The 10th anniversary of the audacious terrorist strike, remembered in popular culture as 9/11, that brought down the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York, leading to the deaths of thousands, is due later this week.
The US would seek some comfort in the fact that it achieved partial closure a few months back by hunting down the main perpetrator—Osama bin Laden. In the process, it once again demonstrated its reach as the most powerful nation on earth by picking out Osama from Abbottabad in Pakistan—in fact, from right under the nose of its military, which coincidentally has a massive base there. It is a power that China aspires for—especially if its belligerence along India’s frontiers is considered, not to speak of the browbeating it effected on an Indian Navy ship in the South China Sea recently—and also recommended by some for India. Watch what you wish for; it is not for the faint-hearted.
Undoubtedly, 9/11 was a singular moment in modern global history that triggered a chain of events that have, in some instances, completely reworked the international political economy; in fact, the change, as we are witnessing the second stage of the regime changing Arab uprising, is continuing. It changed the way we think about the rest of the world, the way we live—security is now a part of our lifestyle architecture.
The attack, which was soon established as one sponsored by Al Qaeda, inspired a response that transformed the presidency of George W. Bush—who had won a controversial election in 2000 over his Democratic party rival Al Gore. It also marked the emergence of non-state players on the global stage—till then, they were more remembered for their activist positions during global trade and environment negotiations.
The US government, like the rest of the world, was taken by complete surprise. New York city was shattered. The greatest city on earth completely lost its chutzpah. Personally, thanks to a foreign reporting assignment, one had a first-hand experience of the city weeks after the devastation.
The area around the WTC was cordoned off, smoke was still billowing from the site where the towers once stood, and people had scribbled graffiti (some demanding revenge, others making a case for peace) on the dust-laden windowpanes of shops in the neighbourhood. Even to visitors, who were lucky to have seen the majestic sight of the twin towers from the Brooklyn Bridge walkway at night, it was an emotional engagement. At that moment, the world stood together behind the US.
The swift military response, inspired by Bush’s “with us or without us” philosophy, led to the rout of the Taliban—ruling Afghanistan and who had close ties with Al Qaeda. It is an example that can’t be emulated; politically and militarily, no other country possesses this kind of clout.
But, just as you move a part in a puzzle, everything else changes too. The biggest shift was in US relations with the subcontinent—it became a central focus of its foreign policy. Pakistan gradually lost its pole position, and India’s point of view began to be heard—it had consistently argued that terrorism was a global problem and was being nurtured consciously by countries such as Pakistan as a strategic weapon; this argument was often disregarded at international forums. The covert manner, also a slap in the face of Pakistan, of the operation to hunt Osama was only a confirmation of the new equations. India-US relations have acquired a momentum and form that could never have been imagined even a decade ago.
Bush was unstoppable after Afghanistan, launching a successful regime change in Iraq. Though this led to the battle against terrorism acquiring a hue of anti-Islam, there was no doubt that seeds of change had been sown in West Asia. It was not that the American invasion was the trigger. Instead, it is a fact that the situation—thanks to autocratic regimes, a shift in demography, rising aspirations, and a growing demand for political freedom—was ripe for change. The US action only accelerated the process of change that was inevitable.
Significantly, the US itself was forced to look within. The attacks brought home the fact that it was no longer a homogeneous entity—predominantly Christian, English-speaking and white. Again, this change did not happen overnight and had been gradual—led by a new wave of immigration from Latin America (as workers in the informal sector), Asia (the software boom inspired movement of personnel from China and India), Europe and West Asia.
The shift, where minorities became more than a significant number, was first visible in the 2000 US census; the 9/11 attacks only brought forward the national debate on the country’s rapidly growing heterogeneity (something we take for granted in India with its 22 official languages, 350 dialects and multitude of cultural differences). Subsequent presidential elections have reflected the growing power of various minority groupings. This is particularly true for the Indian American community. Their presence in the US goes beyond providers of information technology solutions and pop culture items such as mehendi (Madonna was among the top stars to embrace it). A cursory overview of the sitcoms and crime series aired on television show how the soft power of Indian American culture has permeated US society.
However, on the larger question of whether the so-called war against terror has been won, there is no clear answer. It certainly cannot be totally won ever. Mercifully, there is a growing realization that a comprehensive strategy needs a critical political component. It will be interesting to see how the global political leadership led by the US juggles these changes even as it adapts to a new world order where aggressive countries such as China are no longer also-rans.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at email@example.com