Monday, September 12, 2011

9/11: In Remembrance

When a moment of personal triumph or grief finds resonance in a public one then it acquires a different dimension. Ten years back, on 12th September morning I was travelling in Rajdhani Express from New Delhi to Calcutta. I was too engrossed in myself. I knew for sure that a chapter of my life had ended but did not know what lay ahead. Excited chatter of my co-passengers forced me to come out of my reverie and grab a newspaper. The headline read “Thousands killed in terror attack in New York” - it took a very long time to sink in. It took me another few hours to reach home and see the most dramatic moment ever recorded in the history of television in this planet. For reasons completely unconnected with 9/11, New York had already become a part of my daily existence.
Throughout history, residents of every city on the verge of capitulation must have felt a terrible agony. Yet some of these falls have been more earth-shattering events than the others. Fall of Rome to “barbaric” tribes in 476 AD was seen by contemporaries as a victory of darkness over civilization. Exactly the same sentiments were echoed in 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans – it was widely believed (not completely acceptable today) that this fall triggered an exodus of ancient wisdom from Byzantium to the cities of Western Europe, thus providing the much needed spark for the Renaissance. Similarly the sack of Baghdad by Mongol forces under Hulagu in 1258 was described as a moment of unacceptable destruction of ancient heritage – when the Tigris was turned into a river of black ink as all the famed libraries of Baghdad were emptied out there. There were many terror attacks in different parts of the world – before and after 9/11, yet 9/11 is the most spectacular terror attack ever recorded in human history.
Since 9/11, experience of air travel has changed completely. As a famous commentator wrote recently, makers of security apparatus are the main beneficiary of our growing sense of insecurity. In India there has been a tremendous boom in the business of security agencies (rest of the world buys more instruments and in India we deploy more security guards – human life is cheaper here than a body scanner). It has also spawned a growing cottage industry of security experts, Af-Pak specialists complete with mind-boggling advances for their latest tome on genuine inside stories of Jehadi organizations.
USA launched an assault on Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001 itself and today after 10 long years victory is nowhere in sight. President Bush launched a war on terror, famously warned all of us that either we are with him or with “them” and after Afghanistan invaded Iraq in search of elusive WMD (weapons of mass destruction). When we try to think about it a series of photographs come to our mind – Saddam Hussein captured like a rat with his mouth agape, of tortured Iraqis in Abu Ghraib and hooded prisoners of Guantanamo Bay, suicide bombing and helicopter shooting of journalists – in most conservative estimate at least 2 lakhs people have died in these two countries directly from this war on terror. Not to mention millions of refugees and broken lives and families. US troops have now exited Iraq but the country is far from peaceful. Earlier this year, in its biggest success so far, US forces managed to finally kill Al Qaeda Chief Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. But still the threat of terror looms large everywhere. As a direct result of these wars, today USA is the most hated country to the Muslims around the world – an image, despite President Obama’s repeated insistence that the US is not against Islam, is not likely to change in near future.
In 2001, ten years after the fall of the Soviet Union, USA was the lone super power and its domination of global politics and economy was absolute. The war on terror cost the US tax payers more than $3 trillion so far and it is going to go up further (Stieglitz et al). As Washington focused more on war, US economy began to slide. Ultra low interest rate regime and housing bubble masked the deep rot. More than 2001, New Yorkers today would perhaps more dreadfully remember a certain Monday in September 2008, when they saw iconic US financial institutions melting into nothingness. By 2021, China would surpass USA as the biggest economy in the world. For much of its existence, USA avoided military conflicts to focus on economy – even during the Cold War economic strength was never neglected – in the last 10 years, they have completely forgotten their age-old credo. If a future historian has to see 9/11 as the starting point of a trend, then that would inevitably be the beginning of the end of US economic hegemony.
2001 was a terrible year for India too– the litany of disaster started with the Bhuj earthquake on 26th January and ended with the attack on Indian Parliament on 13th December. We believe only in placing floral wreaths in remembrance and not in sincere actions. After 2001, USA created its department of Homeland Security and they have so far been able to ensure that no terror attack takes place in the US. If there is a single lesson for India in the events of 9/11, then it should be this example in prevention of disasters. But as long as we fail to put premium on the life of each and every Indian citizen, we will not be able to achieve that.
Standing in lower Manhattan, I got this feeling that I was at the capital of the world and I knew I was not alone in experiencing that. More languages are spoken in this city than anywhere else in the world, you would find food and culture of every part of the world thriving in some corner of this metropolis, everyday market movement and investment decisions made in NY make or break fortune of nations… is the dream city of every immigrant…..every idea and innovation finds home in this city. For a decade now, my work day starts with checking New York Times headlines and weather updates of NY-NJ and ends with checking Dow and Nasdaq late night. New York is the ultimate metropolis of dream, which could so easily have been my home too. People around the world share such sentiments and that is how an attack on the Big Apple was felt as an attack on our collective conscience. Even as we blame our soft state, ineffective security agencies, how many of us actually feel that an attack on Mumbai or Delhi is an attack on the idea of India itself?

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