I’ll never forget the moment, 20 years ago today, when the world changed forever.
I was sitting at my desk in the newsroom, furiously reviewing Salman Rushdie’s latest work, when everything went quiet. Newsrooms can frequently be fairly loud and busy places. But a deathly silence, one that seemed almost louder than the usual noise you’d expect, filled the room.
I joined the gathering crowd staring at the TV and we all watched in disbelief as the second plane hit the south tower of the World Trade Centre.
“Game over, lads”, said the editor, before we ripped up all the pages that had been designed earlier that day and started a whole new edition. All leave was cancelled. We would spend the next week coming in at 5am and trying to sort through the facts and the rumours.
To many younger people, 9/11 must seem as far removed from them as Pearl Harbour does to the rest of us. But I doubt anyone who was around on that day, the worst day in the West’s history, will ever forget where they were and what they were doing.
Watching the many documentaries that have been aired all week has been rather like having some hellish flashback to a time you would rather forget — the images of the towers falling will stay with all of us, forever.
But there have been other little nuggets contained in those programmes that many of us will have forgotten. The sight of the people jumping from the buildings rather than allowing themselves to be burned alive. The people who escaped, covered entirely in dust and looking like wraiths and spectres from some ghostly dimension. The sheer sense of profound shock that anything like that this could happen.
The greatest decade of the 20th century, the 1990s, was now officially over. The threats of nuclear war that kept so many kids of my generation awake at night had finally receded. The world could breathe once more and the ‘90s were a decade of fun, Cool Britannia, Loaded magazine, Britpop, the emergence of the internet and lots and lots of hedonism.
But that optimism ended at lunchtime, Irish time, when the terrorists knocked the most powerful country in the world off its axis. I had already planned to go to New York that November to celebrate my 30th. But this trip was no longer a Celtic Tiger-era birthday party — it was an opportunity to pay homage and respect to the greatest city on Earth. Washington may be the capital of America, but New York is the capital of the world.
Now, with the absence of those towers from its skyline, it looked like a beautiful face with its front teeth knocked out.
That trip was an odd one, for all the reasons you might expect. The New Yorkers I knew were either mute with grief or loud in their demands for retribution and justice — but mostly retribution.
Many of them didn’t really care who America attacked in vengeance; they just wanted to see some bombs falling and get their sense of pride back. That attitude has been a blight on US foreign policy ever since.
On the flight over to JFK, we were informed that, for some mysterious reason, we were being diverted to Logan airport in Boston.
This caused pandemonium among the American passengers. Had New York been attacked again? Were we going to be hijacked ourselves? Many of the passengers began to look for any implement that could be used to disable any hijacker. There was a genuine sense, given the febrile mood of the time, that we could find ourselves in a ‘Let’s Roll’ scenario.
As it happened, we were able to land as scheduled and everyone breathed a sigh of relief — but it was an indication of just how tense everyone had become. If that flight was memorable, the smell in Manhattan was unforgettable. You couldn’t avoid it. Acrid, sour, yet sickly sweet. It was the stench of Hell.
As I and my then girlfriend stood at the site, with mute tears running down our faces, we were surrounded by locals who still held out hopes that they might find the remains of their loved ones.
Everyone knew there were no survivors, but they were hoping to retrieve at least a body part. It was a truly surreal sight as grieving relatives jostled with giggling Japanese tourists taking pictures of the smouldering wreckage.
But apart from the devastation wrought that day, and the irrevocable damage caused to New York, 9/11 completely changed our culture and we are still feeling the shockwaves today.
For example, it gave rise to a new breed of conspiracy theorists who are still with us today. By the time I went back to New York a year later, they had grown in number and gathered every day to taunt the grieving relatives who had set up a permanent vigil.
I would bet my bottom dollar that everyone of those callous idiots is now involved in the anti-vax movement, and whatever other spurious conspiracy they can conjure. The world as we knew it changed 20 years ago.
Frankly, it’s been all downhill since then.
There has been a growing debate about who has suffered the most during lockdown but that’s a fool’s errand — there has been enough suffering for everyone. This isn’t a competition in misery.
But I particularly feel for the kids who have just had a year and a half stolen from their young lives. This current crop of Leaving Cert students will certainly have their tales of woe.
Disrupted schooling. Cancelled events. The stress of sitting the exam itself.
The fact that there are some kids who have achieved maximum points yet might still miss out on their preferred course is an early, and unpleasant, lesson that life is never fair and you shouldn’t trust old people.
The Leaving itself has been getting a fair bit of kicking in recent days as well.
Simon Harris is the latest politician to say that the traditional points race is a broken system that needs to be replaced.
Its critics say that expecting someone to study a subject for two or three years and then be able to reproduce their knowledge in a stressful exam scenario is bad for their mental health.
But part of this hated exam is about teaching kids to handle stress.
We all face stress in work and that’s not a problem — but how you deal with it might be.
Exams are a good way of teaching people to learn coping mechanisms and handling intense pressure — and, as we all know, the Leaving comes with buckets of intense pressure.
Then again, I’m not one to talk. I had already started working as a baby hack and had no interest in either the exam or going to college so I blithely escaped the misery that afflicted so many of my peers.
For that I remain eternally grateful.