Editor’s Note: The essay below was written in 2001 and appears in the self-published book, Through Our Eyes: A Tapestry of Words and Images in Response to September 11. Printed and distributed in 2002, the book was the result of an independent, volunteer documentary project organized by a journalist and several friends. The author’s bio was written in 2002 and has not been updated.
Friends like Marco Bertacche are one in a million. Marco, a stunning 27-year-old with a brilliant sense of humor, was born in Milan, Italy. After living in London and Brussels, Marco returned to Milan, where he now works as a financial content manager. Fringe movies, music, guitar, writing modern literature, politics, biographies and photography punctuate his life. He also has an unbelievable knack for picking up foreign languages. Marco’s traveled to the United States and many European countries and hopes to soon visit Canada and Argentina. When hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Marco was in his office watching a live BBC report on the Internet. The words came Oct. 4.
1993. A Sunday morning. I wake up in my parents’ home and eventually stumble into the living room. My head is bursting: A late night. I’m on my own. Shutters are down. I turn on the TV. It’s a BBC historical documentary on the main events of the decade.
I hear, but I don’t listen. “… 20th October 2002: A bomb kills 80 people in Milan.” The sound of my hometown arouses my attention. 80 killed? 2002? We’re in 1993! “… September 2003: Russians in hunger; the world sends humanitarian convoys and trunks.” Is this a sci-fi movie? No, it’s a BBC report. For one minute I think I am totally spaced out, like I lost my memory. “… and the accident provokes reactions from Iraq and its Islamic allies. The third World War starts.” It cannot be true. I feel for two minutes I have just woken up twenty years ahead, with no memory. A phone call takes me back to my ordinary life in 1993. Fiction. Reality.
That was a unique experience. Listening to one’s past from a distance without recognizing events, sounds, images, tears. Fiction. Reality. I thought I would never feel that way again.
I have on 11th September 2001.
I’m on the Internet. I see a breaking report on a newspaper’s website: Plane hits WTC. An accident – I think. I open the BBC’s live TV screen (ironically, BBC again). One tower smokes; the voice of the TV journalist is firm, but not tense. Soon it gives in to utter astonishment when the second plane hits the second tower. Live. A bubble of fire. It’s a videogame. I call my work-mates. The Pentagon, another plane has crashed. What is happening? The Pentagon, is it a movie, like “Independence Day”? I rush to think there is something bigger going on, like a coup? In that very moment, I feel totally bewildered and with no more certainties, like those three minutes on a 1993 Sunday morning. All rules are reset, anything can happen, there’s no more rational frame of mind. You are ready for any irrational hurricane. Reality. Fiction.
A thousand minutes, images, tears, TV debates, moving interviews and racist comments have passed since then. I have had time to come to terms with what, as a global community, we were all experiencing. I have been listening, re-thinking my emotions, leveling them down. From the beginning, the Italian public opinion was one of aghast, confirming that the attack was on civilization itself, to the values that bond us, to our ordinary, quiet life. There was unstilted support for an international curb on terrorism from both left and right wing parties and groups.
Yet still, we have been living the tragedy and the reaction to it in a distant way, thus allowing for the amplification of the differences our societies inevitably have. Of course, no one deserved what the American people suffered. Their wounds are greater than we can imagine: They’ve never had Nazi camps, bombarded cities, grandfathers killed by Fascist states. But I cannot hide that speeches like “It’s a war against evil” (G.W. Bush) impressed few here. They sounded disproportionate, cocky, redneck American. The concept of justice itself is probably different across the ocean. No one here asked Milosevic dead when he was being hunted. WWII criminals were prosecuted in an ad hoc tribunal in Nuremberg. After all, every execution in the USA sparks ink lines and words of disgust, in Italy at least. And, let me say, there is no difference between the beheading of an unfaithful woman in Talibans’ Afghanistan to an electric chair execution of a mass murderer in Texas.
