We were listening when the second plane hit, and heard the ringing, human horror in the journalist's voice. We heard that professional voice falter and strain, as he described, with a mixture of incredulity and something like despair, the spectacle of people jumping from the burning buildings.
We were all silent, profoundly affected, with that-cold-up-the-back-of-your-neck feeling that I feel, vicariously of course, whenever I hear the vintage radio announcements about being at war with Germany. Colin, the self-procliamed anarchist agitator, started banging on about an attack on capitalism being a very good thing and the rest of us just told him to shut up. Not angrily, mind you; his political views were as idiotic and deliberately shocking as his endless sequence of knob and bum jokes. British political extremism seldom progresses beyond adolescent posturing.
Eventually it occurred to someone that we could just go to one of the classrooms with a TV and actually watch what was happening. When we did, there was a palpable shift in the atmosphere among us. We watched the images accompanied by exactly the same voiceover we had heard on the radio, but its impact was massively diminished. Seeing it happen was somehow less horrifying, though it shouldn't have been. But the images on the screen were like something from a movie, something you might watch whilst shovelling popcorn into your mouth. The intimacy of that one human voice ringing out from the radio and betraying the strain of trying to remain professional and calm in the face of such horror, was depersonalised.
I've never forgotten how uneasy that depersonalising shift to video made me, and often discussed it with my classes when we discussed news coverage and reportage. Perhaps it would have been different if we had seen the film footage first.
Five months later I stood on a platform overlooking Ground Zero. I didn't want to be there, I had no interest in trauma tourism, but my travelling companion was adamant he wanted to go and didn't want to go anywhere alone. Memorials serve an important purpose but I am suspicious of shrines. They seem to belong as much to the ignorant superstition of the dark ages as the idea of martyrdom. I was uncomfortable with being there, doubly so as a foreigner. It seemed like rubbernecking at a cracrash. There was an American tour group near us. The guide, who was somehow aggressively solemn, as if rebuking his already abashed and clearly moved audience, started to intone that 'no other city has experienced horror on a scale like this'. My companion as good as clamped a hand over my mouth before I got as far as muttering 'London, Dresden', and before I'd got to Hiroshima etc. As he pointed out later, looking as potentially Arab (I'm not) as I do, it probably wasn't a good idea.
Listening to the various commemorative programmes on the radio this week I was mindful of the reactions of my former pupils when the subject of 9/11 was raised. As teenagers, particularly the youngest ones, it is already history to them, as they were as tiny when it occurred as I was at the end of the Vietnam war. The scale of the damage and the numbers of the dead are like statistics from a history book, impossible almost to contemplate in human terms. Of all the accounts and analyses I've heard this week, there is one that I doubt I'll ever forget, one which moved me to tears and drew me away from my desk and out into the rainy garden to be quiet for a while. It was the account of a woman, with a 16 year old daughter, who had lost her huband. He was a fireman, and died when he was hit by woman who jumped from the second tower. All untimely deaths are awful, but theirs seemed so much more so, because of the circumstances. She, not jumping for her life, but for a better death, unwittingly killing a man whose desperate vocation was to rescue those in her dreadful situation. Those two deaths were as moving as that struggling voice on the radio, part of horror of a scale so vast ony individual accounts can make sense of it.
There were two deaths that caused the towers to fall, of course. And I remember in the aftermath, being strangely relieved by the account of one of them. I won't name him. He was just as cravenly self-important as the Norwegian gunman, and both deserve to be denied the fame they sought. The pilot in question left detailed instructions for the disposal of his body, with the specific demand that no woman should touch his corpse and render it unclean. He actually believed that he would have a body left to dispose of after flying a jet into a skyscraper. Instead he was atomised and mingled with concrete, women, steel, Jews, glass and atheists alike. Brainwashed and drugged, his life was meaningless, his final gesture grotesquely absurd, his death futile. Despite the scale of the destruction, if your enemy believes the laws of Sharia over the laws of physics his failure is ultimately guaranteed.