I remember the day vividly. Just a few minutes shy of 5pm when I was about to leave for work in Muscat, the languid capital of Sultanate of Oman, where I served as News Editor in 'Times of Oman', the country’s leading English language broadsheet, I switched on the TV; its volume pressed low. It just so happened that the channel on cue was CNN.
I watched smoke billowing from a skyscraper but since I did not initially pay attention to the tickers at the bottom of the screen, it seemed eerily like a scene out of a movie. I thought as much. Just then, a plane emerged from the middle of the TV screen on the right and rammed into the building. This intrigued me, because the plane looked real — real enough for me to raise the volume and figure out the fuss. It was then that I realised that this was no figment of imagination and the skyscraper which had looked like a spitting image of the World Trade Center was, in fact, just that: South Tower, taking a startling hit.
There can be any number of arguments in favour of or against
the response from the Bush Administration to the terrorist
attacks in terms of its dimension and dynamics, but there
can be no denying that the rearguard was inevitable and instructive
It took a while to absorb that all this was really happening — that the world’s sole superpower was under attack — a series of incredibly precise missions impossible one after the other (all in a day’s terror work) — beyond the wildest imagination of a Hollywood scriptwriter. Even though it is 17 years to the day, there is still that aura of disbelief that the mightiest of all nations could be a sitting duck for the while it lasted. But what is beyond a shadow of doubt is that the deadliest terrorist attacks in history did change the world, for both America and the rest of us on this cinder of a planet.
There can be any number of arguments in favour of or against the response from the Bush Administration to the terrorist attacks in terms of its dimension and dynamics, but there can be no denying that the rearguard was inevitable and instructive.
Inscribed names of the victims at the 9-11 Memorial . PHOTO: Kamran Rehmat
In a nutshell, the attacks on powerful symbols of American might — Twin Towers signifying the country’s financial might; Pentagon denoting the military might; and the fourth one in Pennsylvania, whose intended target was assumed to be any one of the White House, US Capitol, Camp David retreat in Maryland, or one of a clutch of N-plants along the East Seaboard, but which fell through after determined passengers and flight attendants, who had, by then, learned of the attacks in New York and Washington via cellphones, fought off the hijackers by reportedly, attacking the cockpit with a fire extinguisher — had unequivocally, challenged America’s preeminence and power to influence the world.
Now that the dice had been cast, it posed a present and clear danger to the basic civilisational structure of the West, in general, and America, in particular, but also other parts of the globe vulnerable by association. The world itself had to change to counter it. And it fell upon the US to lead the charge.
Declaring a war on terror the same night, President George Bush said in a televised national address: “Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.”
Thus began the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom, pivoted on the black-and-white stated policy of “with us or against us”. Regardless of the red heat it generated for its covenant, it impacted global geopolitics on a scale never before seen, and which saw the effective ouster from principled locations in Afghanistan of the Taliban from operational power, and a draining but eventually successful campaign to eliminate Osama bin Laden-led Al Qaeda, and years later, the mastermind himself.
This space would be scant to discuss the length and breadth of the impact made by the global war on terror. But very briefly, what it did was dramatically overhaul the established security policy in the US. Safety, surveillance and privacy took on a whole new dimension with a series of measures — such as the US Patriot Act — which critics say came at the cost of civil liberties. But what it did do was to largely and effectively insulate the US from the kind of damage the 9/11 attacks wrought on it.
Down the road, it has led to far stricter immigration policies resulting in trigger-happy deportations. Elsewhere on the globe, the terror war and its aftermath fomented ongoing conflicts and rebellions, but the scale of death and destruction that had become the norm and peaked with the devastating attack on America in 2001 has reduced. Although by no means is the world out of the radar of terror, it is more aware of the pitfalls of not meeting the menace head-on and suffering isolationism.
In 2014, I had occasion to visit the 9/11 Memorial, an experience so profound that it takes you in its sweep. In a way, it symbolises a global communion — remember citizens of more than 90 countries perished in the attacks and the majority of them paid with their lives in the Twin Towers tragedy. Regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, language, or any other distinction, the spirit of humanity weighed heavy and whilst recalling the nerve-racking moments of the tragedy on the day that shook the world, there was an inescapable feeling that may be the world had underestimated the propensity of evil and it took an epic tragedy to draw the realisation and fight back.