9/11: The Turning Point
In September 2001, soon after the attack on the Twin Towers, the Bangladesh government issued a public announcement to contact the America & Pacific wing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the whereabouts of Bangladeshi residents. The director concerned was travelling from Barishal to Dhaka that evening; he remained ignorant of the horrible incident that had taken place that day. He came directly from Sadarghat to his office and started receiving a flurry of phone calls from worried relatives. He called in his associate, my wife, and asked: "What's the deal with the Twin Towers?" My wife briefed him, but he was in utter disbelief. "What do you mean the towers have collapsed? How could that even happen?" he exclaimed. My wife used two pencils and an eraser to demonstrate the incident, only to confuse the man even further. He rested his chin against his hand, and said: "Thank God, I took a photo in front of those buildings during my last visit."
The emotional turnabout from denial to acceptance can be explained through the Kübler-Ross model of grief management. The same stages can be detected in the American attitude towards 9/11 if we think of the calamitous military withdrawal from Afghanistan as a form of acceptance. Once the anger phase following the initial denial was subdued, there was a series of bargains and depressions that characterise the American response in the last 20 years.
The disbelief that a terror attack could occur in the American heartland led the Americans to believe that the worldwide War on Terror was needed for the protection of the free world. President George W Bush vowed that they would bring the war to the terrorists, dividing the world into the "us" and "them" camps.
I vividly remember when the first air raid took place; CNN showed pictures of Afghan fighters riding horses, with the commentator saying: "This is the war between the 21st century and the 11th century." The war exposed the clash of civilisations, as American political scientist Samuel Huntington theorised, and spread to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan, among other places. Following 9/11, the US narrative started painting the Muslim world with the brush with which their indigenous population was once portrayed: the noble savage and the bloodthirsty savage. Individuals such as Malala would therefore become the good Muslims, while the Taliban were the bad ones. Crediting some Muslims as innocent till proven guilty was the bargain that the US was ready to offer, which justified its trade deals with oil-rich countries.
Then the rise of the number of soldiers in body bags and the trillions of dollars from the taxpayers' money spent to restore democracy or fix rogue states caused nationwide depression, leading to the endgame officiated by the Biden administration. The Taliban returned to power on the heels of an agreement they had signed with the US in Qatar last year, and the suicide attack at Kabul airport shows that Afghanistan still remains a safe haven for al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Does it mean, after 20 years, we are back to the denial-anger-bargain-depression-acceptance cycle all over again?
Then again, it would be a fallacy to think that these emotional categories exist in watertight compartments. Is it possible for the anger to burn out so easily when so many lives are lost and the national pride is hurt? We have already seen how the slow-burning anger can morph into xenophobia and Islamophobia that allowed President Donald Trump's illiberalism to flourish.
How has 9/11 changed the world? For brown people like me, with Islam written as the religion on my passport, being routinely pulled out for random checks or getting extra Thai massage at the airport security line has become more frequent than ever. To be honest, such racial profiling does not make me angry anymore. I know many of my friends who live in the US had to change their names to avoid backlash soon after the tragic incident. Now we live in a post-9/11 world where we have accepted such nuisance as normal, just like we have learned to live with surveillance in a Big Brother state.
In defining who the enemy is, America has defined itself too. The arrows and olive branch held by the American icon, a bald eagle, used to traditionally determine the hawkish and dovish foreign policies of different administrations—9/11 changed all that. America no longer wants the puritan belief of being an exclusive indispensable role model for the world. In unleashing its Global War on Terror, America had to change some of its essential values. It started violating its own laws. Illegal confinement and interrogation outside its territories and ghost flights suspending its habeas corpus is a case in point. The post-9/11 America saw most of the global challenges around the world through the lenses of Islamic terrorism and the crusade dictum. Exuberant spending on the War on Terror allowed certain groups to become richer and more influential than ever. The extra funding created mercenary militia and innovative weaponry. The surveillance system became more sophisticated than ever to encroach upon the liberty of every civilian. The system became corrupt. And what's dangerous is that the US model is being replicated by governments across the world.
Police forces now behave like the military. And the radical terrorists see the reflection of their enemies in totalitarian and dictatorial states. The ground zero has shifted so much that it is no longer possible to pin down on the centre of terrorism or to identify the cocoons of terror. The connect-the-dots investigative journalism of Michael Moore's documentary, "Fahrenheit 9/11," argued that the inner circle of the Bush administration used media to cash in on the fearmongering and benefit from the wars. Whether such paranoia is true or not is for the American people to decide.
The US had the world's sympathy for 9/11. The attacks did characterise the assault on the heart and soul of every freedom-loving soul. When the US went after the perpetrators of 9/11 in the mountainous terrains of Afghanistan, the sympathy remained intact. The democratic changes and the nation-building process in Afghanistan were heart-warming to see. The retreat from Kabul, however, tells a different story. It takes us back to the question: Why did the Twin Towers fall? How did it change not only the US but also the whole world? There are people who would still like to hold on to the image of a pre-9/11 America with its signature skyline.
Shamsad Mortuza is acting vice-chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), and a professor of English at Dhaka University (on leave).