Perceptions have changed, changed utterly


Johnny Foley

LAST month marked the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Minds were cast back to that fateful day in 2001 from those of us old enough to remember it—where we were, how we heard, what we thought. These are all topics likely to have cropped up in our conversations.

Nineteen years on, however, one cannot help but think how the overriding emotions and perspectives of America have undergone a most profound transformation in the last two decades. What was once an outpouring of sympathy and messages of solidarity with the United States has transformed in more recent times to that of anguish, heated debate and perhaps even pity towards our transatlantic neighbours.

Remembering 9/11
I was a 16-year-old secondary school pupil—not far off 17—on Tuesday, September 11, 2001 and a fifth-year student at St Eunan’s College in Letterkenny. I’d spent the previous summer working every hour available; in a sports shop during the daytime and collecting glasses in bars at night. It was my first true experience of making a pound I could call my own,

After the summer had been and gone, schooldays were part of the routine again and I promised myself—as well a previously nagging principal—that I would be turning a new leaf from here on in. Less than two weeks into the return to school, things were going well. Teachers—who I’d occasionally raised a few concerns with before—were giving me a fresh start and I was quietly determined to reward their faith.

On the day of 9/11 itself, rumblings came through the classrooms. “Here! Did youse hear? Apparently something wile’s after happening in America! It’s like something out of a film!” I recall one fellow student uttering. As part of my newfound studious regime, I avoided the temptation to become so easily distracted in classes anymore. ‘America can wait! I’ve Shakespeare’s Macbeth to be studying,’ I told myself.

It was only really when I got home that evening and saw the live footage of the flames engulfing the World Trade Centre that it began to sink in what I was truly witnessing.

For all intents and purposes, this was the first time I knew of a single terrorist act that was being watched and talked about the whole world over. Growing up, I’d heard of things like the Berlin Wall coming down, the Gulf War crisis and the escalation of the Bosnian conflict and the Siege of Sarajevo.

By 9/11 though, things were different. I was old enough to fathom the issue in all its gravity. Somehow knowing the world would never quite be the same again.

Things felt different, mainly because New York City was a place I was much more familiar with—albeit from a distance. My aunt Eibhlin was living there—still does—and I’d always associated it with fond memories of her bringing us over cool toys that couldn’t be got here at home, anytime she’d come visit. As more of an innocent pup in my much younger days, I can still recall how she’d tuck me in at my grannies.

Making promises that, when I was old enough, she’d take me back to America with her one day to ride the subway, go out on the boat to circle the Statue of Liberty and eat a big pizza at Times Square… Ninja Turtle fans will understand.

So as the towers of the World Trade Centre crumbled amid the billowing dark clouds of smoke and the debris, the knowledge of the massive loss of civilian life right there on our TV set, seemed like the end of an age of innocence, for me anyway.

The aforementioned outpouring of grief amongst the western world was immense. Special masses were put on, some social events were either postponed or cancelled altogether (where have we heard that recently?) and we even got the following Friday off school as a mark of respect.

For months after, it seemed as though every new American pop video on MTV had the stars-and-stripes on show somewhere and almost every new documentary series was somehow lined to the attacks. It was no surprise that our ‘there’ll be films made about this yet, wait till ya see’ predictions came true.

Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda were laced across every newspaper and magazine you could find for weeks on end after. ‘America’s pain was our pain’ seemed to be the common mantra.

Two decades later

Almost 20 years on, America is looked upon very differently. Condemnation of its Presidential leaders such as Bush and Trump (above) has become so common, it’s almost ingrained in popular culture to ridicule them.

American Foreign Policy, in how they dealt with situations in the Middle East, has given rise to unprecedented disapproval.

When cynicism of these ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ began to reign and people began to think that Bin Laden’s assassination in 2011 came at a rather ‘convenient time’—the run-up to an election—aspersions were cast.

And even within the country itself, there have been torrents of criticism about how social disparity and racial profiling have been dealt with. The George Floyd killing lit a proverbial fuse.

With election time nearing ever closer again this year, be sure to watch for how floods of venom will be spat out, particularly through social media, in the run-up to November.

Now I’m certainly not saying this contrast of attitudes towards America is right or wrong. That’s not for me to say. Everyone is more than entitled to their own opinion, but as an observer of history and society, it’s hard to deny just how different the perspective of the US has changed utterly in just under 20 years.

Follow Johnny Foley on Twitter: @JohnnyFoley1984