I woke up at around 5.40am on 12 September 2001, in Wellington and switched on National Radio (as it was then) to hear a broadcast, with American voices, describing some disaster. At the time I was living alone, having broken up with my wife the previous year.
I didn't think much of it for the first few minutes, thinking it was some recorded show syndicated by RNZ, until it became clear it was a live feed, from CNN. It took around 10 or so minutes before I started piecing together what had happened, one, two, three planes flying into buildings, it seemed surreal. So I got out of bed, switched on the TV and watched for about 20 minutes, the largest terrorist attack on the United States. It was all too much, I was 31 years old, and the scenes of the World Trade Center towers were dramatic and devastating. I thought for a moment that perhaps had my life been only a little different, I might have been working in an office in one of those towers, and the people trapped above the flames with no way out, and those below, streaming down stairwells for their lives, in horror. For so many it was too late. Barely over four years later I would be working for a large multinational American consultancy, in London, months after the 7/7 tube attacks, all inspired by the same ideology of misanthropic theocratic death worship.
I showered, got dressed for work and left for the office, at just after 6.30am, because it was too much to watch. I was at my local bus stop in 3 minutes standing, when the only other person standing there, a women in her 30s took a phone call, and it was clear she hadn't heard the news beforehand, as she spoke in utter disbelief. The bus came and after the usual 20 minute ride I arrived stunned at work, much earlier than normal, and nobody else was there yet. Of course I got more of the news on the internet, and as others trickled in, there was only one topic to discuss. How many people had died? Were other attacks on the way? Who was responsible? How would the US respond? US airspace was shut down, and so much would never be the same again. Whether it was New York, the Pentagon or indeed the hapless brave victims of UA 93 who fought back, it was a series of events far more profound than fiction. People born in 90 countries died in 9/11, it was an attack on humanity.
We'll never know the true cost of 9/11, the cost of the lost of the thousands of lives, what they might have created, what their children might have created, and how much richer humanity would have been for it. It was an attack not just on them, but on an idea. The idea that free people can choose how they live, to work, to trade, to enjoy life, and to not have their lives owned by others, by self-serving authority bowing to an ideology that shackles them to the literal interpretation of some aged religious tracts. The idea that Government should be to subordinate people to the will of theocratic bigots, rather than exist to protect their rights and established by the people to protect them from those who wish to take away those rights. Yes, the United States in 2001 (let alone 2021) has many many flaws, and has never met that ideal consistently, let alone for all Americans, but the idea of the United States was and is revolutionary - and Al Qaeda hates that. The Taliban hates that, ISIS hates that, indeed autocrats of many different stripes hate the United States, because it is antithetical to what they want for humanity.
The US response to 9/11 should have been a rallying call for freedom, for civilisation, for modernity and to seek to confront not the religion of Islam in some sort of new crusade, (for as with all religions, people can follow religion in their private lives and not seek to attack a free, pluralistic society), but to confront Islamist fascism - the application of fundamentalist Islamic sects, such as Salafism and Wahhabism, to impose Islam and Islamic theocratic rule. This was, sort of, what George W. Bush was looking to target in his "war on terror", but he couldn't really confront it, because one of the great protagonists of Islamist fascism is a US ally, and one of Bush's great enemies was not really an Islamist fascist, but just a fascist - Saddam Hussein.
Attacking and seeking to destroy Al Qaeda was right and moral, as was overthrowing the Taliban. There was no way the USA could let Afghanistan be. However, the US was never willing to take over Afghanistan and mould it into a tolerant liberal democracy, like it did with Japan, and West Germany. It allied itself with the then Northern Alliance, who were a bunch of warlords united more by tribal and economic interests than a grand belief in Islamist fascism. Perhaps if the US had sought to occupy with the brute force, sheer numbers and cost it once had done in the 1940s and 1950s, it could have not only defeated the Taliban, but understood Afghanistan enough to convert hearts and minds, and the events of the past few weeks may never have occurred. However, Americans were unwilling to sacrifice the blood and treasure needed to achieve that, so instead they spent 20 years treading water and keeping the Taliban at bay, just. So Jo Biden could leave them millions of dollars of military equipment.
However, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, as moral as it was, also suffered from a lack of US willingness to follow through, to establish government that could prevent the deadly insurrection, fuelled by Iran, that killed hundreds of thousands in Iraq. That ultimately spawned ISIS. Saddam Hussein was not remotely behind 9/11, but Bush had a score to settle, and although it was credible to believe that Saddam Hussein still had weapons of mass destruction (since he demonstrably did use them before), it was proven not to be. The US spilt much blood and treasure mismanaging Iraq, again because it was unwilling to impose a liberal democracy on a population that wasn't liberal.
In all of this remained Saudi Arabia, the great funder and fuel of Wahhabism, and the Gulf states which themselves kept free from Islamist fascism because of their own wealth and ad-hoc ruthlessness. Saudi is a US ally, because they have needed each other. Saudi needed protection from the USSR and more latterly Iran. The US wanted the dominant oil producer on its side (although fracking has completely undermined the importance of that). Furthermore, the chance that the House of Saud would be replaced by a worse regime if it were overthrown. So Saudi Arabia, which spawned those who committed the 9/11 attacked, became the great ally in the "war on terror" as the war on the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.
Al Qaeda, and indeed no other Islamist terrorist has been able to come remotely close to inflicting a similar scale attack on the US, but 9/11 inspired the multiple Islamist fascist attacks in Europe. It remains the great watershed of the 21st century, almost the point when the optimism of the end of the Cold War was smashed, as it was followed by a new age. An age not only of sporadic Islamist terrorism, but Putin's Russia turning the clock back to a Cold War era hysterical nationalism, and irredentism. A few years later the Global Financial Crisis knocked economic optimism and more recently Xi Xinping reawoke China's past remoulding it into an increasingly monstrous Mk. 2 Maoism of authoritarian-corporatist Marxism-Leninism, willing and wanting to become the world's number one economic and ultimately military and political power.
For me this date has another significance. My Mum died five years ago today. She had been ill, and had had a successful colostomy operation the previous day, but was too weak and passed away in the early hours of 12 September NZST. I was and am profoundly sad I didn't get to see her or be with her that night, as I had already booked flights to come see her days later. She died weeks out from her 78th birthday. I miss her greatly, and indeed am reminded of her daily as we spruce up her (and Dad's) house to sell in due course. She was a great source of resilience, strength, warmth and courage for me, as someone who had many trials in life, from emigrating with next to nothing in the 1950s, to looking after her terminally ill mother in her 20s, to her first marriage ending in divorce due to discovering her husband was, in fact, gay when it was a crime, to not being able to have children with my Dad (and then adopting me). So on 12 September, we'll be having dinner and raising a glass to my Mum, and to the memory of those who were killed so tragically on 9/11.