TRD issue 50 – October 2001
With as much 70mm of rain falling within a six-hour period, the UK was reeling under what was being described as the worst flooding in twenty years. While a few thousand miles away, less than a month after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the US – with the help and support of the Blair government – were raining high explosive murder on Afghanistan in a vain, vindictive attempt to avenge the deaths of the innocent American citizens who died on September 11th.
Even if you haven’t paid attention to any current affairs since you went on the road (or even longer in some cases), there is absolutely no way you can have missed the reports of the events in the US on the second Tuesday of last month.
Assuming that you were working on September 11th, how did you first receive the news from New York? Did your controller break regular ‘strictly business’ radio policy to announce in an incredulous tone the biggest and most shocking news he or she has ever had to pass on? Perhaps you walked in on a bunch of people watching it on a big screen in a client’s reception? Or maybe you saw the drama unfold silently, on a bank of screens in a Granada shop window? If you did, you’d have been forgiven for thinking it was simply another case of super-hype for the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
Did you first hear the news while it was still being assumed that what was being witnessed was simply an appalling accidental tragedy? Do you remember your thoughts when another plane slowly drifted into the second tower of the World Trade Center and everyone watching realised that, for the first time in its history, the US mainland was under attack? Perhaps you were in Canary Wharf, the Stock Exchange, or one of the other areas evacuated when it became apparent that key targets had been hit in the United States and the building you were in could be next. What was your reaction when you were told to leave the vicinity? And what about the men and women in suits?
I’ll admit that with the torrent of reaction that erupted on the back of this event, I never really gave a thought to the questions that I’ve just put to you. As I attempted to assimilate what had happened, you lot just weren’t part of the equation. Then last Thursday I came across a Daily Mirror supplement, which reported the events of the previous Tuesday with calculated words and spectacular pictures. As I read through it highlighting sections and making notes in the margin (you honestly don’t want to ask why I do that, unless you want a very long answer), I came across an item on page 6, which had more resonance for me and my own experience, than anything else I’d read or seen on the subject.
It talked of people fleeing the Twin Towers for their lives and went on to say that, although a lot of them had worked in the colossal buildings for many years, Norman Peat had never been inside before. He had just made a delivery a few floors below the level where the plane crashed and had no idea where the fire exits were. Apparently, he “prayed to God, thought of his seven-month-old son and desperately started trying doors”. He got lucky on the third attempt and started down what must have been an unimaginably long stairwell, praying all the way. He lived to tell his tale, but it was only luck (or some would argue the intervention of his God) that separated him from the incomplete list of fatalities; and when you consider the sheer scale of the twin towers and think of the number of businesses they must have contained, it’s hard to imagine he was the only delivery person in the buildings.
When I started considering things from a courier’s perspective, it added a personal dimension that began to grow on me. Imagine what would have happened if on that Tuesday London had been targeted and someone had flown a jetliner loaded with fuel into Canary Wharf or Broadgate. One thing that is inescapable is the reality that if it had happened in London, there’s every possibility that a number of you would not be reading this magazine now. Following that line of thinking, if, as a consequence of this country’s involvement in the “War against Terrorism”, London should become the same sort of target as New York, then many of the streets you ride and the offices you enter will be within the war zone.
IRA bombs (usually with advance warnings by the time they switched to targeting commercial interests) are almost inconsequential when compared with the enormity of what we saw happen to New York’s skyline and the thousands of workers in and around those buildings. You would have to be past retirement age to have any memory of the blitz, so few of us can claim to have ever watched live as the familiar landmarks of a major Western city crumbled to the ground with devastating consequences for the people inside. But I’m honestly not trying to alarm you; whatever happens as a result of Bush and Blair’s fighting talk, you’ll still be infinitely safer in London than the poor folks in downtown Kabul. Nonetheless, can there really be any doubt that if something were to start here in earnest, there would be couriers among the “collateral damage”?
Having said that, as you are constantly moving around between possible targets, you would probably be at less risk than the people who work permanently in the buildings — which is an ironic variation on the usual deal. So if everyone who’s working in central London is potentially in danger, why am I getting so heavy about it in the Digest? The truth is, although I may be a teenager at heart, who best enjoys writing funny stuff and still gets much too big a bang out of riding quickly through traffic, I’m also a father of four and burdened with an awful streak of responsibility. Consequently, given the enormity of recent events, and more pertinently the reaction to them, there are things I really need to say.
I grew up with the knowledge that in WWII my father was an RAF pilot who flew a Lancaster with Bomber Command. As a kid, I was enormously proud of him and I’m sure that as a much younger man, if the occasion had arisen, I too would have signed up to defend Queen and Country. Fortunately, the necessity never arose, but I’m confident that if it had, my father would have taken me aside and told me much of what I am trying to say now. As it turned out, we never had any sort of serious discussion about any war until after the Falklands when I was thirty. On that occasion we were talking about the sinking of the Belgrano and both agreed that any impartial examination of the circumstances revealed that it was a cynical act, executed in cold blood to prevent the ‘Argies’ from sailing away from a war that Maggie knew would get her re-elected. My dad then went on to say that wars were never fought for the reasons that we, the general public, are told about and that if he’d known when he was nineteen what he understood in his later years, far from volunteering (as an instrument maker, he was in a reserved occupation), he wouldn’t even have turned up.
