Tomorrow, the world will remember the events of September 11th 2001.
It's possible that my age at the time - I was seventeen, on the cusp of adulthood - accentuates the effect, but for me the terror attacks of 9/11 are vivid in my memory almost as much for how much the world changed in the space of a few hours as for the horror of the death and destruction itself. By seventeen, I had been an atheist for many years but had always maintained that I did not have the right to show disrespect for faith in other people; it took a while to crystallise, but 9/11 was the start of a change in my thinking just as it was the start of shattering changes in the zeitgeist of the Western world.
On 9/11, I was at my sixth form college and the first I heard of it was on the way out of my last lesson for the day (I had an early finish), when the college was alive with incredulous and excited whispers that there'd been an accident in New York, that someone had crashed a plane into the World Trade Centre. At that stage, of course, the world still thought there had been a terrible accident.
I lived a little way from my college, and as it was a lovely day in early Autumn I was in no rush to get home. As I approached my house, though, I gradually realised that everything was a lot quieter than it would usually have been. There were very few cars on the roads, no people pottering in their gardens; even the pubs I passed were near-silent. I didn't associate any of this with the "accident" I'd heard about at college, but when I got home and turned on the TV (I had the house to myself for a couple of hours) I quickly realised what was going on.
In between my leaving college and getting home, the second plane had hit; we knew, now, that this was not an accident but a deliberate and premeditated act of evil on a scale that was just incomprehensible at the time.
I live in the UK, and grew up in an era when the threat of terrorism and violence was much reduced from the seventies but nevertheless still present. My own father had two near escapes from bombings by the IRA, in Birmingham ten years before I was born and again in Manchester when I was in primary school. What I'm getting at is that Britain had grown used to a level of tension; the attacks of the seventies were still very much in the nation's consciousness, and the nineties saw another elevation in tensions - as a small child I didn't know the details, but just grew up aware that there were some people who wanted to kill innocent people to make a political point. But although one cannot possibly justify one act of terrorism by comparing it to another, there was still nothing in our experience tthat could have prepared us for the scale of the destruction that was wreaked on the 11th of September 2001.
Again, this may be related to my age at the time and my ignorance of world politics, but to me the attacks on the World Trade Centre came completely out of the blue. I was used to the idea that because of the situation in Ireland - which was attributable in part to a conflict in religious beliefs - there were many people who wanted to make changes and a small minority who would use violence to create pressure for those changes. And again, I'm not saying that an act of terrorism can be justified in relation to another act of terrorism, but this idea that there was a group of people who were not remotely interested in discussion, compromise or negotiation, and whose simple aim was to kill as many Westerners as possible and to destroy our culture because their religion conditioned them to see us as subhuman... again, there was just nothing in my experience that could provide any frame of reference for this idea.
9/11 ushered in a new age of fear, and gave rise both to a terrifying increase in religious extremism - particularly in the USA - and to what is now being termed the "New Atheists", which latter is a group to which I am proud to say I belong. Since the events of that day, everything has felt... I don't know, brittle, fragile, balanced on a knife edge. We have become accustomed to the notion that there is a large and powerful religious group in our world whose medieval values make them ideologically opposed to everything about Western society and culture, people who have no interest whatsoever in sharing our planet amicably and who repay our societies' liberal attitudes by at once enjoying the freedoms we offer and hating us for offering it.
Below is a piece I wrote some time ago in a forum dealing with fundamentalist religion, in which most contributors were religious people lamenting the actions carried out in the name of the religion they personally interpret to be loving and benevolent. What shocked me was that several people in the group - far from denouncing fundamentalist atrocities for their simple evil - were outraged at the fundamentalists for exposing their religion to negative press. The below is my own opinion on the matter, and in a world where fundamentalist christianity has been on the rise just as rapidly as fundamentalist islam and has contributed to many more times more deaths than the event which gave rise to it (George Dubya's ability to inextricably tangle religiosity, patriotism and national loyalty in the minds of the voters is one of very few achievements that led me to think he might not have been a complete moron after all), I stand by my assertion that the only way to counter fundamentalism is to counter religion; and the only way to do that is to drop this ridiculous notion that fundamentalists are somehow less representative of their religion than do-gooders.
"I get sick to the back teeth, every time the world tries to object to a religiously-motivated crime or atrocity, of people saying "don't judge a religion by its extremists". After the 7/7 bombings in London, muslims were vehemently assuring us that those actions did not represent ordinary muslims, that they were repellent, misguided, blah blah blah. When that doctor was murdered by a fundamentalist christian in the States, the god-squad were wringing their hands, saying isn't it awful, of COURSE he's not a typical christian, it's not fair to judge us all by him...
Total codswallop, and it makes me livid that we seem to accept such a transparently stupid argument.
Where did that murderer LEARN to be a christian?! Where did those bombers LEARN to be muslims?! Did they develop their superstitions spontaneously?! NO - THEY LEARNED THEM FROM THOSE SAME HAND-WRINGING, APOLOGIST CHRISTIANS AND MUSLIMS WHO ARE TRYING TO DENY ALL RESPONSIBILITY FOR THEIR ACTIONS!
If I bring up a child to believe homosexuality is wrong and disgusting, it is MY FAULT if that child grows up to think it's OK to murder gay people. If I bring up a child to believe abortion is wrong and sinful, it is MY FAULT if that child grows up to murder a doctor because he provided abortions. If I bring up a child to believe implicitly in the qur'an, it is MY FAULT if that child grows up to obey that bit of the qur'an instructing him to murder non-muslims.
So the only way to do away with religious fundamentalists? STOP affording religious belief this ridiculous, exalted position of being above question, above reproach, inherently worthy of respect. It is a superstition, nothing more; we KNOW who is responsible for religious fundamentalism, and we need to stop letting them off the hook for it."