An Ambassador Recalls - Budapest, 11th September 2001
Updated: Sep 19, 2021
My phone rang: It was Debbie Goldthorpe, head of the Commercial Section. “The Twin Towers are on Fire. Come up to the Information Section and watch the TV”, she said.
In this Guest Post, former British Ambassador to Budapest Nigel Thorpe speaks of his recollections of that day, and its repercussions that continue to affect us. [UPDATED]
Photo: Nigel Thorpe today - the former diplomat fears time and more recent bloody conflicts have softened the memory of Al Qaida’s attacks of two decades past.
It is twenty years since the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, in which about 3,000 people died. Like many others, I remember exactly what I was doing when I heard the news. I was in my office in the splendid British Embassy in Harmincad utca in downtown Pest, when Debbie Goldthorpe, head of the Embassy Commercial Section rang me to say that the Twin Towers were on fire.
“Come up to the Information Section and watch the TV”, she said. I ran up the stairs to the third floor, where the only TV in the embassy was to be found. Staff were gathered round, watching the inferno that had been, hours earlier, the World Trade Centre. It was too awful to behold, watching scenes that now, out of good taste and consideration for the families of those who died, can no longer be shown on television.
Later, I went home and continued to watch the TV. I had forgotten, in the pace of events, that my Hungarian teacher was to come for a lesson that evening. She duly came, rather concerned, and we watched the unfolding disaster together, she teaching me the appallingly necessary words like ‘collapse’ and ‘suicide’ as we watched poor people hurl themselves from the windows above the impact points, and then the towers collapsing as the metal structures melted in the heat. I wanted to call my American colleagues, but knew I couldn’t.
A Hungarian perspective on this day comes from my friend János Bethlen, the distinguished TV journalist. He had rushed to the MTV (Hungarian State Television) studios when he heard the news from New York, but had had difficulty persuading the management to cancel their schedule and cover the tragedy. In the end they did, although with János in the studio commenting on coverage from a TV set which carried one of the international channels’ shots of the terrible scenes from New York.
The next morning I gathered my team in the embassy to consider the implications for us, our work and our security. There were some general instructions from London but we took our own decisions on the practical issues. The first was to protect the embassy from a car bomb attack. We contacted the city council and with their agreement swiftly surrounded our very exposed building with a barricade of large concrete blocks. An armed guard, provided by the Hungarian government appeared. New procedures for screening visitors to the building were introduced. I started to vary my route to and from the office. Armed guards appeared at the residence in the second district as well.
Little did we appreciate that these things were for ever, not just for a few months.
There were moments of light relief. For instance, my American colleague, Nancy Brinker (a close friend of the Bushes) was single, like me. This led the Foreign Minister, János Martonyi, to suggest jokingly that the Hungarian government could save money on security if we moved in together.
But the reality was that terrorism was changing all our lives. Closer to the mark was Nancy’s predecessor, Peter Tufo, with whom I was in touch. A New York lawyer, he told me he was attending funerals of friends, but without bodies.
Today, I fear that time and perhaps the subsequent anguish of Iraq and Afghanistan, have softened the memory of this awful event, and blunted our recollection of its history. 9/11 was not the beginning of Al Qaida’s campaign against the US. This had begun much earlier, especially with the truck bomb attacks on the US Embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam, both on 7 August 1998, with terrible loss of life, largely among Kenyans and Tanzanians, but also with some American casualties.
Al Qaida’s leader and chief planner, Osama Bin Laden, was a Saudi, rich and privileged, not a poor, angry man, with some understandable grievance. His campaign against the US had nothing to do with territory or any identifiable political objective, just the destruction of everything American, ultimately US civilisation, based on a belief that a Christian-Jewish alliance was conspiring to destroy Islam. We know now that Al Qaida’s concern with Islam is a very narrow one and does not include any Islam that might be tolerant or liberal.
I record these memories because I have been reading about the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of Western involvement there after twenty years. The beginning of that involvement lies here, in the attack on the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001. The attack was masterminded from an Afghanistan that had descended into chaos with no central government, a haven for Bin Laden and his team. President Bush was not alone in thinking that was unacceptable
Our effort to build a more normal state and society in Afghanistan has failed, for the time being. But in considering whether it was justified, there is only one starting point, which we should commemorate on 11 September. Let us reflect then, on what could or should have been done.
UPDATE: Nigel's guest post has been well received, and inspired a flurry of individual memories of 9/11 - please feel free to add yours via the comment function if you so wish.
Also, don't forget to read Nigel's earlier contributions as a more youthful diplomat on July 20 and July 26 when in Warsaw - particularly the latter, where he describes the tension and drama of Margaret Thatcher's visit and meeting with the famed Lech Wałęsa, which I suspect many potential readers missed when busy with holidays.
UPDATE2: Jock MacKenzie, whom some will remember as formerly of this parish, has emailed this message of his memories that day in Zagreb, Croatia.
Jock couldn't get the site to accept this as a comment - so asked me to post it on his behalf. (Jock, I don't know why, but at times the site doesn't do what I think it should, so don't worry.) Thank you, Jock.
Thanks Kester for Nigel's account; on this 20 year anniversary, it serves as a poignant and salient reminder to all of a horrible event, which I will never forget.
I had finished my work in Hungary in 1998 and my wife and I had been living in Zagreb, close to Britannia Square, for a couple of years. On that day, my Croatian team and I were dining around midday at a smart restaurant (whose name I have forgotten), set in the woods above the square . Above the large bar area there was an equally large TV and, facing the screen, I was forced to watch the dreadful scenes happening live via CNN along with millions of others.
The scenes have been permanently etched in my memory.
However, the TV volume had been switched down, or off so as not to disturb diners. In front of my table there were about 10 elegantly dressed men and women [who turned out to be] US VIPs from the US Embassy at a circular dining table set almost under the screen, and who were thus quite unable to see what was happening on the TV screen. Because I could not actually hear the news, I could not be certain if what I saw was real or part of some Sci-Fi film; but those at the table were clearly unaware of what was happening, and so I decided to alert them that something strange "might" be happening in Manhattan and walked over. My intrusive behavior was considered strange, but they all stopped eating immediately and pushed their chairs back to watch the TV. The volume was then turned up and it was then we all found it was for real. It also became apparent that one/two of the diners were directly connected with the Governor of NY and the event blew their brains. The women started shouting and screaming hysterically and the drivers rushed the men back to the Embassy.
The whole dining room was left in total chaos. Many thanks Jock