Twenty years ago this afternoon, I was sitting in my office at the London university where I worked. On the other side of the room, my boss and my officemate – a deep-voiced (his delivery reminded me of Brian Blessed), but also soft-spoken, Englishman about ten years my senior – said to me, “Robert, do you have CNN open [on your PC]?”
I told him I didn’t. After a couple of mouse clicks, I did. It was about 10:30 AM ET in the US.
I think I will always remember how quiet the building got. Leaving my office a few minutes later, I realized as I walked down the hall that very few people were actually talking, and if they were they seemed to be almost whispering. Staff in their offices all seemed to have a news site up on their PC.
Half an hour later or so, I decided to go home and walked for the tube. We lived then in north London, in the borough of Enfield. Within seconds after walking into the house, I turned on the television.
I recall clicking between the BBC and CNN International and seeing the horrific images we recall now all too well. I also tried to call my parents in New York, but all I got repeatedly was a busy signal. The phone lines were obviously jammed and there was no getting through. (I don’t think I actually spoke with them until the next day.)
Staring alone at the television, I also had the sickest feeling of my life in this sense. I knew how Americans would largely react. We were heading into a version of the shock of post-December 7, 1941… and possibly worse.
It hit me too that the future suddenly was going to be very different from anything we had imagined just 24 hours earlier.
Sitting here typing this, in a way it feels to me again like “yesterday.” Yet it also seems increasingly distant; it was certainly NOT yesterday. So much time has now passed that an entire generation of new American voters has been born SINCE that day.
What had been for us “current events” is “history” for those born just before and since…
…and as is always the case we cannot know what our present now would be had that day not happened. Historians live for “What ifs?” So what if, for example, the FBI had gotten a tip off and raided the four planes pre-take-offs and arrested those 19 men and that carnage and destruction not happened?
We cannot know, of course. All that matters is it happened. History does not allow “do overs.”