The events of 9/11 are hard to get your head around, even ten years on. At the time, the pictures were too shocking, the numbers just too much to comprehend. It seemed like everything was just about to change.
Did it? Did it change? Well, we went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but everything I read says that – in all probability – would have happened in any event, sooner or later. The Hawks would have got their way in the end.
Big events loom large for a while, but over the last ten years, how much have these events impacted on most of us, as individuals? Wars, terrorism, assassinations: however politically engaged we are, these things don’t seriously impact on the lucky majority. We’re too busy with the detail of our own immediate lives. In the last ten years, I had two babies. I gave up one career. Moved house. Got another career. Then got another one. Talked about Shakespeare a lot. Made ham sandwiches. Went swimming. Even the events of 7/7 made little lasting impact on me, not really.
But I try not to forget, and I try to remember. At my school, the Year 8s study poetry inspired and drawn from the events of 9/11 in their English lessons; last year’s group were too young to remember the events. For them, for all of us, 9/11 is already becoming history.
And like all good history, human beings like to turn it into a story. We understand stories. They make sense to us. I tell the year 8s my story of 9/11 – where I was, how it felt, what it was like to observe in real time. This week I am willing to bet you have told your 9/11 story too, and you’ve heard lots of others. This is how we remember, how we make sense and make history – by turning appalling and almost unimaginable events into narratives about individuals. We can understand it better that way. Or, perhaps, this is the only way we can understand it at all.
And when faced with what seems like evil, what feels like unspeakable horror, it’s our instinct to find a hero. To look for courage and hope. The story of the Holocaust has become, for many people, the stories of Anne Frank and Oscar Schindler.
The two faces of courage and hope from 9/11 I show to the year 8s carry with them stories of courage and heroism, simultaneously both ordinary and extraordinary. The first one appears above: the face of firefighter Mike Kehoe walking up into great danger. We like to think we can see emotion from looking into someone’s face. Can we? It’s a nice thought. This man, this firefighter – we don’t really know what he’s thinking, what he’s feeling at this moment when the photo was taken. But he looks at us, and we look back, and we are both human. We know we would be afraid. And so he must be. And yet he walks up, he keeps walking up, towards the heat and the fire and – maybe – towards his own death. So he looks, to us, like a hero.
The second face of 9/11, Todd Beamer, tells a similar story. Todd was a passenger on the hijacked Flight 93, who made a call from the plane and told the operator of the plan of a small group of passengers to challenge the hijackers and fly the plane into the ground. His last audible words were, famously,”Are you guys ready? Let’s roll.” If you think you could repeat those words to a group of silent year 8s without crying, well, best of luck with that because I’ve never managed it.
You might think my choices for the faces of 9/11 are obvious, even schmaltzy. You might think that there are many other stories to be told. You’re probably right. I don’t claim to understand fully the wider geopolitical implications of that day, although I try, I really do. I definitely don’t claim to understand the motivations of the hijackers; that’s even harder to get my head around.
I only know that, the more I see of the world, the less sense it seems to make to me. The more unpredictable it seems. But I do believe this: that each of us as individuals is capable of acting well, even acting heroically, under pressure. Tales of courage and of heroism run through human history like golden threads. I don’t know whether I could hope to act with the kind of courage shown by Todd Beamer or Mike Kehoe given similar circumstances. But we can remember them. Show their pictures, tell their stories to the children who are too young to remember that sunny September day ten years ago for themselves.
So that’s what I am going to do tomorrow.
And don’t worry, I’ll take lots of tissues.