Friday, 9 September 2011

In Memoriam - 9/11

On September 11th a decade ago I was on jury service, in the former Middlesex Guildhall which had become the County Magistrates’ Court, opposite the Houses of Parliament (the building is now the Supreme Court of the UK).  We “Twelve Good Men” – four women and eight men actually – had been assigned to a complicated fraud case and we were immured, out of contact with the world, from the moment we entered the court until the time when we were allowed to retire to our jury room for refreshments and discussion.  We dozen were drawn from an remarkable cross section of society including a student, a housewife, a trader from one of the leading investment banks, an electrician, the head of a Caribbean style Steel Band, the Maitre d’ for the top restaurant of a London Five Star hotel and a fascinating lady responsible for running a charity that provided support to military heroes.  Given the obvious skills and capabilities of the group, I was both surprised and honoured when elected Foreman. 

Over the preceding days we had got to know each other well and, having discovered that the food in the canteen was either sweaty and unappetising (wrapped in cling film) or of dubious culinary appeal, we commenced a rota of bringing refreshments for ourselves to our jury room. The Maitre d’ bought in some excellent tea, some of us enjoyed baking and others brought milk, sugar or juice.  I quite enjoyed braving Security’s good-humoured teasing each morning, armed with a home-cooked cake, some freshly made sandwiches or a box of biscuits in my bag.  It became a standing joke with the staff that the jurors from Court Four were running a restaurant and/or having a party in the Jurors’ Room - when they knew that we were in our room, ushers and other court employees would pop in to glean a cookie and a cup of tea.  We developed a genuine sense of camaraderie, sharing parts of our lives with each other and forging friendships that, for some of us, have lasted until today.  The case we were involved in was complex, resulting in heated discussions between us and requests for clarification or evidence.  We came at the issues from all angles and respected each other’s input – if it had been a team offsite/development session the facilitator would have been proud of us!  It was an odd experience, a bit like stepping out of life for a while.  We existed in our own isolated bubble centred round the issues of our case, fellowship in our jury room and the drama in court.  We had a prosecuting barrister who had stepped straight out of the pages of Rumpole, even down to his red cashmere socks and natty waistcoat, the judge was elderly and learned and the defence lawyer was a feisty Asian lady still earning her spurs.

On the morning of the 11th September we had some major witnesses and complex evidence to attend to.  During a brief break at lunchtime, where we adjourned to our room, the student expressed concern over the anticipated cost of living at university and the Steel Band master made some quick calls to confirm the details for providing the music for a wedding at the weekend.  We filed back into the court for the afternoon session and tried to concentrate on the complex information that was being presented to us.  At teatime we were allowed a break, so adjourned back to our room.

Those of us who had them switched on our mobiles – the trader and I were the first to get a connection and voice messages and SMS texts started flooding through.  I opened my first message, which simply stated that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers in New York.  I did not take on board the meaning and clicked to the next, while a rapid stream of texts, each announced with a swift bleep, started downloading to my mobile.  The same was happening to others.  The intrusive and urgent electronic beeping was noticeable in the intimate surroundings of our room – everyone with a phone had received a number of messages.  The Trader spoke a text aloud; it was the same as mine - that a plane had flown into the Twin Towers - and then he read out a second, stating that the second Tower had also been hit.  Neither he nor I comprehended what we were reading.  He even asked me what I thought the punch line might be, as he presumed that it had to be a wind-up, and inquired as to whether I had received anything explaining the choice of subject (in his defence, this was a time when jokes were often pinged over the airways, especially by those in The City, and they were frequently quite dark in subject and humour).  Then the penny dropped – it was not a sick joke, it was real, there had been a horrific terrorist attack on New York.  Everyone in the Jury Room had been listening to our conversation and/or reading texts of their own with similar content.  We suddenly all fell silent in shared horror and recognition of what had happened on the “other side of The Pond”.   

