Belfast Telegraph

Let's pay tribute to all the victims of all wars

How do you mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11? Honour the 3,057 dead as symbolic of the innocent people killed in conflicts everywhere, argues Malachi O'Doherty

We will see the familiar image many times this week as we commemorate the attacks on the United States and, particularly, on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

It was an amazing sight and probably everyone in the world has seen it now; aeroplanes crashing into tower blocks, exploding in flames through offices in which people worked at their desks, talked over coffee, rose up in lifts, checked their make-up at washroom sinks, composed themselves for another day's work.

It is the most amazing sight of most of our lifetimes.

And attached to the shock and awe is a sense that we could have been there.

For the innocent and busy people who were scattered and incinerated in the twin towers were like those we pass every day in the street. Well, almost.

They were in fact much more diverse than the people we mingle with daily in Belfast. Manhattan is the destination of the ambitious of the whole world.

One of the ironic interpretations of the attack saw it as an assault by Muslims on Christians. Yet dozens of Muslims died in the flames.

Some of them were initially treated as suspects; as if, from the start, it was unlikely that they would be regarded as full victims.

The sense that the violence of that day was intrinsically Islamic - and Islam as intrinsically alien - plays out still in the opposition to the creation of an Islamic cultural centre close to Ground Zero.

Immediately after the attacks, people struggled to comprehend what had happened and were bound to come up with emotional responses.

An American friend of mine says that an older man in his family went silent and withdrew to his bedroom. They found him there polishing a pistol. The attack had awakened an urgent sense among many Americans that they should be ready to defend their homeland against an appalling, evil force which had unaccountably targeted them.

The President, George W Bush, framed the attack as a wholly unwarranted expression of contempt for American people and their values.

By contrast, some people argued that a political context had to be considered in which the United States was viewed as an imperialist force in the Middle East.

And some people I have met were concerned that this one day of staggering terrorism would come to stand above all the suffering under terrorism and war around the world, simply because it had been American and televised. And true enough, we do not have the same dedicated coverage of anniversaries of other days of carnage.

Many innocents died in the ripples of warfare that followed 9/11; in wedding parties blitzed from invisibly high jets in Afghan skies; in a Baghdad restaurant bombed because Saddam Hussein was thought to be dining there; people slaughtered by drones and suicide bombers. And they are all forgotten.

There are many good reasons for a sharper focus on 9/11 than on other cruel days.

One is the enormity of it. Three thousand dead and thousands more dying early from cancers and other conditions contracted in the gigantic clouds of toxic dust.

Another is the drama of it.

Hollywood could not have contrived a better visual spectacle.

For Americans, the most potent part of the experience is a sense of safe territory being defiled by an invader.

They are used to fighting their wars abroad, not at home.

And it is easy to empathise with all of this. But many of the interpretations of the event have shadow sides.

The horror of that day was used to justify the invasion of Iraq and many Americans believed that there was a direct connection between Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaida teams which delivered hell to their cities. Few around George W Bush were motivated to correct them.

The assumption that the whole story is about a good people violated by evil reflects a way of thinking that ignores all political contexts.

It is one thing to see al-Qaida as wholly unwarranted in its violence; quite another to think that it can be squashed by moral censure and missiles.

But there is a way of remembering 9/11 which does no violence to the truth of that day. The deaths of the innocents can symbolise all the innocent dead in war everywhere.

In their diversity of race and religion; in their being a random sampling of professional people, none of whom had gone out to work that morning to advance a war; in their family lives and their sporting interests and hobbies; in the quotidian ordinariness of the conversations they were having with each other when the first plane struck; in that anyone from a computer-programmer in New Delhi to a journalist or banker in Sydney, Toronto or Dublin could as easily say, I might have been there, this atrocity can belong to everyone.

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