History’s worst terrorist act against Americans within and outside of their borders will be remembered on Sunday, the 11th September this year. Exactly ten years ago on that date (now known simply as â€œ9/11â€), more than three thousand people died in separate suicide attacks against high-profile targets within the United States, culminating in the total destruction of the World Trade Center twin towers in New York City and extensive damage to the Pentagon building, home to the United States Department of Defense in Arlington, Virginia.
The one “enemy” individual that stood out, Osama bin Laden founder of Al-Qaeda, the hydra-like terrorist organisation that was held responsible for the attack (and a few more to come after it), became the face of America’s Bogeyman. In retrospect, however, I find myself wondering how relevant Osama bin Laden really was in the last ten years. After all, the crowning “achievement” of then US President George “Dubya” Bush’s “War on Terror” was the invasion of Iraq — a country ruled by a tyrannical but secular strongman, Saddam Hussein — on the basis of what turned out to be flawed intelligence reports erroneously claiming the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) there. It was a war that apparently had nothing whatsoever to do with Osama bin Laden and that was waged on the back of wrong information.
And, when finally tracked down and slain, bin Laden was found to be less than the strapping rugged revolutionary that the Media made him out to be. He was found holed up in a heavily-fortified mansion in a tony Pakistani suburb surrounded by his wives and family. The man apparently lived a life far removed from what could have been imagined by the young stallions his supposed field commanders recruited, turned to religious zealotry, and then sent off to blow themselves up in the middle of gatherings of innocent people.
So at the rarefied top of the pyramid of participants in the “War on Terror”, flaws in character were glaringly evident — Dubya’s autistic salesmanship, bin Laden’s banal hypocrisy, and the puppet-like tacit assent of leaders of the world’s mightiest nations to their boys riding the momentum of America’s “War on Terror” into battle. True valour and commitment to chosen belief systems were far more consistent at the bottom of this pyramid, whether it is observed in the professional soldiery of the rich world’s fully-equipped warriors, in the futile courage of the poor world’s conscripts and guerrillas, or in the singular zealotry of lone suicide bombers aspiring to martyrdom.
The fallout from the attack was far-reaching. The world post 9/11 became a vastly different one. A new dominant global polarisation pitting the “Christian West” against the “Muslim Arab” world descended upon humanity on a scale not seen since the Cold War era saw us locked in a planet-threatening face-off between “The Free World” and the Communist Bloc that ended in the late 1980’s. The very tangible bomb shelters, concrete walls, military checkpoints along the “Iron Curtain”, and demilitarised zones of the Cold War era faded in prominence to make way for the more insidiously invasive measures that marked the nebulous paranoia of post 9/11 civilisation — security cameras, racial and cultural profiling, steel cutlery purged from civil aviation, airport lockdowns, rubbish bins removed from subway stations, and hotlines for reporting suspicious-looking backpacks among others. The “enemy” became one that recognised no borders, nor reported up along any discernible lines of command. It disappeared into crowds as fast as it emerged from them. As was to be revealed later, the “enemy” even lived among us in our neighbourhoods.
Indeed, the tragedy in all this is that unlike the Cold War which in a perverse way represented an advance from the fundamental sources of contention that traditionally started wars before it — conflicts over which god to worship and to whom the gold belongs to — to one that was about lofty ideals concerning political and economic systems (capitalism versus socialism and democracy versus totalitarianism), the “War on Terror” in contrast represented a degeneration back to a medieval justification to wage war: religion. While the Cold War inspired us to boldly race for the skies (and land men on the moon), the “War on Terror” cast a pall over mankind and forced us to retreat behind old cultural divides that go back to antiquity, and become a fearful and less trusting people.
Perhaps the capitalist and democratic way of life that emerged the “winner” in 1989 (the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall marking the end of communism as a serious alternative to capitalism), was left to rule the planet too long without a credible antithesis. But 9/11 in 2001 made it all about religion once again and Dubya, rather than pause to consider the systemic issues that underpin global terrorism, engineered the overarching “solution” into a manhunt for bin Laden.
And so we enter the second decade of the 21st Century with two illusions — the twenty-year-old “victory” of our system of governance and economic system, and the months-old “victory” over radical Islamic terror with bin Laden’s death this year. We are seeing today how the earlier, laissez faire unfettered mercantilism, had become a victim of its own success, propelling markets and consumption to heights beyond the supply of what originally fuelled it could bring back to a safe landing — real money. As for the form of politics that prevailed, well, in the Philippines, a “free” press and the “people’s mandate” (two key pillars of the political ideology that “won” in 1989) conspired to see the ascent to power of a popular president who ran on what amounted to no more than a pedigree platform, a phenomenal demonstration of the same popular “wisdom” that also gave an American president who started a war on wrong premises a second term to rule. Epic fail on both fronts.
How long will it be before the real lessons in how the world responded to the hideous tragedy of 9/11 are revealed? More importantly, how much time will pass before the illusion that we have emerged “victorious” after bin Laden’s death is shattered? Hopefully such revelations over the next decade will not be bloodstained, and if they turn out to be so, not in the same scale as 9/11.
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