The first, when I was a child, was John F.Kennedy’s assassination, the second ten years ago where I was on 9/11.
Both were seismic events, both ensured the world would never be the same again.
The first presaged an end to childish innocence, the second that America could never be invulnerable again.
Like millions of New Yorkers on September 11th 2001 I had been taking in a beautiful autumn day, which suddenly turned to unspeakable tragedy.
At such times utterly irrational ideas run through you mind. My first thought was this would possibly delay that week’s issue of the Irish Voice.
The second was that somehow somewhere there was a rational explanation and everything would be all right.
It was wishful thinking. There wasn’t and it wasn’t all right ever again.
9/11 changed America in ways subtle and clear. That change is still manifesting itself.
For the next five years Americans took a holiday from their political senses, re-elected possibly the worst president in US history and acquiesced in war in Iraq, which most definitely was not.
Anyone who opposed the war parties was seen as unpatriotic and craven. Great institutions like The New York Times proved horribly fallible with their cheerleading for finding non-existent WMD’s in Iraq and repeated drum rolls for war.
So many institutions proved to be like the emperor with no clothes. A senior NYPD official told me if there was another attack he could see most civil liberties being suspended for years.
We wobbled on the edge of near fascism. The men in charge of the country, especially the Cheneys and the Rumsfelds, were dangerous warmongers only too willing to grab the opportunity to play smash mouth with enemies imagined and real.
There were far too few who stood up to them. Cowed and silenced, Democrats, in particular, signed on to the war agenda and rattled sabers with the best of them.
Yet the country, starting with New York changed for the better too. Right after the bombing as the wounded and fearful made their trek north to get away from the cataclysm New Yorkers came out of their homes to embrace them.
They wiped the blood, grime and dirt off their faces, they brought them to their homes. They arranged to contact family members. They grieved with them in powerful displays of grief all over the city.
My most powerful image is standing as one of thousands outside a firehouse in Midtown Manhattan where ten firefighters had died. Some had candles, some knelt and the complete silence was broken only by sobbing and prayer.
There was no electricity , only the dim light of the candles and the sense of powerful emotions so strong it brought cascading tears to my eyes.
The message was clear though. We are with you. Firemen and policemen were the new Gods of the city. For a merciful few weeks celebrity belonged where it rested, on their shoulders, not on some Hollywood nonentities.
All victims were treated as heroes. Restaurants threw open their doors, hotels gave out free beds, people took victims into their private homes and tended to them there.
This was supposedly cynical New York where everyone looked out for themselves. Instead we got an outpouring of love and care that softened the city. I was never more proud to be a New Yorker.
As the days went by I got to know that I had known some of those killed. Two of them were at a ‘Wall Street 50’ event my magazine hosted just a few months previously at the World Trade Center.
That had been a beautiful summer’s night and the event was at the 108 floor restaurant called Windows of the World, with a majestic view over New York Harbor.
I remember thinking how long it took to get up there, two different elevators and a ride seemingly to the top of the world .
An employee had taken me on a rooftop tour before the event began. I could see New Jersey sparkling in the distance, beyond the Hudson River, which cleaves the two great states of New York and New Jersey apart.
There that night was Chris Duffy a young man just starting out in life on Wall Street. He had come as a special guest of his dad John, who survived, who was a close personal friend. Chris’s boss Peter Berry was also killed and had been there on that night.
Later I would get to know Ron Clifford from Cork whose sister and niece had died tragically and who, in an incredible coincidence, had been in the tower when the plane carrying his family members hit it.
Ron’s bravery in the wake of such a devastating loss, his refusal to hate, his determination to understand rather than just condemn was truly inspirational.
It was men and women like him who formed the basis of the book I wrote ‘Fire in the Morning’ about the extraordinary victims and heroes of that awful day.
I meet them still. Just recently it was Steven Smith a NYPD policeman whose wife Moira also an NYPD officer helped hundreds escape the blaze before she was killed when the towers crumbled.
He too has that remarkable equanimity that Ron Clifford has, he has raised his daughter alone but I know she has not been raised to hate.
That’s in the end is the pivotal lesson of 9/11. True evil triumphed in those brief terrible moment when close to 3,000 innocent people lost their lives.
But the second the violence was over humanity reasserted itself in a million different ways, from the embrace of the bloodied survivors as they made their way up town to the millions of heroic deeds and private kindnesses shown in subsequent days and months.
One story sums it up for me. It is the daughter of a survivor who I met recently, now a stunning girl of 23, and a master’s student in college. Her major? Arabic and Middle Eastern studies .
'I need to understand that world' she told me 'in order to understand myself.' She told me how excited she was about the Arab spring and the democracy movements all over the Arab world.
Of such small moments will victory eventually come over 9/11, not just for our generations perhaps, but in those beyond who will begin to understand the 'other' and heed the message that it must never happen again.
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