9/11: “A strike against Yankee imperialism”

I never knew that horrific moment of watching the second plane crash into the World Trade Centre. I was travelling by bus to the city of Oaxaca de Juárez, Mexico, blissfully unaware of the outside world, as the attacks happened. Only later, in an internet cafe, my travelling companion and I realised what had happened.

As we tried to get our heads around events outside the cafe, uninvited pictures were taken of us by what appeared to be paparazzi. Obviously, we weren’t celebrities but our Caucasian skin probably led to the presumption that we were American and maybe “grieving Americans in Oaxaca” was thought a picture worth having. Our picture, though, didn’t appear in the local newspapers that we bought and which somewhere, probably my parent’s house in Cumbria, I’m fairly sure I retain as a piece of local perspective on an epoch defining event.

For the most part, the Mexicans with whom we had contact were shocked and respectful. I remember a conversation in Spanish in our hotel reception coming to a hushed silence as we returned. The receptionists looked at us, looked at the reports from New York on the TV behind them and looked again at us. We didn’t speak much Spanish and they didn’t speak much English, but their body language communicated a bewilderment and concern that we, as assumed Americans, might be more directly impacted (which, thankfully, we weren’t).

My friend and I graduated from Durham University a few months before and I’d been a know-it-all, smart-arse presence in politics tutorials. In these tutorials, I had a (probably conceited and almost certainly naive) answer to any point of view. As we reflected on events, on the balcony of our hotel room, overlooking the city, with its rich Spanish Empire-era architecture, I had no answers. I had barely anything to say. This strike against the great power of our time was utterly beyond my ken.     

The next day the main square of Oaxaca was packed with farmers, with their traditional dress, pitchforks and placards. Primarily, they seemed to be protesting some local issue. The placards that jumped out, though, were those that featured pictures of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the words “a strike against Yankee imperialism” (which even our Spanish was able to decipher). Those pitchforks suddenly seemed more menacing. We left before anyone turned them on us.

Given that the hotel TVs broadcast Spanish language stations and that sitting in an internet cafe all day would have cost a small fortune, our news flow remained relatively patchy over coming days. We’d quickly descend on any TV we came across, seeking out nuggets of information on any developments. The news we were dreading was America letting loose some kind of Armageddon. The possibility of massively violent retribution seemed real.

Between protesting farmers and foreboding about what America might do next, we seemed to have descended to a much more polarised and uncertain world. In this sense, we succumbed to being small cogs in the giant wheel of someone who I had never previously heard of, Osama Bin Laden. Mercifully, his master plan now seems much less on track.