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The Turning Point

September 11, 2001 was a sunny day. I had just started working for the German TV station ZDF and was updating the teletext. I had been working for just over an hour when the first ticker news came trickling in. Around quarter past 3 p.m. German time, we heard that a private plane had struck the World Trade Center. We looked at the TV screen and saw a gaping whole in the side of the building, eight stories high. No private plane is that large and has the kinetic energy to penetrate a building as thoroughly as we saw it on screen.

We were skeptical. Moments later, we saw a second plane approaching the South Tower. Within seconds, it became clear: This was an attack of an unprecedented dimension, not an accident. A ball of fire. CNN was providing live coverage, and the whole world watched. Shortly afterwards, the Pentagon was hit. The White House was evacuated. In the streets of New York, people wandered amid the chaos. Crying. Disoriented.

It was clear to everyone that something had happened that had been unimaginable only a few hours earlier. The regular programming was suspended. Steffen Seibert, today's spokesman for Chancellor Merkel, anchored a special news broadcast until 5 p.m.

That afternoon, the internet went down as too many people were trying to access the network. People had the choice between watching TV and taking a look at the teletext. And I was updating the teletext. For the 7 p.m. news, Klaus-Peter Siegloch began his broadcast with the following words: "War has been declared against the United States. I don't even want to wish you a good evening under these circumstances." The last update I filed was about President Bush's speech to the nation. "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me." Bush was quoting Psalm 23. I left my computer at 3 a.m.

Was remains, ten years later? Pundits were quick to agree that 9/11 was the most important event since the fall of the Berlin wall. The West had found its new enemy: radical Islam. Samuel Huntingon's arguments about the "clash of civilizations" had become brutal, horrible reality. The war in Afghanistan began months later, Iraq was invaded in 2003. The Western hemisphere almost broke apart during those modern crusades. Joschka Fischer's somber statement that he was "not convinced" by American arguments about WMDs in Iraq now belongs to the list of quotes that every German high school graduate is expected to memorize.

The hedonists of my generation were suddenly reminded that the disco-pop of the 90s had come to an end. And the Cold War generation realized that the time between the collapse of the USSR and the 9/11 attacks was not free from antagonisms and blocs.

In the West, we failed to see the rising conflict. We wanted to live carefree after the dangers of the Cold War. Our horror scenarios were otherworldly: The Day After Tomorrow and Planet Of The Apes are two movies that I remember from late adolescence. The Statue of Liberty is buried in sand and water, Kansas City is destroyed. War stories were largely historical, tales of nuclear strikes and trench warfare. Who would have thought that a few Beduins could become an existential threat to the Western word? We had really earned a time of peace and party.

This week, I watched old footage of the attacks. It seems blurred, antiquated. Much has happened to video technology over the past decade. Today, the images of 9/11 have entered the historical record, not unlike black-and-white images of the construction of the Berlin wall or the fall of the Eastern Bloc. The fiftieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, celebrated just last month, showed that emotional reactions linger for a long time. Twenty years after German reunification, the memories of thirty years of division are still vivid.

In Berlin, remnants of the wall were quickly removed from the urban landscape or clearly marked as memorials. In New York, everyday life has returned. In Germany, we now discuss the legacy of the GDR and of the two generations that lived within its borders. In the US, a mosque close to Ground Zero has stirred controversy. It shook the American consciousness to the core.

The fear of losing one's freedoms leads to the paradoxical situation that we abandon them voluntarily. All of this despite the words of George Bush on September 12: "Yet we go forward to defend freedom". Defend it. Don't relinquish it.

On September 12, I returned to work at 8 a.m. In the elevator, I bumped into the station's chief executive. He was on his way to the news desk to personally thank the colleagues there for their work. Thank God we did not have to cover another 9/11 since then.