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Friday, 9 September 2011

Tuesday, September 11, 2001: how it changed me and my country, The Netherlands

Tuesday, September 11, 2001: I was working as an ICT Testing consultant at Visa Card Services (VCS) in The Netherlands on that day. VCS was the official issuer and acquirer for Visa Credit Cards in The Netherlands and it was months before the cash Euro would be deployed all over Europe.

I played an important role in this process, as I was the representative of VCS in the interbancary Euro testing project, together with people from Interpay (the Dutch clearing & settlement institute) and all the important Dutch banks. Besides that, I did a lot of testing with credit cards on POS (point-of-sale) terminals and ATM’s. This was one of the largest operations in the financial history and nothing should go wrong.

Although I don’t remember my specific activities for that day, it must have been a busy period.

It was around 2:50 PM, when I got an SMS from my best friend Tijs, who worked at another bank: “a plane crashed into one tower of the World Trade Center”. My first thought was that it would probably be a small plane and I continued my activities.

A little later my friend Tijs called me: “a second plane hit the second tower of the WTC. This is really scary shit. This might lead to a world war”. Also at my department, I noticed some disturbance and agitation.

Together with a number of colleagues, I went to the auditorium of the company, where the corporate speeches and presentations were held. It had a huge beamer that was able to show television pictures.

Since that moment I was glued to the television screen, that showed CNN images of the Twin Towers and the surroundings and I listened to the frantic voices of the reporters and the studio hosts.

The pictures shocked me and made me totally speechless: the burning towers with all the paper flying through the air, the endlessly repeated images of the plane hitting the second tower, the story that people were jumping down from the building and finally, the collapse of the first tower, less than half an hour later followed by the second tower.

Later that afternoon, I called my mother. I can remember that I was hardly able to hold back the tears when we talked about what had happened. That evening and the next days, I watched every television programme available: trying to understand what happened and trying to grasp what could make people hate other people so much that they could execute this kind of attack. I was shocked and puzzled.

Since that day, I’ve seen a lot of documentaries on the subject, trying to understand what happened. Of these documentaries, the one called ‘9/11’ of the two French brothers Jules en Gédéon Naudet touched me the most. No other documentary pictured better the desperation and total surprise that struck the New York fire department and all the other New Yorkers. I still can’t look at it with dry eyes.

For me personally, the ten years afterwards have been extremely satisfactory, happy and prosperous: in the week before this attack, I received the first email of the person that was later to become my wife: Olga. Our love developed fully when she visited The Netherlands to celebrate Christmas, 2001 with me. Looking back, 2001 and 2002 have been two of the best years of my life, how funny it may seem.

But politically everything changed in The Netherlands. After 9/11, you saw the upcoming of the tensions between North-African and Turkish countrymen (mostly muslim) and the rest of the population of The Netherlands.

These tensions soared after two political murders in The Netherlands (Pim Fortuijn and Theo van Gogh) and after the tone-of-voice of the political debate changed: Initially politicians were ‘playing the problems with muslim countrymen down’ in order to ‘run with the hare and hunt with the hounds’ and keep everybody happy and save their feelings.

This changed radically after 9/11, to ‘everything must be said in the political debate and preferably in the most brutal way’. 

A few years later, after the London and Madrid attacks and the violent killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a muslim fanatic, it suddenly seemed that militant (terrorist) muslim groups were uprising in The Netherlands to perpetrate attacks against Dutch politicians and institutes.

At some moments at that time, you could even think we were a country at war ourselves. But that all disappeared again eventually.

The only thing that didn´t change was the tone-of-voice in the political debate. That remained harsh and polarized between the right and the left wing of the Second Chamber of Dutch Parliament. But that also seemed the case in the US and in other European countries.

The most visible change after 9/11 in The Netherlands were the stringent and sometimes absurd safety measures everywhere and especially at the national airport Schiphol. People were ready to surrender a lot of privacy and accept much inconvenience for a feeling of safety. And they still do:
  • Camera surveillance everywhere in the country;
  • Intelligent scanning of car license plates by camera´s, while entering the city of Amsterdam, in order to find criminals and tax defraudators.
  • Knowing that my and other people´s financial transactions are monitored by other countries, like f.i. the American government.
  • Enduring frisks (sometimes two to three) at the airport, removing your shoes there and not be able to take beverages from home into the plane, even when it is for your (small) children
  • Having to walk everywhere with your ID available and having to endure frisks at many unannounced occasions.
  • A more aggressive attitude of policemen towards people after innocent infringements of the law.
If it helped against terrorist attacks in The Netherlands. I certainly hope so; but the price we paid for it, was substantial. Life would indeed never be the same as before 9/11. But eventually we picked up normal life again in The Netherlands.

The saddest thing that 9/11 seemingly yielded was the distrust between the different groups in Dutch society: these groups didn´t seem to understand each other anymore and they didn´t want to understand each other. This is one of the causes for the rise of populism in The Netherlands. And of course, these effects were reinforced by the economic crisis since 2008, but the mistrust was already there for years, percolating to a peak after the September 11th attacks.

Yes, it was a life changing event on September 11th and certainly one I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.

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