Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of the unforgettable September, 11 2001 attacks on the United States. What happened on that day defines terrorism in its most raw and brutally inhumane form.
I remember 9/11 as if it were yesterday. Primarily because the landmark twin structures of the World Trade Centre located in the heart of Manhattan, New York City, had made a lasting impression on me the year before they were razed to the ground. In 2000, accompanied by my wife, I had taken the express elevator to the observation deck of the World Trade Centre, appropriately dubbed Top of the World. Of course that was before the Petronas Towers and the Burj Khalifah. I had watched with a sense of awe and admiration as floors counted up fast, not in the conventional 1,2, 3 style, but in flying leaps of 10, 20, 30...a smooth ride that landed us with over 40 other people on the 107th floor. What a mind-blowing panoramic sight to behold from the top! The 360-degree deck gave us picturesque bird-eye views of impressive skyscrapers. Also in unobstructed view were four breathtakingly beautiful landmarks of New York City; the 102-storey Empire State Building, the sprawling Grand Central Park, Hudson River and Lady Liberty.
It was just before 3pm local time on that fateful Tuesday afternoon that I received a call from my little brother, advising me that the first tower had been struck by an aeroplane. Hardly 10 minutes thereafter, while I was still struggling to internalise the import of his call, he called again, this time confirming that the second tower had also been hit. I couldn’t help but think about the number of people trapped in the two colossal edifices.
At the time the towers were destroyed, they were a mini-global village accommodating 430 companies from 28 countries. It later came to light that just under 3,000 people had died from the savage demolition of the twin towers. My brother never advised me about the plane that hit part of the Pentagon, nor did he mention the one that never reached its destination, the Capitol Building; after passengers boldly subdued the plane’s Al Qaeda hijackers. When I arrived home that evening, I was glad my brother had cushioned me against the trauma of what I saw on TV, although I had to contend with the delicate self-inflicted anxiety moment of, ‘that could have happened to me!’
To this day, September 11, 2001 remains a pivotal date in the history of the US. George Bush Jr. together with the Mayor of New York City Rudi Giuliani had the unenviable task of healing and bringing hope to a traumatised and furious nation. It was on the same day, hardly nine months into his presidency, that in his address to the nation, Bush solemnly promised, “The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts...We will do whatever is necessary to protect America and Americans...We will show the world that we will pass this test.”
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US federal government ploughed human and monetary resources into destabilising Al Qaeda and hunting down Osama bin Laden, the man ‘credited’ with master-minding the attacks. Equipped with the most sophisticated armour and ostensibly armed with the best intelligence outfit in the world, not only did the US fail to ward off terrorism during 9/11, but the mighty nation took a harrowing decade to successfully track and kill Bin Laden in a raid executed by the US navy SEALs; sea, air, land special forces, in 2011, on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Need I remind anyone that, unlike conventional warfare, terrorist attacks are often shrouded in a veil of secrecy and difficult to anticipate, much less plan for!
Since the 9/11 attacks, the world has witnessed about 60 notable terrorist attacks. You may recall some of them such as the 2002 Bali bombings, train bombings in Madrid in 2004, the 2005 London transport bombings, the 2013 Westgate Mall shootings in Nairobi, the 2015 Bangkok bombing, the 2016 Nice attack and the 2019 Christchurch Mosque shootings.
What causes terrorism? Perhaps one of the reasons is that there is no meeting of minds regarding the definition of terrorism. Living the spirit captured in the saying, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, depending on which side of the fence you are sitting, what you call a terrorist might be deemed a liberator by other people. Two examples come to mind. Armed struggles by blacks in South West Africa, now Namibia, and South Africa, were considered terrorist attacks by some whites while for the majority of the people, they were important ‘fights’ for freedom.
Incidentally, the Americans considered some leaders of the ANC as terrorists. It was not until July 2008, almost a decade and a half after the ANC shellacked the National Party in the 1994 democratic elections and nine years after he retired as the president of a non-racial South Africa, that Nelson Mandela’s name was struck off the list of people considered terrorists by the US. This despite the fact that Mandela had surprised the world with his reconciliatory stance following his 1990 release from prison by the last president of apartheid South Africa, Frederik Willem de Klerk. In part, the US decision was attributable to the super-power tensions fomented by the cold war, and the fact that during their struggle for liberation, the ANC had enjoyed the support of the Soviet Union. In another shocker, in October 2013, Tokyo Sexwale, a senior ANC activist, suffered humiliation at JFK Airport when he was detained because his name appeared in the United States’ terrorist watch list.
Some people are quite happy to tread the path of notoriety, veiled as martyrdom, for a cause they believe in. You may recall the August 27, 2021 terror attacks in Afghanistan. A couple of bold suicide bombers and a gunman killed scores of Afghans and 13 US army officers at Kabul Airport.
What other reasons are there that, in the eyes of some, give justification for terrorist attacks and use of fatal violence? A bricolage of damnatory practices such as prejudice, racism, inequality, unnecessary divisions in the society, failure to accord citizens or portions of the citizenry fundamental human rights such as the right to express themselves or to worship in their preferred way, a robust infrastructure of oppression, deprivation, ethnic alienation and tensions fueled by political leadership, ignored socio-political and economic grievances, unjustified curtailment of civil liberties, massive unemployment, lack of rulership credibility occasioned by government’s failure to deliver on a pellucid social contract, exuberant peevishness by rulers coupled with impulsive kleptocratic inclinations, bitterness occasioned by deliberate exclusion of some areas in infrastructural developments, self-focused amendments to the constitution, unfulfilled expectations resulting in the emergence of sporadic solo or coordinated anti-government waves, meddling in domestic affairs of other sovereign states; all these, whether perceived or true, often account for acts of terror across the globe.
When multiple layers of rage pile up in the minds of even true-blue patriots, this often tends to implode into physical harm and wanton destruction of property. Before you know it, what started off as a credible government could shimmy towards irrelevance under a dark cloud of disdain from the people! Governments that fail the credibility test might anchor themselves on the self-preservation focused shibboleth that, might is right, and fool themselves into believing that the only way to galvanise their grip on power is by embarking on the unsustainable survivalist path of terrorising their own subjects. When people form the view that they are systemically and structurally disenfranchised, the wider frustration of the majority might compel them to organise themselves into small livid groups and in time, this could lead to acts of terror.
For this reason, a sense of humanity must impel each government to objectively assess whether it is wittingly or unwittingly flip-flopping between planting tiny seeds of discontentment and driving impish acts of terrorism. Why? Because in one fell swoop, and perhaps for the cheesiest of reasons, terrorists can cause irreversible damage and place nations on unfortunate cul-de-sacs of regression. May we all remember the 9/11 acts of terrorism!