[12 Sep 03]

I don't know. I like to think that it gets better, but that didn't feel like it.

Two years ago I was just ducking back to the office for something, walking down Clerk Street, when I saw the headlines for the late papers: "Attack On America, Hundreds Dead". Fearing the worst—something like the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway—I hurried on, and when I got there switched on the PC and looked for a news site. They were all down. So I tried Metafilter.

I had only twenty minutes to read before I had to leave, because we were moving into our new flat that evening, and would have no access to news. Twenty minutes to read every damn thing I could; no time to write. So my reaction isn't in this thread.

On two anniversaries now, I've been dragged back to that moment simply by reading the same site; the one I still read regularly, and normally it's no problem, but that date, and the emotions it inspires in people, and in me, still, even though I wish I could escape them, pulls me in. And people post unbearable stories—and I don't wish they didn't; it's important to read them—but I wish...

I wish we could just go back.

And people post video streams of the news coverage from that day, and others complain, "That's not new, we've all seen that," meaning, "Don't take me back to that moment, don't manipulate my emotions like that, I've moved on, or at least I'm trying to, and this isn't helping."

But it's too late for some of us, because every anniversary there's a link to that first thread, there's no avoiding it; and that was our live news feed; that's what takes us back.


"Never Forget 9/11". How could we forget? We aren't allowed to forget, either by our own minds and memories, or by those who would remind us every single day if they could, so traumatized were they. There's no shame in their trauma; for those who were there, it's as understandable as the shell-shock suffered by countless thousands throughout the past century. And since this nightmare was broadcast live over TV throughout the world and had huge repercussions for all of us, millions of us feel the pull of having "been there" even if we physically weren't. Regardless of whatever political message we took from it.

But there's forgetting, and there's forgetting. Never forget the anger you felt; that's what is meant. Well of course not. After the initial shock and dismay, there was anger: anger at the men who did this. The 19 who did it; 11 of whom didn't know exactly what was planned, but were culpable nonetheless; all of whom were dead. And the small number of others involved in its planning and execution—for if half the hijackers didn't know the full extent of the plan, this had to have been a closely-guarded secret. Those conspirators who remain should be found, and brought to justice.

But that's still not what some people mean. Don't forget your anger at the people who did this, they mean, where "people" is defined as any enemy of America; anyone who lives in certain countries, and even tacitly supports the enemies of America; and, in the opinion of some, anyone who follows a certain religion. And that's where our memories of 9/11 and its emotional significance part ways.

Great horror has been unleashed by a small number of people before; the terrible business of Auschwitz wasn't common knowledge either within or beyond Germany until the end of World War II, and the bombing of Hiroshima was also the work of a relative few. But horror itself is not enough to gauge the political significance of an event, as those two examples, which had very different political and military goals, show.

What those examples have in common, however, is that they were the work of governments; of elected representatives and the people in their charge. Who did the hijackers represent? The entire Islamic world? A band of rogue states? Or a loose coalition of disaffected agitators, led by an outspoken individual? How representative were they?

That's the key question; and that's where the argument lies. That's where we draw our different interpretations of the political significance of 9/11, and how we should deal with it. No one disputes the emotional significance, particularly for those who were there, lost family members or friends, or, almost inconceivably, survived the event. Those people have to deal with it as best they can, with whatever support we can offer them. But not everyone shares the same ideas of exactly what it is that we should "never forget".


Some people have not only never forgotten their anger, they've kept it, nurtured it, and regularly expressed it through the medium of the weblog. They've felt compelled to think constantly about 9/11 and all that has flowed from it, and to gather more and more information about it—at first because of their anger over 9/11 itself, and then because of their anger over the new information they've found; and so it goes. There's no denying that some of these bloggers have gathered an enormous amount of information over the past two years, and have become as expert on the issues as anyone could reasonably expect. And because the quest for information has fuelled their anger, they infer that anyone who isn't angry—or isn't angry in the same way—or simply isn't feeling what they're feeling—is ignorant.

But there are limitations to expertise. Expertise is no guarantee against making mistakes, or misjudging a situation, or acting rashly. Someone can know, or think they know, a great deal, but if the sources of their information are biased, or the information is incomplete, their knowledge is compromised.

Unless we're part of the Islamic world ourselves, or have (through work, travel, residency) made it part of ourselves, our information is almost certainly incomplete. I don't mean the information you can gather; I mean the information you absorb, by living there. News feeds are edited highlights, and what gets edited out are the boring bits: daily routines; humdrum activity; the everyday struggles and joys. The feel of life. The greater proportion of life. The same kinds of details the relatives of the 9/11 dead try to impress on us, to point out that they were people, not statistics; human beings, not the Great Satan.

There's never been a greater tool for destroying our sense of proportion than the modern media, who will fill your every moment with horror if you want; horror on demand, 24/7. They're just servicing a need. But do you need to fill your life with horror? And do you need to echo those feelings to the world every day? Why?

They're rhetorical questions, obviously; the same questions I asked myself at the end of that year, and have again and again as one grim moment came after another. I don't pretend to be free of anxiety, distress, fallibility, even anger; there's evidence of that here, if you go searching for it. I just try to remind myself of that one word, in all its meanings: proportion.

I don't forget. None of us forget. But if we spend our whole lives remembering, when is the now?


