The anniversary of 9/11 is always a poignant time and one that invites much reflection. For me, the weeks that followed the attacks are every bit as memorable as the day itself. It was hard to feel safe, wasn’t it? I kept thinking that the aeroplanes were flying too low or along unfamiliar trajectories.
Perhaps this paranoia was forgivable. The media was falling over itself to conjure up new terror threats. Canary Wharf was regularly cast as an inevitable target, and my father and many close friends worked there. As my overground train to work turned towards Waterloo each morning, I was relieved to see the tower still standing. But then there was the spectre of chemical and biological attacks to worry about, and those fears were propped up by strange goings-on with anthrax in America.
I remember a photograph on the front page of The Times that merged Osama Bin Laden’s face into a mushroom cloud. This was unsettling for sure, but I was more frightened by the rumour that Al Qaeda planned to fly cropduster planes over central London, all the better to spray us with deadly plagues. A-tishoo, a-tishoo, we all fall down…
Something else was occupying my mind in those weeks. In the wake of the attacks I became actively interested in the Middle East conflict. I was working at a predominantly Jewish company at the time and I recall some fascinating lunches with a member of staff during which he patiently answered my questions about Israel.
I had many questions and I was desperate for answers. I also realised that I would, unwittingly, probably have some misconceptions. Like many British people, I had always had a lazy, default feeling of ill-informed pity for the Palestinian people and therefore a vague sense of hostility towards Israel, despite the fact that I’d long had a somewhat latent philosemitic side.
I’d always worried that I would offend, but I wanted to learn. So I asked my colleague straight out: “If I buy you lunch, can I ask you lots of possibly offensive questions about Israel?”. He had a great mind and was painstakingly honest and balanced in his responses.
I began voraciously reading about the conflict, pouring through books that covered the issue from both sides, from Edward Said to Alan Dershowitz, and more. Many, many books and much thinking later, I fell in firmly on Israel’s side. The rest is history: a history of wonderful trips to Israel, countless new friends and a blog in which I write in defence of the Jewish state.
And it all started in the weeks after 9/11. Returning to those scare stories that dominated the media during that period, it is worth reflecting nine years on that none of our worst fears have come true. No capital cities have disappeared under a mushroom cloud, no town centres have turned into mass graves after chemical or biological attacks.
This is probably down to the vigilance and hard work of the security services. They deserve much praise for their courageous and careful efforts. While that vigilance must be maintained, blind fear is something we could do with a lot less of. Much of the discussion about these issues is dominated by fear.
Pro-Palestinian groups fear that Israel is going to annihilate the Palestinians, even though it isn’t. Other people worry that a small Muslim community centre several blocks from Ground Zero will lead to further atrocities in Manhattan, even though it won’t.
Hate-mongers like George Galloway and Geert Wilders trade on scaring the gullible. I remember interviewing John Pilger, and he told me: “You should always be scared”. Sheesh, no wonder his politics is sometimes so muddled.
We must take real threats seriously, but that is not the same thing as living in fear. I love the words of the wonderful Rabbi Nachman: he sang that the world is a very narrow bridge and the main thing to recall is not to be afraid at all.