Clem Sunter

My 9/11 takeaway

2011-09-14 10:20

Clem Sunter

When consultants quote that hackneyed expression to me that the only thing about change is that it is getting faster and more extreme, I beg to differ and use the example of my father. He was in the British artillery during the Second World War and was part of the second wave that landed on the Normandy beaches during the D-day counter-offensive.

He was loath to talk about his experiences except to say that all he could remember was the smell of death as he stepped over the bodies of fallen comrades in the water and on the sand. I have never had to go through anything like that.

The only other time I have had a similar feeling was when Rudy Giuliani, the mayor of New York during 9/11, visited South Africa to speak about his book on leadership. I had to open and close his session and afterwards I had lunch with him. Similarly, he was reticent to talk about his experience on that fateful day. Nevertheless, the few tidbits that he did offer made you realise that if you were not there when the twin towers came crashing down, you cannot put yourself in the shoes of all those who actually were at ground zero and survived.

The 10th anniversary on Sunday brought back that conversation. At the ceremonies in New York and in England to commemorate the deaths of nearly 3 000 in the attack, the quiet dignity of the relatives – fathers, sons, mothers, aunts, brothers and sisters – who read out the names of their loves ones was what struck me most. You could see that while we who were not directly affected by the event had moved on, they had not done so.

Quite rightly. Imagine if two planes had been used to destroy Sandton City and you had relatives working or visiting there, or who were members of the emergency services rescuing them, and out of the blue you had lost them. No way would you forget the shock of the loss 10 years later.

My takeaway is simple. The family is the basic unit of society everywhere in the world. I was born while my father was in Normandy and I still possess the correspondence between my parents – suitably vetted by the British army – about my entry into the world. How different it all would have been if he had been killed and I had been brought up without his genial leadership and companionship. How different my mother would have been without his affection and care during the years of austerity after the war.

Each person killed in military conflict or an act of terrorism – whether he or she is a combatant or civilian – has personal ties somewhere. You have to be very alone not to be missed. So war of any kind is a terrible pursuit and should be avoided at all costs. Easy to say, difficult to implement. But the bottom line is that human beings are not things that can be destroyed at will. Somebody cares. Some family will have a permanent hole. Causes are abstract: people are real.

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