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12 September 2002 Edition

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9/11: Real grief amid TV and Tee Shirts


In 1993, a friend of mine from Tyrone and I were a few streets away from the World Trade Centre when it was blown up the first time. Both of us instantly recognised the sound of an explosion but were ridiculed by our American companion, who mocked the possibility of a bomb in Manhattan.

Eight years later, in spite of all the available evidence, it was still unthinkable to most Americans that suicide pilots would use commercial jets as missiles to carry out the most spectacular attack of the modern age. With zeal and utility knives, they inflicted an everlasting blow to America that cost $80 billion and almost 3,000 lives.

A year later, America is getting ready to remember, formally, "Nine Eleven" as they call it here. In reality, it has been to the forefront of most people's minds and tens of thousands of lives every day since.

Like the attacks themselves, it is saturation coverage in every media, every day. The minutiae of the attacks is dissected ad nausea. The victims are repeatedly roll called. Top of the list are firemen, then NYPD cops, then Port Authority cops, then everybody else. Irish Americans are high on the list of "everyone else" because of their historic cultural connection with the police and fire departments and the construction trades. A handful of Irish born died but several hundred Irish Americans were killed.

I met and photographed two of those who died a number of times. Fr Michael Judge, the chaplain to the Fire Department, and Tom McGuinness, a Commodities Trader. Like too many of the dead I pictured during 25 years of conflict in the North, they are now frozen images in time who will never change or grow old.

I never visited "Ground Zero". I never felt the need and in fact was frequently appalled at the ghoulish tourists who made it a must see port of call, with their cameras and videos.

There are also the tee shirts, probably as many designs as victims. Most have some reference to the police and firemen, the "heroes". Many have slogans and vows of remembrance. Many are somewhat jingoistic and some are just in bad taste. There are also flags everywhere, much more so than during Desert Storm when Geroge W Bush's father was in the White House.

The remembrances this week, this year in fact, are overpowering. It seems many of the families just want some peace and quiet to reflect by themselves after twelve months of being public property. Grief is a very powerful emotion but ultimately most grieving, I feel, is done in private. None of the relatives will get that chance, unless they deliberately absent themselves from the events and don't watch TV or read a paper for a month.

A TV colleague told me he has worked for a month helping design and prepare for the live dawn to dusk coverage of the services at the WTC on Wednesday.

Regrettably, though, only a small minority ask why it happened, preferring "why do they hate us?". It is hard in such circumstances (and sometimes disrespectful) not to do as the crowd does or just keep quiet, but 25 years of conflict has given us a wealth of expertise and the right to speak as victims and survivors of battle.

America's tragedy should, of course, be remembered, but a year later it is still not generally contextualised by the majority of Americans I meet. Any discussion needs a kind of disclaimer, where you assure all listening that you are not anti-American and that it was a terrible unjustifiable act. Even after that, you must tread lightly, very lightly.

Americans are expecting more attacks and as I write, F16's and four attack helicopters fly over mid-town Manhattan. Soldiers patrol Grand Central Station and Belfast-like rings of steel surround many public buildings. But the fear is not like sledgehammer squads putting in doors, it's more TV manufactured, the expected response. It suits the hawks to ratchet up the fear factor so that there is less opposition to the internment camp in Guantanamo, to new immigration laws, to unfettered Presidential rule and to unconditional billions to Sharon as he tries to eradicate all Palestinian aspirations to nationhood.

It is a tragedy bigger than 9/11 that the deaths of innocent people in the USA could give George Bush the excuse to try and win a war his father failed to. America doesn't need any more tragedies. What it needs is time to heal from this one.


SF TDs extend sympathy

On the first anniversary of the 11 September atrocities in the United States, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD, leader of the Sinn Féin TDs in the Dáil, said:

"On behalf of the Sinn Féin party in the Oireachtas, I want to express our continuing sympathy with the bereaved, the injured and all those affected by the appalling atrocities of 11 September in the US. We think especially of the many Irish people, and people of Irish descent, who were killed and injured one year ago. Our thoughts are with all who suffered and continue to suffer on this solemn anniversary. It is a time when everyone should focus on the need to pursue peaceful solutions to the many and complex international problems which confront our world today."

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