9/11: Twenty Years On | Daily News

9/11: Twenty Years On

Terrorism takes many forms, but at its core, the goal is nearly always the same. Terrorism subverts our liberties, our values and our way of life. We in Sri Lanka have experienced the worst atrocities that can be committed by terrorists in the name of ‘liberation’. Terrorists often claim to be fighting for freedom, but that is the very thing they take away through their sheer barbarism.

What exactly is terrorism? There is no single accepted definition of terrorism. There are more than 100 definitions of the word, the first use of which was recorded in 1795 in The Times (UK). The US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a Government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives”.

As the reference to 1795 shows, terrorism is not altogether a new phenomenon. But the world lacked a collective will to fight terrorism in all its manifestations until 20 years ago, when, in one defining moment, it became clear that it must be fought firmly and decisively. That moment is forever etched in history – and our minds.

I was in the Daily News newsroom watching CNN when it happened on September 11, 2001. My heart sank as we watched live pictures of passenger planes slamming into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York. I felt it personally as I had visited the WTC while in New York just one year earlier on a journalism programme.

More than 3,000 people perished when 19 terrorists crashed airliners into the World Trade Center Twin Towers in New York and into the Pentagon. A fourth airliner, now famously known as United 93 (watch the Paul Greengrass movie of the same name to get a better understanding of what went on), crashed after passengers overpowered the hijackers and thwarted their plan, apparently to attack the White House.

Reports indicate nearly 10,000 people have developed cancer from breathing toxic dust caused by the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre. That was (and remains) the single biggest act of terrorism on US soil and even worldwide, it is one of the biggest attacks ever. It spurred a chain of events, some good, some bad, but the overall effect was a heightened awareness that terrorism everywhere should be crushed. The events of 9/11, though happening on the other side of the world, had an immediacy that we could easily identify with. When many New Yorkers experienced terror for the first time, we knew how they felt: We had been there.

The immediate reaction of the US after 9/11 was to declare a ‘War on Terror’. Though this was aimed mainly at al-Qaeda, it gave impetus to campaigns by other countries to crush terrorism. Sri Lanka was one of the beneficiaries of this approach. It also became evident that terrorist groups learn from and collaborate with, each other.

The events of 9/11 propelled the world to cooperate with regard to fighting terrorism within and beyond their borders. Suddenly, terrorism in one country could not be treated as an isolated chain of events. The world community realized that all countries could be affected and the UN has passed several resolutions to contain acts of terrorism.

While more countries are affected by terrorism today, the number of victims has largely been concentrated in a small number of Member States. In the last few years alone, nearly three-quarters of all deaths caused by terrorism were in just five countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia and Syria.

Worldwide effort 

Justifiably, September 11 saw an intensification of the battle against al-Qaeda and its chief Osama bin Laden, who was killed in a US Navy Seal operation in 2011. Despite a worldwide effort to crack down on terror, there had been many tragedies that could have been prevented if more intelligence was available.

The biggest threat to world peace that has emerged in recent times is the terror network known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ISIS is an extremely barbaric terror group that should have no place in the modern world and modern civilization. So horrendous are its methods that even other terrorist groups have dissociated themselves from the group. Confronting the ISIS has become an urgent challenge for the world community and it has since been contained in many areas. No country is safe from their brand of extremism and terrorism. Their ideology, if it can be called as such, is diametrically opposite to that of Islam and Islamic clerics the world over have condemned the group unequivocally. They inspired the terror attacks here in 2019 that killed more than 260 people and injured around 500.

The media, both traditional and new (Internet based), too must act with caution and restraint at this hour. All terrorists seek an outlet to get publicity for their activities and causes and the ISIS is no different. Fears have been expressed that certain videos released to the Internet on the horrific exploits of ISIS may have served to glorify the group in the eyes of certain vulnerable and gullible youth. Social media operators too must act cautiously lest the group(s) gain undue publicity.

