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Sandi Toksvig on September 11
For better or worse, 9/11 has always been a day to remember
6:30AM BST 11 Sep 2011
There is a definite problem with writing about September 11. It was today in 1847 that the minstrel song Oh! Susanna was first performed at a saloon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I had thought to quote the lyrics: “I came from Alabama/ Wid a banjo on my knee/ I’m gwyne to Louisiana/My true love for to see.”
I wanted to have a laugh at early attitudes to spelling and consider the curious notion of blackface minstrels as entertainment, but there’s a problem. September 11 has become such an iconic date for this generation that it is hard to focus on anything else which might have occurred apart from the attacks which took place in the United States in 2001.
The fact is, of course, that all dates have a resonance in history.
The Romans would have remembered September 11 as AD9, when the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest left as many as 20,000 Roman legionnaires dead. The English might recall the 5,000 killed at the Battle of Stirling Bridge (September 11 1297); the Ottomans – 30,000 lost at the Battle of Zenta (September 11 1697) and so on. I’m sure everyone who fought in those forgotten moments of destiny believed they were on the side of right; that their victory alone would shape a better future for the world.
It is also a curious piece of historic coincidence that the island of Manhattan was first discovered by the white man on September 11 1609, when Henry Hudson sailed up the river that would one day bear his name. At the time, the Lenape Indians were quietly going about their business. The name Lenape just means “the people”. It was Robert Juet, one of Hudson’s officers, who noted the place down as Mannahata (Lenape for “island of many hills”) but for all we know the locals simply called the place “home”. Soon there would be cultural misunderstandings about who owned land and the Indians would be driven out by “development”, smallpox and the building of a new and better world.
New York was, of course, not the only victim on what has become known as 9/11. One hundred and eighty four people were killed when hijackers flew Flight 77 into the Pentagon. How odd, then, to look back and discover that it was exactly 60 years earlier on September 11 1941 that ground was first broken for the construction of that very building. I am not suggesting there is anything particularly significant about the date, merely that for anyone who cares to give it some thought, history runs like a red thread connecting events from generation to generation.
When you look back at historical atrocities, the ones I am most bemused by are the ones which claim a religious justification. I have never been a fan of the “my God is better than your God” playground stance which divides so much of the world. Nor do I fully understand anyone who commits a foul deed on behalf of their God. I would have thought the whole point of being a god is that you are powerful enough to sort things out by yourself.
It was on September 11 1857 that the Mountain Meadows Massacre took place in southern Utah. About 120 emigrants – men, women and children from Arkansas travelling to California – were killed by a group of Mormons, with the help of local Indians. There is no question that the Mormons had a history of being persecuted and many members of their Church of Latter Day Saints were fearful of strangers.
That fear, however, led to the most ungodly behaviour. A group of Mormon assailants attacked the wagon train and held them under siege for days. Then one of the attackers, a Mormon called John D Lee, entered the wagon circle with a white flag and convinced the emigrants to surrender. They put down their guns and walked out straight into a massacre.
Religious fanaticism of any kind has historically never proved successful in the long term. Even today, the after effects continue to resonate from Crusades so long ago. Meanwhile, the weapons get greater. It was on September 11 2007 that Russia tested the Aviation Thermobaric Bomb of Increased Power, the father of all bombs. It is the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in the world. Apparently “all that is alive merely evaporates”. What a thought. Would that the world were a gentler place.
Oh, Susanna, don’t you cry for me
cos’ I come from Alabama
Wid a banjo on my knee.
In September 11 Attacks
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