I have seen thousands of flags, slogans, marches, speeches, posters in the American streets. Yet my American mates say there is no feeling of vengeance. And how can you blame a wounded people, whose president produced such vast unification, even from political opponents and former presidents around the symbols of liberty and justice. This still makes me think how different we are. In Italy, I have only seen flags in stadiums during world championships. If such an event had happened in Italy, the political opposition would have asked the government to step down, the government would have blamed the secret service, the secret service, the opposition, and debates and marches against – marches against, I underline – would have produced big-shot reshuffles, enquiries into the secret service and magistrates, etc. We are a litigious and provincial country. However, it seems so non-democratic to me that no political debate over the efficiency of the U.S. secret service is taking place in America. Or maybe CNN and the main news chains are just not showing it, and the issue would be, again, the power of persuasion and mass control of the media.
It’s too easy for me to be judgmental from a distance. The delay in the NATO attack is proving somehow that the American response is not going to be an irrational retaliation, as was originally feared. Bush is probably listening to his assistants more than he himself expected. Still, part of the public opinion in Europe – left wing parties and pacifists – have been showing concern about a war of civilizations; the west against Islam, as Osama bin Laden would like it to be. They would rather the UN arrange a peace-keeping international plan against terrorism. The main fear is that innocent people will die in Afghanistan if bombs are not well targeted.
Our Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, threw oil on the fire when he reportedly jibed Islam by declaring that western civilisation is superior to Islam and we should re-affirm its strength in every possible way. He caused a diplomatic clash with Islamic countries and European public opinion. I think his statement shows how thin the line between terrorists and Islam is in our conscience. We have grown to shun “the different.” We have grown to wallow in our ordinary plastic life. When things like this happen, we rush to easy conclusions.
We are not any better than Islam. Four hundred Islamic people died in the WTC collapse. Good and Evil have no flags. Sorrow has no flag. We have to help the Islamic people face their “rotten apples,” as we would say.
There are many lessons to be learned. So many broken lives – so many orphans – must teach us that globalisation doesn’t only mean drinking Thailand-made U.S. Coca Cola in Argentina. There has to be communication between the rich and the poor. We communicate more and more between ourselves, with mobile phones and the Internet, but the walls around the Third World are growing higher and higher.
I have no compassion for the kamikazes or for anybody who kills for religion. But justice is only through peace. Once bin Laden is killed, nothing will change in Palestinian camps or Algerian streets if the rich western world is perceived as the source of their poverty.
If we leave rage growing – if we leave the Palestinians to their no-land future in a police state that has support from the richest countries, whether it be veiled or unveiled – what can we expect from them? Admiration? Gratitude? And again, if we leave the Israeli people to deal with an uncertain life on their own, a life where you’re never sure you can return safely home, only hatred will be fed. Only retaliation will be fostered.
George W. Bush has been avoiding international issues since his installation. Take for instance, his stance on global climate change and his refusal to play an active role in the Middle East peace process.
Europe is totally absent in this, too. We are only capable of producing monetary and financial co-operation, as opposed to common social and foreign policies as those who forged Europe intended.
As long as our economies are perceived as bolstering our privileges, we can only expect hatred from those who were born in a different, less privileged world. The burglar, the murderer, the Jihad kamikaze and the IRA terrorist are not evil. They are fed their ideologies, and their violent acts are often their only way to communicate, and in many cases, their only way to make a living. If we don’t do anything to make their situation better – the lives of their children better – we can only expect them to turn to extremism.
The U.S. is spending hundreds of billions of dollars to boost consumption. They can easily do it: They have no budgetary constraint and have been running a surplus for years. If part of those funds was spent earlier for easing poverty and lowering the cost of AIDS treatment in Third World countries, spent addressing climate change issues and promoting international peacekeeping and diplomatic cooperation, maybe we would have helped one less Arab to embrace the Jihad’s dreadful cause.
I don’t want to sound too naïve. Crimes have to be persecuted and with military force. But we cannot defy Evil. Evil is part of our lives. Evil exists in the juxtaposition of Good. We need to be aware of what produces more Evil, and I am grateful that billions of people were forced to embrace that awareness by those bomb planes, by those heroes who lost their lives to save ours. They forced us to look outside our plastic life and to deal with the world, to deal with a life of less certainties and more issues to tackle. They helped us to understand how lucky we are and how precious life, freedom and democracy can be, as opposed to our wealthy wardrobes.