David Usborne: In New York, we know how you feel

Here, we are afraid to be in tall buildings. You will be afraid to be in buses and trains.
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The Independent Online

It was hard yesterday in New York to watch the news coming in from London. Our hearts were suddenly one with yours, never mind that we are so far away. Because we know how it is with you at the moment. We also have a fairly good idea how it will be for you in the days and months ahead, and we are sorry.

For me in Manhattan, yesterday began with incessant ringing of my phone. Had I seen? Were my loved ones alright? Finally, I ran to the coffee shop around the corner for caffeine. Rob was there as usual, but his assistant, Lucy, had called in to say she was too scared to ride the subway.

That tells you about New York nearly four years after our Armageddon. Sure, we are on our feet again, even though our loss was more staggering - almost 3,000 innocent lives. In many respects, the city is booming even. But it was more than people that those two jet planes killed. It was also the unthinking sense of security that we once enjoyed. The fear recedes over time, of course, but it doesn't go away.

I was in the subway here on Wednesday when the train stopped between stations. The way the breaks kicked in so abruptly didn't seem normal. I looked around the carriage - it was the morning rush - and said to myself: isn't it weird, every one of us is thinking exactly the same thing. Has something bad happened? How will we get out? Nothing was amiss, in fact, not like in London yesterday.

This, I'm afraid, is how it will be in London. Many things will make you wonder when nothing, in fact, is wrong. Hear more than one police siren outside your window and you will switch on the TV, just in case. Notice a police helicopter in the sky, you will do the same. Two summers ago, we had our big blackout in New York. You know what we were thinking when the lights first went out.

The conversations about 9/11 still haven't ended. Just days ago, an acquaintance expressed, almost out of the blue, his uneasiness about working in a tall building near Pennsylvania Station. The area, with the Empire State Building close by, was too obviously a target for what might come next in New York, he said. I occasionally have the same concern. The Independent's office is on the 38th floor of a tower near Rockefeller Center. Here, we are afraid to be in tall buildings. You will be afraid to be in buses and trains.

That is my new anger nowadays. Most of us have now digested and assimilated - callous though that may sound - the scale of death and destruction that happened here. The plans to rebuild over the awful pit at Ground Zero are moving forward, albeit at a juddering pace. What makes me furious is that the terrorists still have a hold over all of us even so, precisely because they are still making us afraid. The fear may not be written on our faces, but it is there. It is a tiny seed deep in all of our psyches, planted by them.

Many things remain with me from the morning of 9/11. Some things I saw I want to erase but cannot. But I do remember one moment very clearly. I was staring at the burning hole in the North Tower, before either collapsed, against that shockingly clear blue sky, and thinking to myself that the consequences of what I was witnessing would be immense and long-lasting. And, of course, I was right.

You can barely catalogue the changes, from the routine nowadays of taking my shoes off before boarding a plane to all that President Bush's foreign policy has wrought since the attacks on Manhattan. Some in New York keep gas masks in their cupboards and cash under the mattress in case of a stampeding exodus from the city.

The impact for Britain today may not be quite so far-reaching, you could argue. We all are already in the post-9/11 era, and London has known terrorism before. New York had not.

Life goes on, they say. For the lucky ones among us, it does. I went out for a drink on the evening of 9/11. There were barricades on the streets and no cars. I can see the pubs of London tonight. Some of you just won't want to stay at home. There is comfort in being with strangers after a shock of this kind, even though there will be little conversation.

If you were in central London yesterday, you won't forget certain images. Like us, you will have likened what you saw to the script of a Hollywood film. You will remember how London was not London at all for a day. A heavy snow storm can have a similar affect, but without the spilling of blood. You will remember the figures of all the people, first running then walking. So many people walking, because there was no other way to move. The Brooklyn Bridge was like an airport concourse.

There is no telling what other images will stay in your minds. I won't tell you all of mine, because you have enough of your own. But here are some: the walls of photographs of the missing, a solitary shoe on a pavement and the pictures painted by children whose schools were near Ground Zero.

That is the other thing that makes me profoundly sad about our new world. I am flying with my daughter, who is 11, to London this evening. (At least, I plan to.) She will be afraid. God damn the terrorists for making our children grow up with all of this.

d.usborne@independent.co.uk

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