The housewife, who did not have a phone, asked us to give details what had happened – it was clear, from the little information that we had, that a significant disaster had occurred in America, resulting in or caused by planes flying into both of the Twin Towers in New York, an attack on The Pentagon and there also seemed to be a plane that had crashed in the countryside.  We had no TV or radio in our little room, our only contact with the outside world was through a few mobile phones and text messages.  We were all confused and concerned.  The trader called his dealing room, only to discover that all trading on Wall Street had been stopped, airports had been closed around the world and the awful details of what had happened while we were in court were confirmed.  Like an old fashioned news reader, he relayed the information as it was spoken to him and we listened in shocked silence to his words.  

Our tea break had not happened until well after the atrocities had occurred, but because we had been cocooned within the serious concentration of the court room, we were in total ignorance of the things happening in the wider world.  It felt strange to find out so much later than everyone else; we had not watched in shared horror as images of the planes hitting the towers and the dramatic collapse of the buildings (clearly resulting in significant loss of life) were shown on screens around the globe.  The intimacy of hearing and imagining, sharing with my fellow jurors the shock, dismay and bewilderment as to what had caused the appalling incidents was a powerful and moving experience.  We knew each other’s personalities and values slightly from having spent so many days together and the scope of our reactions was thought provoking – responses echoed those of the wider British society and ranged from intense anger (the Electrician), deep shock (the Steel Drummer and the Student), fear of similar attacks occurring in London (most of us – this was tinged with self-interest as our location, opposite the Houses of Parliament, seemed a fitting target for making a dramatic terrorist statement), apprehension at the potential impact on international relations and global business (the Trader and the Maitre d’) and sorrow combined with despair at the awful way in which people treat their fellow men (the military charity expert, the housewife and myself).

I am often brought to a mental halt by man’s inhumanity to man.  On a number of occasions, my husband has had to suffer me sobbing at the Rambert Dance Company’s production of Ghost Dances – a moving tribute to victims of oppression in South America, accompanied by bewitching Andean folk music.  The current behavior of the regime in Syria towards members of the general public is shocking, as was the treatment of the Egyptian people by their national police earlier this year (the image of people being slaughtered whilst trying to cross the bridge to Tahrir Square still haunts my memory).  There are a number of iconic images that remain with us as powerful illustrations of our worst atrocities – e.g. the young naked girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc,  fleeing from a village in Vietnam after a napalm attack; the unknown rebel standing bravely in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square, Hugh van Es’ photo of an unfeasible number of terrified people crowding onto the roof of a building to escape Saigon by helicopter and the collapsing Twin Towers with the glowing fireball of jet fuel and billowing smoke – these are all carried with us as part of our collective image bank and tinge our attitude towards the world.  There are some positive things that have come out of the Twin Towers footage – it has enabled architectural and aviation experts to learn more about how buildings behave and collapse after impact and hence to modify and improve their designs.  But for the main part, what happened on September 11th 2001 has made the world a darker place.

We were a more sombre group of jurymen going forward.  A final, significant memory for me of that week was on the Friday 14th September 2001 when there was a three minute silence held across the UK for the victims of the Tuesday attack.  Our court was overlooking Parliament Square – normally busy with traffic, animated tourists and noisy pedestrians.  The eerie silence that descended over the area for the three minute period (we observed it in our court, respectfully standing) was extraordinary.  For a brief moment the world seemed to stop and all we could do was think about what had happened, feel sympathy for the victims and their families and wonder what the future might hold.

The rushing crowds have returned to our streets – busy commuters stride past the latest horrific headlines on the Evening Standard bill boards beside the news stands – apparently oblivious to the horrors going on in Libya and Afghanistan.  We still live in a troubled world and I am not sure that we have learned much from the occurrences of a decade ago.  It is too easy to slip back into a comfortable rut.  Terrorism is inherently related to fear.  The fear of disruption, disorder, a change to our world as we know it, a descent into loss and chaos.  In the work place, most issues that I have had to resolve have arisen or been aggravated by fear and misunderstanding. 

“To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”  ~Bertrand Russell

It is up to us to remember, learn and see if we can enhance our existence by teaching ourselves (it has to start with us) and then those around us and the people with whom we interact to value diversity and overcome the fear we naturally have of the different and the unknown.  We need to forge relationships and understanding that will enable a happier and safer environment for future generations.

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