When the screen flashed red with the announcement of an unscheduled newsflash there was no word of warning about what we were watching. Against a deep sea blue background two black monoliths were pouring fire and smoke. Was this another Surtsey? Had cameramen captured another submarine volcanic eruption – surely that was it? Only slowly did I realise that the deep blue was sky and the monolith was a skyscraper. Somehow in those moments the brain filtered out the explanatory words of the newsreader. Only when a second plane swooped like a dragonfly and exploded in flames into the World Trade Center did reality reassert itself.
It is almost a week now since we held our breath in disbelief and tried hard not to imagine what was taking place in those twin towers. Has the world changed? In the most extraordinary and quite palpable way, yes – it has. Britain has matured in ways I hardly dared expect just a few years ago. Gone are the jingoistic calls for revenge, and although not totally absent, the racist attacks against innocent Muslims are far less than they might have been in times past. Everyone seems to realise that what we are hunting down are the members of a fanatical cult that just happens to be based on Islam but might as easily be based on a perversion of any other of the world’s great faiths. We seek a gang of murderous ruthless criminal psychopaths: criminals first, last and all stops in between. Nothing they claim can justify their actions or raise them to the stature of religious martyrs.
The Last Night of the Proms, that bastion of English nationalism changed out of recognition at the behest of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who were particularly sensitive to the feelings of their newly appointed American conductor, Leonard Slatkin. Rule Britannia and rollicking sea shanties were abandoned to the searing heartache of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and the whole orchestra and chorus brought a new meaning to the words of the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, that “all men shall be brothers!” Only Jerusalem remained of the original programme, sung with tears in every eye but with a dignity and determination rarely heard from the Promenaders. There was no encore, none could follow the unspoken thoughts of grief and sadness for all the innocent victims. Around the auditorium the flags of every nation were displayed on the walls and among the Promenaders the Stars and Stripes flew alongside the Union Flag.
Only a week ago the media were fixed on the horrible intimidation and bomb throwing aimed at four-year-old Catholic girls trying to pass through a Unionist area to go to school in Belfast. If the protest continues it does so in silent shame as the rest of the world reaps the whirlwind of racial and religious intolerance. Many a radio request has echoed the sentiments of those who suddenly realised how important it was to tell their nearest and dearest that they were loved beyond measure every day. Hundred of Brits are missing in the carnage and hope has already turned now to despair that they will never be seen alive again. It may be months or even never before their relatives can attend a funeral.
Parliament was recalled, but not simply to rubber stamp the Prime Minister’s pledge to support the US efforts to hunt down the supporters and financiers of the killers. There was reasoned advice and argument from all sides in contrast to the usual caterwauling. There was no reckless issuing of a carte blanche to a President whose grasp of complexity has always been in doubt. Instead there has been mature and wise counsel to wait, investigate and formulate a plan before setting off on a costly adventure in further lives. The reporting in the broadsheets has been universally thoughtful and balanced, even the tabloids have avoided the worst excesses of warmongering.
Britain, it seems, is growing up and growing in stature too. It may be our unpleasant task to tell the US Government what they so far seem to be unable to grasp – that their present policies of selfish isolationism and ecological devastation have created some of the climate that fostered extremism. It’s going to take a very good friend indeed to get the US to swallow such a bitter pill when the first wave of anger and grief has subsided. But that’s what good friends do – they tell you the truth. The best hope for us all is that they listen and think long and hard before they act.