Friday, September 29, 2006

Memories of America: Houston, March 2002

On September 11 2001 I was sitting at work in Aberdeen when the news of the attacks on the World Trade Centre suddenly started to emerge. The news went like wildfire around the large office where I worked and it seemed almost everybody was simultaneously trying to find out about it on the BBC news internet site. For a while information came through, but as we tried to reload the site for updates, eventually the BBC server and seemingly the rest of the internet ground to a halt. There was too much demand for information.

That was a terrible day. Somehow we were drawn to watch, and at the same time repelled by what we were seeing. How could anyone dream of doing a thing like that? For a day we watched, and perhaps for a part of the day after that, but then we turned off the television sets and refused to watch any more. It was too terrible, and we felt disgusted with ourselves. If someone had offered to show us a programme detailing exactly how the attacks had happened, we might even have refused to watch, unable to face the horror of it.

Seven months after the attacks, in March 2002, I travelled to Houston to attend a conference. I stayed in an upmarket hotel in the centre of Houston. Although I had visited America before, I was quite shocked by the fake oppulence of this hotel. In the foyer was a man playing a grand piano, only he was not playing, he was just paid to move his hands over the keys while the piano played itself. The inside of the hotel was one huge atrium chamber with glass-sided elevators going up the wall and rooms leading off balconies that went round the edge of the atrium. If it sounds nice, it wasn't. There was a total lack of privacy in terms of the coming-and-going from any given room in the hotel.

The first evening I had just got off a transatlantic flight and I ordered "sandwich and chips" to eat in my room. A black waiter brought the sandwich and crisps to my room. It was the most expensive sandwich I had ever eaten and, being slightly disappointed to receive crisps rather than chips, I tooked the sandwich, thanked the man and closed the door, not missing, as I did so, the look of absolute horror on his face.

When I asked an American colleague about the look on his face later, he explained that the waiter likely earned a pittance from his job and said that it was probably only worthwhile for him to do the work as a result of the tips he received. He went on to belittle me for not realising this, as if it was obvious. But for someone brought up in the UK it was not obvious. In America, it seemed, even when you had a job, your welfare could still depend on the charity of others...

Almost all the black people I saw in Houston were either driving beat up taxis, serving sandwiches or drifting drunk along the unkempt, dug up, unused sidewalks. The other minority (?) culture were Mexicans who seemed mainly to be building glass towerblocks, swinging around high up on makeshift-looking wooden scaffoldng, or mopping the floors of the marble paved underground walkways that are like a labyrinthe beneath Houston. At the conference I attended, a major petroleum conference, I realised about half way through the second day that among the thousands of delegates there did not seem to be a single person present who was not white.

My hotel room was dominated by a huge television. Really huge. When I turned it on it immediately began to spew news about the bombing of September 11th 2001 and the war that was then being waged in Afghanistan. The war that had started immediately after the September 11th attacks. I had watched American TV before on previous visits and knew how mundane it was with relentless weather reports and home news. But with all this coverage of September 11th seven months after the event, I quickly realised that this was not real news, but brainwashing propaganda.

And it was clear when you walked out on the street that the propaganda was working. One afternoon I decided to walk from the downtown area where all the glass skyscrapers are, to the park a few kilomtres away where there are a number of museums. It was one of the loneliest walks I have ever made. I met possibly two people on the way, one of whom was a drunk black man who sidled giddily towards me with arm outstretched moaning: "help me get home man". As I walked along the sunny, empty sidewalk I was passed by thousands of cars charging along the three lane roads on either side of me. Many of the vehicles were large pickups and I noticed that many of these were flying American stars and stripes pennants, or had large stars and stripes stickers on their bumpers.

Houston has a 'museum district' and the first museum I went into was the Museum of Fine Arts. If ever a museum was hijacked for the purposes of propaganda, this one was it. The then-current exhibition was of Texas Flags. There was also a show of photographs taken of the September 11th attacks. How could any of this count as 'fine art'? One of the exhibitions was of historical military memorabilia, the other was of photojournalism.

