Ten years have elapsed since that fateful Tuesday morning when four hijacked aircraft rocked the foundations of the United States and changed the world. My wife and I had arrived on holiday in Wisconsin the previous evening and were having a slow start to the day. Then all hell broke loose. The phone rang at 8 am (one hour behind New York) and the friend in whose home we were staying told us to switch on the TV. Immediately, a horrific scene of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in flames appeared on the screen and less than two minutes later we watched live as the second plane smashed into the South Tower.
At that stage of the unfolding drama, the TV commentary was almost incoherent as trained reporters were alternating between expressions of horror, incredulity and heroic attempts to be professional. After a couple of hours we went for a walk along State Street in Madison, the main shopping street. Every shop had a portable TV showing pictures of the unfolding drama and nobody was interested in anything else. For several days all TV schedules were abandoned in favour of hastily compiled 9/11-related programming. An abiding memory was the heartbreaking handwritten or computer produced fliers posted by relatives, frantic for news of their missing family members who had worked in the Twin Towers.
So many things touched us, like the totally disproportionate appreciation expressed by so many people when the Star Spangled Banner was played at Buckingham Palace during the Changing of the Guard ceremony. Bewildered Americans, shocked that such an atrocity could happen on US soil, were hugely comforted that others overseas shared their grief. We noticed that every single house we passed was flying the Stars and Stripes or had red, white and blue rosettes on their front door as an expression of identification with a common grief.
My most enduring memory is of the following Saturday when I was in Wisconsin Dells with an old friend, when we heard sirens approaching the main street. A convoy of fire engines was travelling at no more than 20 mph and the first engine had a simple laurel wreath on the front. Cars stopped and their drivers got out, people came out of shops and pedestrians quickly lined the roadside. As the vehicles passed there was spontaneous, sustained applause from everyone toward these fire-fighters who were standing proxy for their colleagues who died in New York.
Sadly, we have an enduring legacy from those events of ten years ago in the security restrictions we must endure when making journeys by air. More serious is the damage done between Western and Moslem societies. The actions of a tiny number of fanatical zealots have caused permanent damage which has resulted in a climate of suspicion, hate and ignorance, fuelling membership of the English Defence League and other right-wing hate groups. The best we can do is simply to see people as people – each equally significant, important and deserving to be treated with respect, dignity and justice. That will erode and undermine the strategies of the purveyors of hate. I’m proud to be living in Wales with its long history of tolerance and inclusion of other nationalities and cultures – an example to the world.