is too small.

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About the Author

Josh Szeps is a Sydney-based journalist.

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