When people remember news events, they often claim to have been in notable places at the time they found out about them. This isn’t always accurate – and indeed I think that there was research done which found that a lot of people claimed to have been ‘on the beach’ or similar when they heard Kennedy had been shot, but simple research showed that this wasn’t true; often, it seems, we rewrite events in the past to meet present emotional needs.
However, for me, ‘where I was when I heard the news’ is often quite mundane – I found out my Degree results in the Boston Dining Room of Butlins in Skegness, for example – or even dull: if asked where I was when I heard a certain news event, chances are the honest are will be that I was at my desk, be it at school, college or home. I wish it was more dramatic, but as you may have gathered by now, I try to be as accurate and honest in my recollections of events as possible.
Anyway, six years ago today, I was at work when I heard about the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre. There was a lot of uncertainty, partly brought about by the fact we couldn’t get the news up online (everyone else had the same thought, it seems), and this was amplified by the fact we were in a government building in the heart of Westminster.
Various bits of information came in via e-mails and phone calls from the outside world, but I distinctly recall being fascinated by the way that people’s worst fears were given voice, and upgraded from notion to rumour.
“I’ve just got off the phone to my daughter in America,” my boss said. “She says there are fifty planes in the air which the authorities can’t account for.”
“Are you sure about that?” I asked, not wanting to be rude about her daughter – this was my boss talking, after all. “We haven’t heard anything like that from anywhere else…”
“Heard anything like what?” said a colleague who’d just entered the room.
“There are fifty planes unaccounted for in the sky over America,” my boss said, and with the mere act of dropping a few words off the front of that sentence – the key ones about where she’d heard this and from whom – it jumped up the ladder to near-fact (helped, of course, by her status in the office).
What happened on September 11 six years ago was, obviously, a very bad thing indeed. But lying about it – whether it be about the terrorists being linked to Iraq (a commonly-held belief, it seems, and one for which there is no evidence at all), or about what we were doing and with whom when we heard the news – or otherwise allowing rationality and intelligence to slip does the memory of those who died a disservice. There’s enough sloppy thinking and even sloppier talking in relation to this subject, and we don’t need any more; in fact, it’s loose thinking that led to the events in question, and I think we need to be better than that.
*The ever-quotable Stephen Fry, in ‘A Bit Of Fry And Laurie’