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Remembering September 11 from an eyewitness account

By XN Iraki | September 12th 2021

It was my third week in the US when the September 11 terrorist attack took place. Checking news online, I saw a report that a plane had struck the World Trade Centre, New York’s most iconic building after the Empire State.

A few minutes later, I saw another update that another plane had hit the same building. I turned to my classmates and asked them what was happening.

I was a new immigrant in America’s Deep South, Mississippi. I could see and sense anger in their reaction. The media flashed the images of the two planes hitting the building while President George Bush reacted by promising that America will pursue and punish those behind the attack.

Some thought it was a movie but by the end of the day, the reality had hit. America was under attack. One of our classmates was in New York and he was our first worry. He made it back.

The media was quick to link this attack to another one on Pearl Harbour in Hawaii during the Second World War (WII). But that was 4,000km offshore, not the US mainland which was never attacked even during the two world wars.

That is what made this attack extraordinary and chilling to Americans, who were used to their fortress. The September 11 attack was meticulously planned, even the timing 911, the police number we call like our 999.

Using planes carrying civilians would have provided military planners with a dilemma. Should we kill some to save others? More hair raising, what defence do you have against someone willing to die?

The US airspace was cleared of planes after September 11. There was fear more planes could be used as missiles.

The next emotionally devastating thing was seeing the Twin Towers collapse live on TV.

I saw men and women crying. For once, I realised how human we all are irrespective of colour, race or creed. When the identity of the attackers started emerging, there was more anger and backlash against some religions.

Some invoked the title of a book, “The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order” by Samuel Huntington.

Some of the hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, a US ally, making the reaction more complex.

On trips back to Kenya, I noted the changes in air travel security and security in general. Everyone became security conscious with luggage and body scans.

The public was willing to trade some freedom for security, just as we are sacrificing some freedom to slow down the spread of Covid-19.

It is 20 years since that fateful morning that changed the world, and is still changing the globe. The US’s feeling of invincibility was shaken. Air travel paused for a while just like after Covid-19. Getting to the US to study became harder after it emerged that some hijackers were students. Kenyans found a new home, Australia.

Governments became wary of immigrants, once seen as welcome because of persecution and in whispers a source of cheap labour.

America hit back, they dislodged the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, a ‘training ground for terror’.

It took another decade before Osama bin Laden, the then brain behind September 11, was killed on May 2, 2011. In a strange twist of events, and after 20 years, the US has ended the war on terror centred in Afghanistan.

Taliban are back in power and fears of Afghanistan becoming a terrorist base are still in the air.

Jokes online say the Taliban handed the country to builders and got it back much more improved after 20 years. I will not laugh at that joke. The argument that the strategic objective in Afghanistan was achieved with the killing of Bin Laden is not convincing. Why was the war not ended soon after his death? 20 years after September 11, it seems we are back to where it all began, with fear pervading the globe. What direction will the Taliban take?

How will American competitors like Iran, China and Russia react? How will American policymakers, politicians and voters react to withdrawal from Afghanistan?

Some think not from Afghanistan but from global responsibility. Did you notice how other countries piggybacked on the US for evacuation from Kabul, Afghanistan?

My thinking is that the US should follow the Vietnamese example. Despite the fall of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) city and the withdrawal of America from Vietnam, they are now great trading partners.

The problem for Americans is how to engage with the Taliban without feeling humiliated.

The US dilemma is that if they do not engage them, others will. Another question is what is at stake in Afghanistan beyond the US pride. That will determine the US reaction.

There is no great quantity of oil but the possibility that Afghanistan could once again become the epicentre of terrorism or seedbed of US opposition is something to worry about. Closer home, do we have a reason to worry? Remember we suffered after September 11. Was the 1998 terror attack in Kenya a dry run for September 11?

Will the victory of Taliban embolden their admirers? My hunch tells me we must be watchful. One economic concern is that the resources we shift to security could uplift other sectors.

The stone blocks used to build walls around police stations and our homes could build schools and low-cost homes. The bigger question that should preoccupy us is who will be the world’s policeman after America?

Currently, no one seems to be volunteering, ready to send troops to fight in far-flung corners of the globe. Does the lack of a global policeman make the world more insecure?

Who will fill the vacuum left by Americans? This question needs attention. Recall the instability that followed the end of the Cold War?

Will the sane follow after the end of pax Americana? September 11, 2001, changed the world, it’s still changing the world 20 years later.

What we can’t be sure about is the direction of this change and who will determine that direction. Who will be the losers and gainers?

Geopoliticians and geoeconomists, you have your work cut out for you. I visited Ground Zero in 2004, and only then did the reality of the attack sink in.


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