A South African’s experience of September 11th, 2001

I had been running the Western Cape branch of Business Beat, a Deloitte-sponsored business development initiative, for two years. In 2001 it was decided that I needed a board.

The board’s first meeting was early afternoon on 11 September 2001. The senior partner of Deloitte had been talking generally and introducing us to the expected oversight roll that board-members would play. The door opened and a very shocked-looking junior accountant walked in and handed a message to the chairman. He read it, sat very quietly and then said, “It seems that an airplane has just crashed into the World Trade Centre. Please excuse me, some of our people are in that building.”

We sat. Then I stood up and went to the common area where there was a large television set. Maybe 50 people from the office had gathered. We all watched the smoke coming out of the side of one of the buildings in the Trade Centre complex. Everyone was silent. Some of the men and women held each other. Mostly we stood around in muted groups.

Then a plane appeared coming around the side of the building. And crashed directly into it.

I thought I was watching a replay. Then we realised that it was a second attack. I felt as if I had suffered a physical jolt.

I knew that this was an attack on me. Not just on the US or the US way of life. It was an attack on everyone who aspired to live a life of free choice, free expression and free will. At that moment, as Jacque Chirac would say later, I felt that we were all Americans.

That was the moment for statesmanship. But the US had George Bush.

Afterwards many would say that the US “deserved” this. There is no justification for mass murder. Under any circumstances at any time. Not even in revenge.

The mistake that Bush, and much of the US, made was this. You took it personally. You failed to recognise that the whole of the free world – the whole of the world that aspired towards liberty and freedom – took that attack personally.


If care had been taken. If the US had reached out to the rest of the world for comfort and solace.

Yes. The US is significantly more powerful than anyone else. Agreed. It doesn’t matter. The US should have accepted the little we had to offer. We were all hurt by that moment. We were all changed.

In that moment all outrageous behaviour could have been isolated. In that moment we could all have – as the free people’s of the world and those of us who aspire to freedom – we could all have found common ground about what is not acceptable.

The war on Afghanistan may not have turned out much different. The war on Iraq probably would never have taken place. And the uniting of such disparate pariahs as Iran, North Korea, Syria, Pakistan and their terrorist satellites would never have followed.

As we remember those who died let’s not forget the opportunity that was squandered.

5 replies »

  1. Thanks, WH, for reminding us that there was a time, not that long ago, that the rest of the world genuinely cared for us.

  2. Gavin wrote: “That was the moment for statesmanship. But the US had George Bush.”

    Sadly, that’s the most concise summary of all that was done wrong after 9/11 I’ve ever read, Gavin.

  3. People are human, no more so than politicians. The danger is always to give too much power to one person. I think that, if the US senate had been dominated by a different party to the president (no matter which way round) the balance of power would have been enough to generate a more measured response.

    Horrible things always happen and sometimes terribly inadequate people are in charge at the time they happen. Think of how much sooner Hitler may have been contained if Neville Chamberlain hadn’t been such a twat. Think of how much less an issue al Qaeda may have been if… but, yeah.

    Don’t under-react. But don’t over-react either.

  4. hmm…Chamberlain?

    From Liberal Family Stock, a keen domestic reformer, on the left of the Tory Party. Hardly the man to face down Adolf Hitler.