September 11 - A Decade On

I spoke in parliament yesterday about the tenth anniversary of the September 11 tragedy.
United States of America: Terrorist Attacks
14 September 2011

Last Sunday, Peter Negron once again stood before a crowd gathered in Lower Manhattan to remember and pay tribute to the victims of the September 11 tragedy. Two years after losing his father in the attacks, Peter, then a slight 13-year-old barely able to reach the microphone, had read the children's poem Stars, including the lines:

'I felt them watching over me, each one
'And let me cry and cry till I was done.'

The enduring acuteness of the loss and sorrow felt by the nation was captured by the boy's shaking voice.

At the time of the attacks, I was living in Boston. On the morning of 11 September 2001, standing in the atrium of the Littauer Building at the Harvard Kennedy School, I looked up at the television screen and saw smoke pouring out of the Twin Towers. Around me were students from all over the globe, including many Americans. Some had friends who had boarded flights leaving Boston at eight that morning—friends they would never see again.

That morning we were supposed to choose our classes. To help us decide, Harvard had each professor give a short overview of the course they were offering. By chance, I entered the room where Michael Ignatieff was presenting his overview. After a minute's silence to remember those who had died that morning, Ignatieff spoke eloquently about international law and the challenges of deciding when to intervene in another nation for humanitarian reasons. He balanced the head and the heart: the need to honour those we have lost while thoughtfully considering the circumstances to justify sending our military overseas. When I left his classroom, one of the Twin Towers had fallen. The second would fall minutes afterwards.

This week, Peter Negron spoke of how he has tried to be a father figure to his younger brother, and his plans for the future. Ten years have passed since Peter's father's death and, while the depth of his heartache was still visible, it was heartening to see the young man's fortitude. Nearly 3,000 families lost a son, daughter, sister, brother, father or mother on September 11.

Ten Australians are known to have died. From New South Wales, Alberto Dominguez, from Lidcombe, age 66, was a Qantas baggage handler; Yvonne Kennedy, 62, was on American Airlines flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon; Craig Gibson, 37, from Randwick, was working in the World Trade Center's north tower, in the offices of insurers Marsh & McLennan; Steve Tompsett, 39, from Merrylands, was in the north tower; Elisa Ferraina, 27, from Sydney, who had just taken out UK citizenship, having been born in Australia, was in the north tower; and Lesley Thomas, 41, was also in the north tower. From Victoria, Leanne Whiteside, 31, a lawyer from Melbourne, was in the south tower; and Peter Gyulavary, 44, born in Geelong, was in the south tower. From South Australia, Andrew Knox, 29, from Adelaide, was in the north tower. I remember Andrew's friend Kirsten Andrews coming to stay with me in Boston shortly afterwards as she worked through the experience of losing such a close friend. From Queensland, Kevin Dennis, 43, from the Gold Coast, was a US based stockbroker with Cantor Fitzgerald, a firm which lost two-thirds of its employees on that fateful day.

In the 10 years after the September 11 attacks there has been something of a trend among academics and commentators to focus on where to place blame—blame for the initial attacks, blame for the subsequent fighting. Christopher Hitchens, while describing Osama bin Laden as 'the proud of beneficiary of the export of violence', highlights the indecency of trying to act as a mouthpiece of terrorists and engaging in apologist rhetoric. As Hitchens notes, there are legitimate grievances held by the Palestinian people. United States foreign policy is sometimes imperfect. But to link these with al-Qaeda's primeval, totalitarianism, misogynist, anti-modern ideology is deeply wrong. Hitchens points out that after Salvador Allende was murdered on 11 September 1973, the Chilean opposition had legitimate grievances against the United States. But the Chilean opposition never dreamed of pursuing their goals by committing atrocities against civilians on United States soil. Nothing justifies the mass murder of civilians.

Hitchens emphasises the duty we owe to others who continue to suffer, such as 'Afghanistan's people, whose lives were rendered impossible by the Taliban long before we felt any pain'. Australia has a proud history of upholding this responsibility by serving around the world as peacekeepers. Since 1947, more than 30,000 Australians have worked for the cause of international peace and security. Today marks the 64th anniversary of our involvement in international peacekeeping. I pay tribute to one of my predecessors as the member for Fraser, John Langmore, who has been a strong advocate for the global role played by Australian peacekeepers.

Our peacekeeping efforts were recently recognised by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who acknowledged the work of Australians in Africa, Europe, Central America, the Middle East and the Asia Pacific region. Australian peacekeepers saved lives, helped communities and worked to rebuild nations. Those efforts are continuing today in Afghanistan—about which I spoke in much more detail in parliament last October.

To say that September 11 changed the world is no exaggeration, but it also reinforced some absolutes. Australia continues to share the United States' vehement opposition to terrorism. Together we remember the lives that have been lost and together we will work to ensure that such a tragedy does not occur again, be it in our own country or elsewhere. It is our responsibility to ourselves and to the world to work towards a peaceful future.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.