This is the weekend for reflection and contemplation. America has been hit with one natural disaster after another in the recent months, including a rare earthquake in the northeast followed by floods caused by a hurricane. But it was the man-made disaster inflicted on America ten years ago that dwells on our minds this weekend. Ten years ago New York City and Washington D.C. had been hit with mindless acts of terrorism that would change the world around us. From a carefree, all-inclusive civil society, Americans were immediately transformed into a directionless, potentially paranoid group of people. The 9/11 attacks were followed within a month by Anthrax attacks around the country (the cause of which still has not been solved definitively). These events put Americans on high alert and unease. Everyone felt the discomfiture of the thought of another impending catastrophe of equal magnitude, and had almost resigned to its inevitability.
We have now gone through ten years without a major attack on our own soil. Many attempts by amateur terrorists have been thwarted (as many as 40 such attempts have been preempted). We have learnt of terrorists attempting to blow up airplanes by hiding explosives in their shoes or underwear, only to be restrained by alert fellow-passengers. We have quietly gone through the indignities of taking off our shoes and throwing away water bottles (liquids of only precise quantity can be carried by hand) in airport security lines. Americans have even accepted screening methods of whole body scans or pat-downs without complaints. Life has changed in America but Americans had understood what Mayor Rudy Giuliani had so eloquently pronounced on the day of the attacks. He had said, “This was not just an attack on the city of New York or the United States of America. This was an attack on the very idea of a free, inclusive and civil society.” Americans understood.
It is difficult to remember what the conversation was before that fateful day. The newspapers were announcing stories about mad cow disease and the protests against globalization summits. Of course, there were the perennial stories about Israeli-Palestinian conflicts and occasional bombing attacks in Istanbul or in Nigeria. Americans had not heard about Jihadists and Islamic terrorists, which soon became household terms. They quickly understood that America being the leader of the free world had to take lead, an offensive action against the very threat that attempted to destroy our freedom. President George W Bush announced to the world, “It is important for the nations to know they will be held accountable for inactivity. You are either with us or you are against us in the fight against terrorism.”
America invested its blood, sweat and money to liberate the rest of the world as well as itself from this unique brand of terrorism. It is one thing to fight a conventional army in war. But unconventional warriors who believe in committing suicide for their own salvation was a new dogma in warfare. The civilized world understood that this threat was not against America alone. And the target in such warfare had to be countries that harbored and trained the Islamic terrorists.
The master mind of terror attacks, Osama bin Laden, who had declared war on America in the 1990’s quickly became a cult hero for Jihadists. The communities who agreed with his philosophy even named their children after him. He basked in his colossal success in inflicting a wound on the west of unimaginable magnitude, killing nearly three thousand civilians in the heart of the free world. But within a month a massive American force was to gather in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden had taken refuge and trained the perpetrators in open training camps. Soon Taliban and Osama along with his cadre of criminals were on the run. He and others evaded capture for many years but one of his predictions had been proven wrong. He had indicated that Americans do not have the stomach for a prolonged military conflict after the debacle in Viet Nam. But Americans understood that this was different. The attack was on its own homeland and on the bastions of its freedom i.e. the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Despite political situation and finger-pointing by rival political parties, the war against terrorism continued, through two successive presidencies
More attacks were thrust upon the rest of the world. Madrid and London suffered attacks in their commuter trains. In Bali and Mumbai hotels and nightclubs were attacked. But many Al Qaeda leaders were hunted down. The captured prisoners were put through enhanced interrogations and the information obtained helped thwart future attacks. Intelligence gathering at home was streamlined and used in a more cohesive manner. In spite of the political changes in Washington, pressure on Al Qaeda and its members was not let up. Drone attacks killed many more leaders of the Jihadists. They were constantly on the run.
All in all, Americans are breathing a sigh of relief knowing that it was not just luck that prevented another similar attack on their homeland. It was aggressive, proactive action taken by their military and intelligence community that has kept them safe from another massive attack. They understand that smaller attacks by fanatical individuals are unavoidable in a free and open society. But Americans did not blame a segment of their own population for crimes committed by others, in spite of some hate crimes in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.
In 1934 Hitler’s Germany had begun persecuting Jews, communists and other political enemies, much to the chagrin of Americans. There was a mock trial of Hitler held in New York City and politicians, including Mayor La Guardia, and prominent Jews had taken part in the exercise. Germany’s ambassador was furious and tried to stop the trial by trying to first persuade and then intimidate FDR’s Secretary of State Cordell Hull. The secretary wrote to his German counterpart a letter that summarizes the American’s deep-rooted beliefs that is ingrained in their psyche. He wrote, “It is well known that the free exercise of religion, the freedom of speech and of the press, and the right of peaceable assembly, are not only guaranteed to our citizens by the Constitution of the United States, but are the beliefs deep-seated in the political consciousness of the American people.” Yet when the war with Japan started FDR did authorize internment of Japanese American citizens. Even today, Americans view that singular action as the most shameful act. Such discriminatory actions were not to be repeated again by Americans.
The attack had come from fanatics who flaunted the Koran as their inspiration but Americans refused to believe it and did not persecute the practitioners of Islam. The response did not result in shunning of Muslims just because a few fundamentalists tried to force their views on the rest of the people. Above all, Americans have preserved their free way of life and their well-known tolerance of other religions and ethnicities.
Gradually the terrorists groups suffered one “strategic” defeat after another. One major step was the submission of Sunni Triangle in Iraq. As a by-product of the Iraq War in search of weapons of mass destruction, a tyrant was deposed and the people of Iraq tasted free elections and established first credible democracy in the Arab World. Despots around the world were put on notice. People started seeing the folly of the fundamentalists. This gave rise to the Arab Spring that collapsed regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and now in Libya. Syrians and Yemenis are still agitating against their dictators. World has a chance to have a new order.
Soon after the attack the Pentagon had been rebuilt quickly. But in downtown New York City there remained a gaping hole where the twin towers had stood. After five years a Memorial Plaza for the fallen civilians had been built. The One World Trade Center, a 104 story tower is more than half complete. Center Two and Three are still in the foundation stages. Center Four, a 72 story building already has 43 of them completed. There have been arguments, and bitter fights about designs, and as to what should be built. There has even been squabbles as to who should be allowed to pray in the shadow of Trade Center. Progress has been painfully slow but even after ten years Americans have not grown impatient.
Catharsis came when Osama bin Laden was found in Abbottabad, Pakistan and killed in an operation by the Navy Seals. It was a relief that before the tenth anniversary of the most heinous crime committed on its homeland by terrorists, the mastermind of the attacks had been hunted down and killed like an animal. It was also satisfying to see the king of terror had lived incognito in a bare room with an old model television, sitting on the bare floor watching video tapes of himself and his glory days over and over again. It is easy to imagine the rest of his cronies living in similar fear in subhuman abodes, perhaps even as cave dwellers, constantly in fear of being discovered and killed. This was not the lifestyle they had imagined for themselves after their feat on that fateful day in September 2001. The rest of the terrorists left behind by the suicide bombers are living in hell on earth.
Americans will move on looking forward to another decade of freedom and liberty, unscathed by the wound inflicted by Osama bin Laden and his ilk. Justice may take a long time to come to each and every one of them but it will come nevertheless.