No matter what happens, it is important not to give in to terrorism. The Americans were resilient following 9/11 and resolved not to let their nation be haunted by the tragedy, although it was an unspeakable horror. Sri Lankans too, had always stood up to terrorism as one through countless killings and bombings. Indians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Iraqis and Indonesians, among others, are showing the world that terrorism cannot take their freedoms away, even if lives can be snuffed out. The world must help those nations and peoples who have been affected by the scars of terrorism.

This is why it is important to remember 9/11 every year. It is a site that reminds us that no matter how gruesome terrorists can become, they cannot hold us to ransom. It is a site that pays homage not only to the memories of 3,000 people, but also to the hopes of people the world over for a world without terror.

The site still resonates with the embers of the last moments of life of those who were on the planes and those in the buildings, even as a new ‘Freedom Tower’ was set to rise from the ashes. It tells of the courage of firefighters and volunteers who risked their lives to save others. It is testimony to the determination of New Yorkers to stand up to terror.

Terrorism can destroy lives and buildings, but not the collective will of a people to fight terror. It is a place worth visiting, if only to reflect on the futility of terror.

One inevitable fallout of 9/11 has been a restriction of personal liberties which had been taken for granted. Yes, these measures can sometimes be humiliating, but they are also necessary. It might not always be possible to balance security and liberty concerns while battling terrorism.

There is also a raging debate as to whether global terrorism can be defeated in its entirety. One school of thought is that constructive engagement or negotiations must be the basis for resolving terrorism. Post 9/11, there are instances where terrorist groups have given up arms and entered the democratic mainstream. Aceh and Nepal are two examples. But what if a terrorist group spurns talks and literally sticks to its guns? That was the case in Sri Lanka, where several rounds of peace talks had been held with the LTTE until it was crushed in 2009.

Violent means

Separatism still seems to be the cause célèbre of many terrorist groups, as it was in the case of the LTTE. But there are other causes espoused through violent means. Groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS have distorted religious edicts to wage a ‘war’ against the West and Western interests. It is also difficult to battle elusive terror groups who have no ‘territory’ so to speak.

They cross porous borders with ease and usually blend into the civilian populations to evade capture. It may not be possible to launch conventional war tactics against these groups except for air strikes against possible hideouts, which comes with the possibility of collateral damage to civilians.

It is also not possible to offer so-called ‘political solutions’ to groups which have no ‘demands’ in the conventional sense but only hazy objectives shrouded in religious or ethnic garb.

Terrorists are also resorting to new methods to spread terror. There are fears that biological/chemical agents and pathogens could be released by terrorists. What if terrorists get their hands on a virulent contagion such as the novel Coronavirus?

Intelligence agencies must always be one step ahead of terrorists to thwart such plans and attacks. As the saying goes, Governments have to be lucky all the time, whereas terrorists have to be lucky only once or as a saying from Afghanistan goes, “you have the watches, but we have the time”. Incidentally, there is real possibility of Afghanistan again becoming a hotbed of terrorism following the recent developments there.

Eternal vigilance is the only answer. Terrorists must not be allowed to destroy our democratic and moral values, even if they succeed in destroying our mortal lives.

They must not be allowed to destroy our societies and our future. Twenty years after 9/11, the world must resolve to make terrorism a thing of the past. In the meantime, we should have a place in our hearts for victims of terrorism. Justice must be meted out the victims, even if the wheels of justice sometimes move slowly. The Bataclan terror trial in France began only on Wednesday, more than six years after the attacks. Yet, what is important is seeking justice for those affected, however late it may be.  

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has commended communities around the world for demonstrating their resilience in response to terrorist attacks, saying they are countering terrorism and violent extremism in their everyday lives, in their schools and in their places of worship.

“When we lift up the victims and survivors of terrorism, when we listen to their voices, when we respect their rights and provide them with support and justice, we are honouring our common bonds, and reducing the lasting damage done by terrorists to individuals, families and communities.”

 Thus the 20th anniversary of 9/11 is a good time to remember all victims of terrorism and say “Never Again” and commit ourselves to fight against terrorism in all its manifestations. It is a scourge that must be wiped out for the greater good of the greatest number.

US President Joe Biden will mark the solemn 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks by participating in ceremonies at all three 9/11 memorial sites, the White House has said.

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