9/11: 10 Years On

The Chair of the Cambridge University Labour Club explains how his personal experiences of 9/11 made him determined to go into politics.

9/11 extremism new york politics Richard Johnson september 11th student politics Terrorists

Ten years ago, thousands of people were killed when terrorists hijacked 4 passenger planes and flew them into targets across America. The most serious attack, on New York’s World Trade Centre, happened just a short commute from my home. At the time I was completely unaware of the political events that led to such tragedy, and I felt utterly powerless and confused.

Most ten-year-olds don’t care about politics, and in 2001 I was no different. Although I feel very differently now, back then I didn’t feel like politics touched my life. The events of a single day ten years ago shattered that worldview.

I was living in a suburban town in southwestern Connecticut, attending the local school a kilometre from my home. My house was adjacent to the New York-bound side of Interstate-95 and a few 100 metres from the train station. Each day 100s of locals would park their cars on my street, before commuting to work in Manhattan. They’d spend long hours working in New York’s various skyscrapers, before returning home to their families, who were my neighbours, classmates and friends.

September 11th 2001 initially seemed like any other Tuesday. I took the bus to school, passing commuters at the train station, and had my morning classes as usual. But then the proceedings of the day ceased to follow their ordinary pattern. The events that followed, too personal to recount entirely, are more vivid in my memory than any other day in my life.

Initially, we were not told about the attacks that had happened just a short journey down I-95. Many of my classmates and friends had parents who worked in Manhattan and there was no way of knowing if they’d been caught up in the death and destruction. After an impromptu prayer service for ‘the dead and dying’ (the cryptic attempt by my school’s nuns and priests to somehow reassure us), my school decided to send us home to our families.

The attack on the World Trade Centre

Until this point, I had assumed that the catastrophic event – whatever it was – had impacted people in far-flung regions of the world. I imagined there had been a nuclear attack on Israel or that war had flared up in the Balkans again. It was not until I saw the crying mothers hugging their children in the school car park that I realised the events of the day had touched closer to home. I was soon told that the Twin Towers, which I had visited many times, had been destroyed by two commercial airliners and that thousands of people had been killed. I felt sick. Many of my friends and classmates went home from school that day not knowing whether they would ever see their mum or dad again.

As it turns out, many children in my community did lose a mother or a father that day. Everyone knew someone who had been affected by the attacks. Although I was fortunate not to lose a loved one, the anniversary of September 11th each year brings back the sickening feeling of helplessness which I felt in my school car park ten years ago.

Richard’s photo of ‘Ground Zero’ in Spring 2002

It is the desire to eliminate that helplessness that drives my politics today. I hadn’t fully developed my political beliefs ten years ago, but the events of that terrible Tuesday morning shattered my political innocence forever. I recognised that the world in which we live is far smaller than I had previously imagined, and realised that politics has the capacity to accomplish both incredible good and appalling harm. People doing nothing makes the latter ever more likely.

September 11th 2001 very rudely and tragically made me realise that politics does matter – sometimes with the most extreme of consequences. And no matter where my the course of my life goes, I can point to 9/11 as the day on which I vowed to make politics my vocation.