What Never Happened
9 January 2003
It was a terrible decision, and many of the pilots involved have subsequently complained bitterly about the absence of counselling services available afterwards. They signed up to protect America against its enemies, not to fire on their own citizens.
But, as the President later admitted, it was a matter of pure luck that the planes were even in a position to fire at all. And it was indubitably the last possible moment; a moment longer and the planes would have been inside New York airspace, where any attempt to bring them down would have endangered potentially thousands of lives.
As it was, hundreds of people - fathers and mothers, children and lovers - died that day, leaving many more bereaved. There were no survivors. A month after the sky exploded in flame, USAF pilot John Lee, who had been the first to obey the order to fire, ended his own life.
His suicide note read May God forgive me. I cannot forgive myself. You have heard that slogan a thousand times since, perhaps more, on T-shirts and rap records and commemorative plates.
Once guilt was established, revenge was swift. The bombing order saw the communications network of the rogue state destroyed. And then the winter came early, and as plans for land operations and infrastructure development were shelved Gore saw his second term drip away as body after blameless body was hauled in front of the cameras. Every one a victim of a war that never happened. Without a shot, half a nation was sentenced to death.
We Europeans like to sneer at Americans. To condemn them as an abusive father scorns successful offspring. But, once the true horror of the desolation sank in, not one of us could dare to deny the role of the U.S, first as the greatest contributor of cash and manpower to the UN rescue efforts and subsequently in the series of summits, peace treaties and aid packages that did so much to create our world.
It was the U.S that became the first nation in history to decide not to pursue its own technological advantage. The TV channels buzzed with speculation about the drop in the standard of living required to forestall fossil fuel dependence, and in the streets and suburbs of Los Angeles riots erupted as professionals fought for the privilege to get 8 miles to the gallon they had worked their whole lives for.
Los Angeles still burns, but now with the furnace and the forge. The SUVs have become sculptures, sources of raw materials, furniture and shelter. The roads buzz with buses, trams and broadband conferencing. The skies, for most of the minutes in an hour, are silent.
It turned out that it wasn't the end of the world. But even in Europe, where the changes were hard indeed, we must never underestimate the sacrifices they made to limit their consumption. We can only hope that, in the long term, the gamble pays off.
So far, so good. Without the same demands for energy and production, the fear of losing control over those energy sources has lessened, weakening interest groups without the best interests of the U.S at heart. It has also given us all, I think, a new perspective on needs and rights. We need freedom; Freedom to act, and freedom not to be acted upon. We have a right to live lives without fear, and on obligation to help others to do the same.
Easier written than done, of course, but diplomatic breakthroughs in recent months give us all cause to hope. This is not the end of resentment - the gap between haves and have-nots remains incredible - but it is the start of something.
It feels somehow disgraceful to suggest that anything truly good could come from the horror of that day over New York, but, as ever, ultimately we can only speculate on how things might have happened otherwise. And, as we enter 2003, let us redouble our efforts to ensure that not one of the many deaths that served as the foundation of this new age has been in vain.
May God help us. We can help ourselves.