So what is this one about? Are the innocent people who died in New York and the Pentagon simply victims of very well organised religious fanatics? Did the hijackers attack the US just because for them it epitomised everything that is evil and wrong with the non-Islamic world? That seems to be the most popular theory at the moment, which is a good ‘public consumption’ explanation for a number of reasons.
First, it lines up beautifully with the xenophobic stuff that’s bread and butter for the tabloids. You know: “It’s those completely different people over there wot are the problem — they’re mad.” Second, and this is even more important, any attempt to question the wisdom of launching a major assault on Afghanistan, can be waved away by pointing to some of the appalling atrocities committed by the Taliban against their own people – particularly women. It certainly seems to be difficult to argue with; but have you noticed how variable criteria (i.e. are they good for business in the West?) tend to be applied to questions of democracy and oppression of the general population. Those of you who do catch the news occasionally will be aware that China (hardly a country renowned for its record on Human Rights) has managed to land the next Olympics! What’s that all about?
The more liberal view is that the hijackers took the battle to the American people on behalf of the Palestinian people; or the Iraqi people; or any one of a number of Islamic people around the world who believe that they are suffering daily as a direct consequence of US foreign policy. They point to the indisputable fact that when the Taliban were the freedom fighters and the Russian communists were the oppressors, Bin Laden was trained and equipped by the CIA. Which is of course a similar story to Saddam Hussain’s. Back in the day, he used to be a ‘goody’, who enjoyed US/British patronage and, of course arms – which was not allowed under US and British laws. (But then the US and British governments have always had a flexible attitude to their own laws when it comes to the arms trade. How many of you remember the illegal arms for Iran/financial support for the Contra terrorists episode? It was a scandal for all of five minutes when it broke. And what about the Matrix Churchill ‘supergun’ affair? How Billingsgate was that?)
When Saddam was stacked up against the anti-Western Ayatollahs of Iran, he wasn’t an evil dictator; he could slaughter Kurds with impunity and generate no more by way of outrage than the occasional column inside the Guardian. The same liberals will point to all the places in the world today where the local people are being dictated to and oppressed by US-supported regimes. But that’s liberals all over, they just muddy the otherwise clear red, white and blue water.
Listening to the radio, I’ve also heard a wide range of conspiracy theories. There was a serious British think-tanker, suggesting that there was a reason why the CIA apparently had no useful advance intelligence, but were able to trace the movements of the hijackers in great detail within hours of the attack. He believed that the Bush administration were aware that there was a plan to target the US mainland and they decided to allow it to go ahead, because the resultant furore would do for George W what the Gulf War had done for his old man. They knew that military spending cuts would be straight out the window and the Senate would give them a blank cheque (chances are he’ll even manage to wangle his Son of Star Wars programme on the back of it). The Institute man was confident that the Bush administration had no idea of how sensational the attack would prove to be, but such a spectacular tragedy presented him with the opportunity to declare a crusade against terrorism and demand the outraged support of the civilised world.
There were various ‘Manchurian Candidate’ ideas. One of them suggested that Mossad (the Israeli secret service) had brainwashed stooges to carry out the suicide attacks so they could stitch-up the Arabs. Although it sounded pretty far-fetched, I have to admit the fact that a car was found in an airport car park with a ‘How to fly’ book in Arabic, a copy of the Koran and a Palestinian passport on the rear seat strikes me as the political equivalent of the police bunging a mask, a striped jumper and a bag marked “swag” in the back of an Escort.
At the far end of the spectrum, where only a few special people can hear the message, there was one of David Icke’s devotees, who pointed out that, when read US style, the date of the attacks was 911 – the American version of 999! Which was interesting, but he lost me when he got to the bit about the lizards.
I believe you are in the frontline in more ways than one. In my experience there has always been a degree of crossover between the despatch business and the armed forces – in particular the army. Over the years I’ve known quite a few couriers who were ex-military, and almost as many again who were considering giving up the road (or actually did) to take the Queen’s shilling. With the steady thump of war drums we’ve been hearing over the last few weeks, I’m sure there will be a number of you who have already considered giving up a game that doesn’t seem to be getting any better and volunteering to fight for Tony and George W. All I’m saying is, before you go rushing off, be certain of why you’re going. If the honest answer is that you fancy a good scrap in the Khyber Pass, then see the man with the stripes and the loud voice. But if it is because you are outraged by the terrible loss of innocent human life you witnessed in New York, it might be a good time to stop and reflect on what’s happened and why, before you rush into anything.
When a man of George Bush Junior’s intelligence has control of the most powerful military machine in the world and starts talking like Wyatt Earp, it’s worrying to say the least; but when your Prime Minister is nodding along enthusiastically with whatever he suggests, you know you are living in dangerous times. Churchill was quoted as saying that truth is precious, so precious that at times of extreme danger it should be hidden behind a bodyguard of lies. Well for the first time in most of our lives, these really are those times. So I would suggest you take the widest and highest of views, to see if you can work out what’s really going on. Then you can decide where the danger originates and the best thing you can do to neutralise it.
Be careful out there