Andrew Vine: The shockwaves of 9/11 still shape our world

Sunset over Manhattan - tomorrow is the 15th anniversary of New York's Twin Towers being destroyed in an act of terror that reverberates to this day.
Sunset over Manhattan - tomorrow is the 15th anniversary of New York's Twin Towers being destroyed in an act of terror that reverberates to this day.
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SHOCK and fear hung in the air as thickly as the acrid black smoke that caught at the back of the throat and somehow couldn’t be coughed away.

Even the 100-proof bourbon I drank to try to wash away the taste of that smoke didn’t work, any more than it eased the nerves of people who admitted they were drinking too much after what had happened and constantly glanced upwards to the skies, terrified of seeing another approaching airliner.

This was New York in the days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when the world watched in disbelief as a horror beyond imagination unfolded live on television.

Tomorrow marks the 15th anniversary of the day that unleashed so many of the dangers that blight our age. Terrorism, instability in the Middle East, the consequent refugee crisis and a clash of cultures that will claim countless more lives before it is resolved – if it ever can be – are the evil spawn of that Tuesday morning when a new age of conflict emerged out of a clear blue sky.

There will, as usual, be dignified commemorations of the anniversary in New York. Families who buried tiny fragments of their loved ones – or even coffins empty of anything except mementos – because nothing more of them was ever found will weep and once again hold up photographs of the lost.

Those pictures wallpapered Manhattan in the days after September 11. They were everywhere, taped to lamp-posts and walls, formal studio portraits and snapshots alike of men and women smiling for the camera.

Each of them was missing, and below the picture every poster carried an appeal for information in tones of frantic worry laced with bewildered incomprehension.

A husband or wife, sister or brother, son or daughter, each poster emphasising how decent and hard-working they were, as if such virtues should have been enough to shield them from terrorists flying hijacked airliners into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

The posters became the emblems of shattered hopes as realisation grew that when the Twin Towers collapsed, they not only snuffed out the lives of those trapped inside, but in many cases obliterated them.

The fires that burned for weeks afterwards in the wreckage, fuelled by hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil stored deep underground, consumed what was left.

It was profoundly disturbing to realise that the repellent smell of that acrid smoke billowing over Lower Manhattan was, in part, due to the incineration of human beings.

The mass casualties that the city’s hospitals expected never arrived. Instead came a wave of relatives, going from one emergency department to another, showing their photographs and seeking news of the missing.

Their desperate trek continued day after day, even when there was no possibility left of finding anyone alive in that mangled, burning debris.

Hope fuelled fantasies of a miracle, and it kept them going, as with a man searching for his sister, her photograph in his hand, who told me he believed she might have got out and could be wandering the streets.

But there was no real hope of her survival, not there outside the emergency department where I chanced to meet him on his fourth or fifth visit, nor at the nightly candle-lit vigils in parks and squares.

It was at one of those vigils that a woman so stricken by grief that she was possessed of a manic energy grabbed my arm with such force that I could not pull away as she thrust a picture of a young man into my face and demanded to know if I had seen him.

The picture was very like the others, of a man about 30, dark-haired and smiling. She was in the picture too, holding hands with him, and wearing the engagement ring she still wore.

Suddenly, she let go of my arm and headed off into the crowd, demanding to know of everyone in her path if they had seen him. The following morning, the imprint of her hand remained on my forearm as a bruise.

I shall think of her tomorrow, as I do every September 11, and wonder when she came to know for sure that her fiancé was one of the 2,996 who died.

I’ll wonder too if she was one of those who attended a service over an empty coffin, and if the intervening years have brought her any peace.

Or if she became one of the other victims of September 11 – the thousands of bereaved and survivors whose lives were permanently derailed because they simply could not cope.

There is a new World Trade Center on the site now, but the echoes of what happened still resonate all too powerfully. They are heard in the Middle East’s cries of anguish, and in the screams from sinking boatloads of refugees fleeing its conflicts.

So too in the clamour for holy war from the failed states that collapsed like dominoes to become breeding grounds for a new wave of extremist violence, which are directly linked to the ill-considered and clumsily-executed ‘war on terror’ launched by George W Bush and Tony Blair after the attacks.

And the echoes are there in the inflammatory rhetoric of Donald Trump, perhaps only weeks away from the White House. I never saw, or heard of, Muslims rejoicing in New York’s streets in the days after the towers collapsed, as he has claimed.

On the contrary, I saw countless Muslims join their fellow New Yorkers of all faiths, or none, in mourning the lost and trying to bring whatever comfort they could to the bereaved.

Tomorrow will be a time for remembrance for New York and the rest of the world which watched that day in disbelief. But it should also be a moment of reflection that 15 years on from the defining moment of the 21st century so far, we still have no idea where the chain of events it set in motion will lead.

And that, in its way, is as unnerving as anything the world witnessed on September 11, 2001.