The emergency dispatcher wasn’t quite sure she’d heard correctly. ‘Sir, you have what jumping from buildings?’ ‘People. Bodies are just coming from out of the sky....’
On a day like 11 September 2001, time is both accelerated and suspended. On the top floors of the World Trade Center, office workers who moments earlier had been scheduling lunch appointments and making plans for the weekend had a few seconds to determine the manner of their death – to stay and be burned alive, or to take one last gulp of fresh air as they plunged to the plaza below. For almost everybody else, time is halted: when you’re caught up in the middle of a terrible day, you don’t know that that’s what it is – a day. By 11 o’clock on that Tuesday morning, with the second tower collapsed and the Pentagon on fire and rumours of more missing planes and the White House evacuated, none of us knew how much more was to come. I don’t think you could find many Americans who went to bed that night expecting to get through the next two years without another major terrorist attack on US soil.
Yet here we are.
That in itself is remarkable. Even more remarkable is the lack of credit that the Bush administration gets for it.
There are basically two lines on Bush these days. At home, the media and the Democrats argue that Americans are somehow reeling under a terrorist onslaught. As the New York Times’s elderly schoolgirl Maureen Dowd put it last week, ‘We wanted to get rid of Osama and Saddam and the Taleban and al-Qa’eda. We didn’t. They’re replicating and coming at us like cockroaches.’
Really? Osama is replicating? That’s news to me. Considering that the original hasn’t been seen in a year and three quarters, it looks more like he’s plicated. I said in these pages 15 months ago that he’s dead, he’s bin Laden to rest, he’s pushing up daisy-cutters, and I’m sticking with that.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the tinfoil-hat brigade has gone mainstream. Of course America hasn’t been attacked again. That’s because 9/11 was a neocon conspiracy to give Washington a pretext to grab Iraq’s oil and Afghanistan’s, er, rubble. The conspirazoids now include the Rt Hon Michael Meacher, MP, a man who until a few weeks ago was one of Her Majesty’s ministers of state, a fellow who sat at the Cabinet table with Tony Blair and discussed troop deployments. But now, with time on his hands, he’s frolicking merrily on the wilder shores of the Internet. In the Guardian on Saturday, he demanded to know whether US air-security operations had ‘been deliberately stood down on 11 September’ in order to facilitate the attack. Who would do such a thing? Why, Rummy, Cheney, Wolfie and the other sinister graduates of the Project for a New American Century.
Meacher is late to the Mad Hatter’s tea party. I’ve had a gazillion emails a day about this for almost two years. Condi Rice apparently warned all kinds of people not to fly on 11 September. If that’s true, it seems odd that Don Rumsfeld, one of the architects of the conspiracy, didn’t warn himself not to go to the Pentagon that morning. You’d think, being in on the plot, he’d warn himself not to be sitting at his desk as the plane sliced through the building. If Michael Meacher had had advance warning that a plane was going to slam into the Department of the Environment that day, would he have had the cojones to be sitting there dictating a memo to Miss Jones as the nose cone ploughed into the photocopier? Or maybe that’s just how well planned the conspiracy was: Rumsfeld knew the plane would hit the other side of the Pentagon well away from his office, so, if he coolly went to work as usual, he’d throw even expert conspiracy-sniffers like Meacher off the scent. Or maybe there was no Pentagon plane at all; it was a pure invention of the administration, as that French bestseller argued. Or maybe the Pentagon itself is just a thought-form generated by the microchip implanted in Meacher’s brain when he sat next to Dick Cheney at a G7 buffet lunch. Or maybe....
Looking back at the columns I wrote in the first days after 9/11, I’m pleasantly surprised by how perceptive they were on the self-loathing of the West, the uselessness of the Cold War alliances, the duplicitousness of America’s ‘moderate’ Arab ‘friends’, etc. But I seriously underestimated the degree to which much of Europe would be unhinged by 11 September. If it’s a choice between Meacher or the Continentals who’ve turned down US requests for troop contributions because they want Iraq to go belly up so that Bush gets defeated in 2004 and some wimp Democrat gets elected who’ll treat them with the respect they deserve, I’ll take the latter. Chirac’s decayed cynicism is marginally less unmoored from reality.
But, as the descent into madness of Mr Meacher illustrates, there’s no longer any agreement on what reality is. Last Sunday, the Observer ran a story headlined ‘Bush Seeks An Exit Strategy As War Threatens His Career’: ‘The President will make a dramatic U-turn on Iraq in a TV broadcast tonight to try to salvage his hopes of re-election amid Americans’ growing hostility to the casualties and chaos ...approval ratings plummeting ...another Vietnam ...sons and daughters dying daily ...bogged down....’
Did Bush seek an exit strategy? Did he make a dramatic U-turn? Au contraire. ‘We have carried the fight to the enemy,’ he said. ‘The surest way to avoid attacks on our own people is to engage the enemy where he lives and plans. We are fighting that enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan today so that we do not meet him again on our own streets, in our own cities.’
Are America’s sons and daughters dying daily in guerrilla attacks? No. As I write, no American serviceman has died in Iraq for nine days. Whatever that is, it’s not Vietnam.
Are Bush’s approval ratings plummeting? Gallup has him at 59 per cent. In any case, he always takes August off and his numbers always slip as noisy Democrats run around filling the vacuum. Then September arrives, he comes back to work and they rise again. It’s now an established seasonal variation.
The story of the summer is that the American people refused to be panicked by the media, the Democrats and the Europeans. Indeed, the awesome divide between the postmodern sophists and everybody else is the real legacy of 11 September. As the day itself recedes into the past, the splinter it opened up in the settled international order gets wider and wider to the point where 9/11 is a fault line through reality itself. Depending on which side you stand, success is failure, victory is disaster. The other day Caroline Hawley, the BBC’s gal in Baghdad, declared, ‘Saddam must be gloating in his hiding place over the irony that the United States, which toppled him in the name of fighting terror, has now had to concede that Iraq has become a