But I digress. Where was I when "9/11" happened? I was home, sick. I had spent some years with an unknown illness, which later came to be called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and a the time I was writing historical articles for magazines, a slow process. I was unable to move faster.
In those days they had a four O’clock bulletin on the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s English service, so I took a break and turned it on.
The next thing I know is they are showing a report saying an aeroplane has crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. I had seen those when I had visited New York in 1988. I hadn’t been there, but had gone up the Empire State Building and had done the tourist thing in the city.
Then they cut to a reporter in Washington, D.C., who was saying a plane had apparently crashed near the Pentagon, but they weren’t sure what plane it was. Then back to the well-known images of the second plane and then the collapse of the Towers.
The problem was the reporters and anchors were from a local version of CNN, not CNN International which I was used to watching, so I didn’t recognise them. I began to think perhaps it was a hoax. I even remember thinking:
“If this is a joke, it’s not in good taste.”
Then the phone rang. It was my wife, a journalist of the SABC. She asked if I’d seen the news and because she felt it was all unreal, she said all that was needed was Godzilla towering over the New York skyline.
But then it became real. Slowly CNN cut to more familiar presenters. More people phoned, I looked on the Internet, slow as it was then. I was deeply shocked and because I had spent four years in America, felt deeply for all those in the Twin Towers. I wondered if any friends or acquaintances were affected.
But slowly, another perspective intruded. As the camera zoomed out, you could see most of Manhattan Island and it struck me: “They’ve still got Manhattan.” Then as the camera remained on a wide angle, I realised the attack had only struck a small part of Manhattan, itself only a small part of New York.
Did this change the world? As a terrorist attack, it was the biggest ever. But as a bombing, or simply an attack, or national catastrophe, which is the way it is being portrayed, it was pretty small.
Officially, the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers claimed 2,996 lives. This figure includes the terrorists themselves, those killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center and those killed on the hijacked airliners as well as at the Pentagon.
How could about 3,000 deaths “change the world”?
It could not. What did change the world was the reaction of America’s leaders. President George W. Bush soon declared a “War on Terror” (an unfortunate phrase, as terror is a state of mind). This war on terrorism and terrorists was and is being conducted by largely conventional means, which is a recipe for failure, as previous wars have shown.
The invasion of Afghanistan which many questioned was planned to overthrow the Taliban rule in the south and destroy Al Qaeda. It pushed the Taliban into the mountains, where they remain to this day and according to reports I have from NATO member states, they are stronger than ever.
According to the Wikipedia,
so far this has cost 9142 civilian lives. A Pakistani diplomat told me recently that as soon as the Americans (or ISAF) withdrew, the government of Hamid Karzai would be overthrown “in a day” and things would soon return to what they were under Taliban rule in 2001.
Whether he is right is open to question, but there can be no doubt that all reports say the Taliban is stronger now than in the past years and US and international forces, which are hoping to leave the country soon, have not succeeded in defeating the Taliban.
There is now a great deal of anger in Afghanistan because of all these civilian casualties. Then came Iraq, which added the possibility that the US and Britain committed a War of Aggression (a War Crime). So far, a minimum of 150,000 Iraqi civilians have died to no purpose and whose quality of life has gone down dramatically, despite being “free” on paper.
The US alone has lost 5,796
soldiers, sailors and air personnel since 2001 and then if one adds Afghan, Iraqi and other allies, such as NATO members and other countries, the numbers swell into the tens of thousands.
What has this all achieved? One thing it has definitely done is prevent another attack on US soil. Two major terrorist attacks have occurred in Europe since (Britain and Spain) and in Africa (Uganda) but what has also happened is the idea of the Al Qaeda brand of terrorism has spread. It now has cells in Europe, a major organisation (Al Shabaab) in Somalia, another in Yemen, large Taliban-type groups in Pakistan, one in North Africa and another in Nigeria, to name a few.
What caused the attack on the Twin Towers? Had America’s leadership not been so self-centred, they would have understood that it was their support of Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories of Palestine that created the anger that was beneath Al Qaeda’s attacks. It was also the motivating force for the attacks against the UK.
(Whether the mistreatment of Palestinians by Israeli officials justifies the use of terrorism is an entirely different matter.)
But what is really important is not to swallow the nonsense that the attack was carried out by “madmen” or that it was a “senseless attack”. These things – to those who carry them out – appear to make sense. It is no solution to call them madmen. The solution is to analyse what caused their anger, misplaced though it might be, and address that.
Clearly, the Palestinian issue rallies first Arabs and second Muslims around the world. They take it very personally. They feel it is an affront not to some other people in a distant land, but to them. We must recognise this and address it.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration went at the problem half-cocked. Why? Having lived in America, I suspect I have an idea. America is very big. It is self-sufficient. American people are generally uninterested in the outside world. Plus the US is protected by two oceans. To the north is friendly Canada and to the south is poverty-stricken Mexico.
And there is no-one alive who can remember the British invasion of 1812 and the burning of Washington. As a result, American leaders had nothing to compare the attacks of September 11 with. In the UK many still remembered WWII and other wars, as well as Irish terrorist attacks.
(It is ironic that many Americans supported the Irish Republican Army and other terrorist groups financially. That support dried up after 9/11, but Britain never bombed Philadelphia or Boston, where most of the support was.)
I think the American reaction to the dastardly bombing, which cannot be condemned enough, was out of proportion to it. Yes, it was the worst terrorist atrocity yet committed, but going to war in countries that had little or nothing to do with the problem has only cost unnecessary deaths and done one more thing.
It has changed how the friends of America view it. Very simply, America’s friends are disappointed. And the creation of Guantanamo Bay, the renditions and the unnecessary, useless conventional wars have given America’s enemies tons of fodder to chew.
America should have used its ample secret services and special operations troops to find and kill Osama bin Laden and other leaders of the movement responsible for the atrocity.
“Eleven-nine” did not change the world. The over-reaction of the American leadership did. And it’s not for the better.