On the 11th of September 2001, which is embedded in the consciousness of so many as 9/11, I was working for Swansea Community Farm in Fforestfach. It was very early on in the development of the farm project, which explains why I was carrying out some photocopying and collating in the office of a local primary school, where the farm rented some office space also.
When I first heard of the disaster, I was wrestling with copious amounts of pastel paper, which constituted the reports for a forthcoming Exec meeting. I did not realise the significance at that point, as I was simply picking up on snippets of a conversation between the two school staff who were also in the copy room at the time. I caught something about a plane crashing into a building in America. I assumed that they were talking about a light aeroplane with a maximum of four passengers, and had no idea of the size of the building in question, or even where in America it took place. My concentration was mostly devoted to the intractable heaps of pastel pink, purple and yellow paper, so I asked no questions. I did not know the people to speak to anyway.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully and I did not return to the subject until I was visiting my friend, B, later in the evening. She had her television on, which was unusual in itself, and I found myself watching an image of a plane crashing into a skyscraper. I assumed it was footage from some Hollywood blockbuster or other, a disaster movie of some kind. It was only as I continued to watch that I realised that this was no movie, but it was most certainly a disaster.
The footage was being shown on a continuous news programme and I recall watching, transfixed, until the hour rolled around and the news began to repeat itself. It appeared somehow disrespectful to turn my attention away at any time before this point. I felt it to be the least I could do for the people who tragically lost their lives in that terrible event. The least I could do.
. . .
Approximately one year later, I found myself at the site of the Twin Towers with an American friend. I was moved to tears by the tributes which were attached to the boards around the site, and was amazed at how untouched the surrounding buildings appeared to be. I recalled the shaky amateur pictures which appeared on the news for days, even weeks, after 9.11. Panicky people, greyed with dust, running frantically from the scene of destruction. The first time I saw such pictures, I made another assumption which later proved to be wrong; I assumed they were taken in some war torn Middle Eastern country. Only as I paid closer attention to the news story behind the pictures did I realise that they were showing an event occurring in a ‘civilised’ country. I chastised myself then, for I had felt a form of detachment when I had assumed that the traumatised people were ‘not like me’, and yet had experienced more fellow feeling on discovering they were ‘like me’ after all. One of the least comfortable places to discover indifference is where you hoped to find none, especially when that place is one’s own heart.
When I visited Ground Zero, there was no sign of any dust and wreckage on the outer side of the carefully boarded-off site. I remember peering through a crack in these tribute-papered boards at one stage, to see a JCB moving earth with the implacable detachment only machinery can possess. I drew my eye away swiftly, feeling a pang of guilt for daring to be so ghoulish, for ‘rubber-necking’ at the site of such pain and loss.
This feeling was not one shared by one particular gentleman at the site, sadly. I hesitate to name him a gentle-man, for he possessed no such gentility as far as I could tell. After all, what sort of person profits from selling souvenir t-shirts and the like at such a place? I was appalled as such opportunism, as was my companion. I have never been over-fond of the readiness of our American cousins to ‘say it as it is’, but I was very proud of Haydn that day. She went toe-to-toe with this ungentlemanly man and told him what she thought of his behaviour. Sometimes, a situation calls for more than British reserve and respect. Sometimes, a more overt reaction is needed; something needs to be said or done. Sometimes, the least a person can do is not enough. It is simply not enough.