When the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed so spectacularly, the whole world was mesmerised by the images. The most common reaction was to say it was ‘a scene from a horror movie’, something filmed on a soundstage at 20th Century Fox. After days of showing the skyscrapers crumble again and again, someone in authority deemed the images too upsetting and pulled them from scheduled television viewing. I secretly regretted that decision because I’d become addicted.
It was as though, if I watched the images enough times, I would understand how it happened. Technically, I have a vague knowledge of why the buildings collapsed. Months after the event, I watched a programme that explained the architectural honeycomb structure of steel rods and the effect of heat. At least, it was something like that.
The architects of the World Trade Center had considered the possibility of a plane crashing into the buildings. The problem was they failed to calculate a plane loaded with fuel. It’s hard to believe that it was only seven years ago. I relived it recently as I read a book by British writer Anne Dixey. She arrived in Washington DC in late August, 2001, with my nephew-in-law Roland Watson and their two daughters, Amalie, age 4, and Josie, age 2. Anne gave up her job as a producer on Radio 4’s PM so that Roland could become Washington correspondent of The Times. A few days after they arrived, Anne took Amalie to her first day of nursery school, then drove Josie to the local library. Roland was in Florida with President Bush.
While the President was reading The Pet Goat to a class of second-graders, Anne was reading Chicken Licken to Josie‘Oh Henny Penny, the sky is falling and I’m going to tell the king!’ the third plane flew into the Pentagon. Anne’s account of those days and the years that followes reads like a novel. How quickly one forgets the succession of horrors: the Beltway murders, the anthrax attacks. Her book is the best study I’ve read in preserving sanity in an atmosphere of hysteria.
The title of the book, United States of Hysteria, first struck me as a title chosen by book marketers. After reading it, I realised it was absolutely accurate. We’re now living through another time of hysteria. So far, we don’t have the film footage to accompany it, but that will come: streets lined with For Sale and Auction signs; long lines at job centres. Here in the countryside, everything looks weirdly reassuring: our fields of winter wheat are as smooth and green as a golf course. There’s no sign that the price of wheat has plummeted and is now half £90 a ton of what it was six months ago, while all the inputs fuel, fertiliser have soared.
Farmers in East Anglia, the nation’s bread basket, are confiding in one another that this may well be their last wheat crop while the BBC World Service warns that 900 million people face starvation this year. Last week, I read a piece by Gail Collins in which she hankered after the good old days, back in August, when the Dow was over 10,000 and nobody had ever heard of Sarah Palin. I know the feeling, but I’d go back a little further.
The good old days when George Bush was living in Texas, 9/11 was the number you called in an emergency in the US, polar ice was as hard as granite, bankers were not Masters of the Universe and Britain and the US did not consume more than they produced. Social historians describe those days as a time when we were inebriated by hope, but frankly, that’s my drink of choice. It’s all happening so fast that I’m suffering from Disaster Fatigue. Unfortunately, the Tami-flu locked in the gun safe against an outbreak of bird flu expired in 2006.