Last Requests

[ 3 Feb 03] Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man was one of my favourite books as a kid, and one of my favourite stories in it was about an astronaut falling to earth after being thrown from his ship by an accident. As he falls, space debris shoots through his body, taking out his limbs one by one; he desperately seals off his spacesuit above each entry point, prolonging his life for a few extra minutes, until finally he burns up on re-entry. An awful fate, but Bradbury balances it with a poetic vision of the last thing the astronaut sees in his life—the arc of the Earth.

After the shock of Saturday's news, the sadness for the families involved, the concern about its implications... after pondering the parallels with Challenger, and reliving 17-year-old memories of newspaper headlines on the streets of Rome... all I could think of was that story.

They died at the end of the mission, not at the beginning; not staring into darkness, but looking down on the whole blue Earth.



[22 Jan 03] One a.m. Can't sleep. Reading The Mercury before going to bed was a mistake. Arsonists—stupid fucking kids and teenagers—are starting fires in southern Tasmania, which like the rest of Australia is tinder dry. Now as well as the continuing threat to family and friends in Canberra, I'm having nightmares about Mum and Dad's house burning down, with all of the trees in the front paddock turning into giant candles. A bloke from my grade at school has already lost his house in the Channel.

I feel... stretched. Like I've lived in too many different places, and seen too much of south-eastern Australia, and all of it's burning or covered in smoke and ash, never to be the same again. It would be worse to live through it, that's for sure, but in a way this is living through it, with streams of news from the web and email interacting with layers of memory and imagination. I've seen a red sun through thick smoke in forty degree heat before, and all of these towns and districts mentioned in the news reports, and my bastard brain is building a simulation of everything in panoramic sensurround. And I'm stuck here on the other side of the world, unable to temper it with actual evidence from my own eyes and ears, unable to combat anxiety with practical action, unable to do anything but remember, and wait, and hope.

My parents moved to Tasmania two days before the 1967 bushfires, some of the worst of the last century. I was born a year later, and grew up in the shadow of the relict chimneys and bleached skeletons of gum-trees that stood throughout the south. By the time I was a teenager the bush had recovered enough to pose a threat again; there was a particularly scary few days in early 1983. There have been other menacing fires in the decades since, even some that came close to Hobart and the Huon, but never a season as menacing as this.

And now a bunch of dickheads are trying to burn down Bridgewater, and with it the rest of the south—why? Because they've been saturated with war-talk, and are itching for some action? God knows. To think that some idiotic 14-year-old could burn down whole lifetimes of work and memory, in the place where my friends and my brother and I grew up, the place I still think of as home... is not what I want to be thinking at 1.43 a.m. on the other side of the world.


The Infernal Storm

[21 Jan 03] Sorry to keep going on about it, but it keeps going on. Canberra was on high alert today, and the forecast for Saturday is particularly bad.

One thing I've been amused by when talking to fellow travellers in youth hostels is the average European backpacker's exaggerated fears of Australia. Many imagine that there are deadly snakes on every footpath, deadly spiders under every dunny seat, and deadly sharks off every beach. Those are real threats, certainly, but no greater a threat to most Aussies than grizzlies are to Americans or wolves are to Europeans.

No, if you want an insight into most Australians' greatest fear, look at this. [Windows Media broadband stream; if your browser can't handle it, open the direct link in Windows Media Player, or get the 56k stream from here.]

The adjective 'hellish' is often hyperbole, but for once it's not. This is the very vision of Dante's inferno.


[20 Jan 03]

Once we were in the car I knew I had the most important things in my life right there. Other things are just not as important as my partner of 30 years, all I could do was hug her. I always thought I'd be prepared for something like this, but you have to make quick decisions. I don't regret those decisions, not when I see my wife standing over there.



[19 Jan 03]

Four people have died as a result of bushfires which swept through Canberra this weekend, destroying up to 400 houses. Residents of the national capital are preparing for a tough seven days with hotter weather and stronger winds expected.

More than 2,000 Canberrans were forced to flee their homes during the night as fires threatened dozens of suburbs.

One in five Canberra homes was without power today ... There was also pressure on the water supply, especially after some residents left the taps on in their homes when they evacuated.

The massive hill range just looked like a cluster of volcanoes the way they were lit up when I looked from my balcony ... I saw some flames around the pines in Western Canberra that must have been 100 metres high or more.

Do we sleep, do we not sleep? Sleep in shifts? ... We had to pack a bag last night. What do you pack? ... The wind has shifted again and we've lost the sun for the first time today. I don't know if it will be back.


Under a Blood Red Sky

[18 Jan 03] My mind is full of maps. Maps of towns, cities, suburbs where I once lived. In my mind, I can walk around Hobart, catch a train into central Melbourne, ride the bus through Edinburgh, and drive all around Canberra.

Jane and I used to be op-shop junkies, scouring Canberra's Vinnies and Salvos for household items, furniture and amusing trinkets. At one point we visited every single one in the phone book. It was a great way to get to know the local geography: the suburbs of Belconnen; the arterial roads of Tuggeranong. Eight years in that city built up a pretty good mental map.

Now that map is burning.

Rowf has pictures of a sky turning yellow, orange, and every shade of red. Monkey describes watching the burning leaves blowing into her yard, and running to put them out. For anyone living there, anyone with friends and family there, anyone with a map of Canberra in their head, these are anxious times. Good luck, everyone; good luck.

(This site sits on a server in an outer suburb in Canberra's north. If it suddenly goes dead, you'll know why.)


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