TO THE generations who experienced it, the notion that one might have to make a case for the significance of 9/11 will seem bizarre, even disrespectful. Yet, during last week’s 20th-anniversary memorials, there was a faint but distinct sub-text of “Lest we forget”, which will presumably be urged with increasing vigour as the years roll on, and Western involvement in Afghanistan becomes a traumatic memory.
In Archive on 4: Escaping 9/11 (Radio 4, Saturday), the BBC reporter Stephen Evans revisited a documentary that he made in 2004 which focused on the part played by ham radio operators during the rescue period. One of them — Herman Belderok, a survivor of the North Tower — was especially vivid; and Saturday’s re-run was framed as an exercise in engagement with his daughter, with whom he had never discussed the events of 9/11.
There are so many stories of this kind; and yet each has a perspective that only that storyteller can articulate. In the case of Mr Belderok, we heard of his progress down the stairwell to almost ground level from the 71st floor, only then to be redirected up again. That conflict between the instinct to survive and compliance with instructions makes this a gripping narrative; and Mr Belderok’s concluding description of the North Tower lobby left the listener haunted by an image of a latter-day Ozymandias.
Faith was made and was broken at 9/11. In Heart and Soul (World Service, Sunday), we heard from survivors whose faith journeys took different roads from that day. Colonel Franklin Childress, who was working at the Pentagon, is confident that he was spared by God so that he could live to honour him. His testimony, told with the vigour and assurance of a military man and an Evangelical, provided a bracing counterpoint to that of Jim Giaccone, who admitted, with an audible sense of regret, that he no longer believed in God. Indeed, this was the first time that he had publicly admitted this, and he described his yearning for faith as like a body opened up for transplant surgery, but unable to accept the organ by which he would be healed.
This was a powerful interview, which might have been stronger still but for the commentary inserted by the presenter, Jane O’Brien, telling us how sorry she felt for her subject.
Lights Out (Radio 4, Monday of last week) was a reminder of another shameful episode of history, “lest we forget”: the nuclear-weapons testing based at Christmas Island, 70 years ago. Structured as a sequence of interlocking accounts, it succeeded in providing something of the big picture while also evoking the experiences of those directly affected.
The health problems caused by Operation Grapple and other test projects are well documented; but, as this programme, recalling the anxieties of observers at the time, makes clear, not all of it can be blamed on mere naïvety.