The Americans are fond of telling us that the world is different after 11 September, that nothing will be the same again. I wonder. The evidence points to the contrary, that things are much the same as they were before that horrific day but, as self-deceiving hypocrites, we just say that it's a whole new world. A recent episode springs to mind as evidence of this.
In the airport in Bangkok, amid the bustle of departure, a young Sri Lankan boy bounces into view, six, perhaps seven years old, the apple of his father's eye. My daughter tugs on my sleeve and the only word I can hear above the clamour is "yuck". She's pointing at his T-shirt so I take a good look, then a second one. The words "Crash into World Trade Centre, 11 Sept 2001" are emblazoned on top of a photograph of the event itself. That unimaginable moment of the second plane's impact, flame and debris hurtling outward from six floors of the South Tower. Who knows how many lives were snuffed out in that instant? And it's on a child's T-Shirt!
The boy, who I'd classify as not unusually pampered and spoiled for a South Asian male child of the upper middle classes, was doing what boys do: whining about the time wasted standing in line, annoying patient older sisters and tugging at his mother's sleeve. I sidled over and greeted the parents. They were boarding a flight to Colombo, so I assume they were wealthy citizens of the Sri Lankan capital, doctors or other professionals. "Er, where did you get this shirt?" I asked, fingering the material as the youngster hurtled by. "Bangkok," replied Mum, "From a street vendor."
I enquired-gently, politely-whether she was at all worried about the question of taste. There was no intention to rush into judgement here. "Bad taste," she admitted ruefully, "but he wanted it so I bought it." She looked as if she'd had no real choice in the matter. I'll admit to a smattering of rudeness in my next observation. I asked if she'd been in Colombo in 1996 when that city's own World Trade Centre-twin towers near the waterfront as it happens-were badly damaged by a car bomb, presumably planted by the Tamil Tigers. As I recall, about 80 people died. She said she was indeed in the city then, and she seemed to get the point. Later the boy bounced through the departure lounge in a plain white T shirt, the offending item stowed away, forever, I hope.
I felt guilty about this, given my own mixed feelings about September 11th. I'm wary of righteousness of all sorts, including the "anti-terror" frenzy gripping parts of America these days. But lives were lost in an event of horrible violence. T Shirts are inappropriate, I dare say. Yet President George W is urging normalcy as a way to fight terrorism, and what's more normal that cashing in on a big event in whatever one can? Those who made the T shirt, designed the decal, and did the stitching, pressing and selling, they got jobs and income from the act of exploitation. The provider of capital saw a return, presumably, on his investment. All very normal, especially form the point of view of Bush and his ilk.
So from this and many other indicators, I'm forced to the uncomfortable conclusion that September 11th changed nothing. Except for the bereaved families and shocked survivors, life goes on much as before. There's the distant thrill - and I'm afraid there's no other word for it - of having been around for an event of earth shattering proportions. "Where were you on the 11th? Well, I was just sitting at the bar when we all looked up and saw the second plane hit. Oooh." And so on. That, as we see from the T shirt episode, is just another bit of grist for the modern myth machine. Convulsions, culture, catastrophe go in one end, myth and money emerge. Especially money.
I wish things were different now. I wish that Afghanistan were truly on the road to peace and development. I wish that Al Qaeda and every group that kills innocent people for a cause were truly on the run, "smoked out" and brought to justice. I wish that all of us were kinder, gentler, more generous towards our neighbours - even to people of "Middle Eastern" appearance, the bogeymen of the moment. I wish we were doing more to help the poor and less privileged. I wish that politicians were climbing out of the pockets of big business and special interest groups and working only for the voters. I wish that I could tell my children that the future is bright.
But I don't think any of these things have changed so I can't. At least we can boycott those T shirts.