I don't want to belittle what the people of America were going through at that time. It was a national trauma. But at the same time, I realised, as an outsider, that the popular response to the attacks was being manipulated by the media and by institutions. In addition, I saw America for the first time in its raw, racist character: where whites walked shoulder to shoulder and made sure that no blacks got in among the ranks.

I was against the war with Iraq as I had been against the previous Gulf War in the early 1990s, believing its sole purpose was linked to securing oil suplies for the western world. I wrote letters to politicians and to my local MP before the war against Iraq stating that I was against the war and that I thought the money that would be spent on war would be better spent researching alternative energy supplies. But history shows that this did not one jot of good. Despite myself and millions of others campaigning against it, the war went ahead anyway.

Since September 11th the world has experienced five years of war. A war in which tens of thousands of Iraqis, possibly as many as 100,000, have died, not to mention more than two thousand seven hundred Americans. And up until a week ago, I had never thought to doubt the credibility of the American government's claim that the 911 attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were carried out by a couple of handfuls of Arab terrorists.

Recently, however, I discovered the Google Video search engine and somehow a video was brought to my attention which documented "the 911 conspiracy". I had never heard of a "911 conspiracy" before this moment and it had never even crossed my mind to think that there was something duplicitous about the attacks. It was surely a clear cut thing: arab terrosits had flown planes into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

However, it is not a clear cut thing. TV footage shows that there is almost no evidence to suggest a Boeing hit the Pentagon (apart from a large explosion and a rather small hole which later became much larger when the roof collapsed). Something certainly hit the Pentagon but the explosion could easily have been caused by a missile or a small unmanned drone aircraft. The short pieces of film that have been released by the US government do not show a Boeing aircraft. Everything surrounding this event is suspicious but particularly suspicious are the fact that the pilot of the aircraft had to circle the Pentagon to avoid Rumsfeld's office and then fly extremely skillfuly at low level into the side of the building. In addition it is reported that the part of the Pentagon which was hit was empty for refurbishment and had recently been specially strenghtened to withstand attack. The attack could almost have been dreamt up as a test on security.

Once you start to doubt the verity of the Pentagon attack, then everything else is cast in a different perspective. I don't want to list all the evidence given by the films here, but I would simply urge you to view the films. The most convincing I have seen yet is here but there are others also here and here. Surprisingly, they do not all say the same thing. Each film has its own insights and in fact to get a fuller picture you would be best to watch all three. Am I gullible in believing what these films say? I don't think so. There are too many pieces of evidence accumulating, too many unanswered questions, too much official obfuscation, too many coincidences. I warn you, these films will probably make you pretty angry, and it won't be with the film-makers.

This Guardian article records that "a recent poll in the US found that 36% of Americans believed it "very likely" or "somewhat likely" that their government was involved in allowing the attacks or had carried them out itself", so I am not the only one to be suspicious.

All of this should lead us to do a bit of soul-searching. What future do we want for our children? Do we want to continue this dependance on oil, or find some alternative not just to our energy needs, but to our current way of life. With computer networks, it is not really necessary for millions of people to consume energy by commuting every day. We don't actually need to transport food products all the way across the world when we can buy locally. I am a petroleum geologist and I know how difficult it is to find oil and bring it to market. Currently oil is extremely undervalued. The more scarce it becomes, the more is will be prized. The more it is prized, the more conflict there will be unless politicians' can get there act together and start thinking about alternatives such as nuclear power.

James Lovelock, the environmentalist thinker considered nuclear a good option for the future and I tend to agree with him. It is a succesful option in France where I live. Our earth is naturally radioactive and if we dispose of the byproducts without cuttings corners it will be a relatively safe option. Certainly safer than a slow descent into oil-fueled all out war.


Lesley said...

On a related note, I've just read this Open Letter to Laura Bush by poet Sharon Old.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Thank you Lesley.