We all live in a world that was born that day, 20 years ago
Precisely two decades ago, outside my home on the Hudson River waterfront, I watched the World Trade Centre towers crumble into a mountain of ashes. Our shocked knot of neighbours called out in involuntary anguish, while the toddler in my arms grew instinctively hushed.
Everyone looked at each other in disbelief: We had just witnessed the unimaginable, with infinite implications for each of us, and all together.
“My first emotion was confusion,” says Naresh Fernandes, the Mumbai-based founder-editor of Scroll.in who then worked for the Wall Street Journal in offices directly below the ill-fated towers.
Fernandes survived the maelstrom, then walked home to Brooklyn in its apocalyptic aftermath. He recalls: “The planes hit relatively early in the day -- and therefore early in our shift. We had a paper to produce. Because of our location south of the towers, we didn’t actually see the plane hit the building -- it looked like the building had caught fire. Almost immediately, I could see people scamper on to the ledges of the tower and as the flames began to reach them, they would jump. I saw dozens of them leap into the void.”
All of a sudden, “there was another roar -- and the flames seemed to jump from the first tower to the second.”
This was Flight 175 ramming into the South Tower, sending a shower of debris to the streets. By that point, I was already on the waterfront, drawn out by the screaming whine and impact of Flight 11 flying into the North Tower, which is why I saw the inconceivable second crash right in front of me (it would take years to stop panicking every time a plane passed overhead).
But even if this was clearly an unprecedented attack, none of us expected what happened next. Fernandes recounts: “We waited in the street for quite some time. It was obvious that the fire brigade would put out the blaze and we’d be able to return to finish editing the next day’s edition. A policeman came by asking us to move along because there was a possibility that the towers could fall. No one moved. Those were big, solid structures. There was no way they could fall. And then they did.”
Further uptown, the editor-in-chief of this newspaper was also living through this excruciating moment.
In fact, until nine months before Mohamed Atta piloted his hijacked jet into the North Tower, Zafar Sobhan worked at the law firm of Brown & Wood on the 67th floor of that same building.
He remembers: “I could see WTC from my south-facing office at my new midtown firm, and in fact saw both towers pulverized to dust and fall. I think we all felt powerfully that the world had changed, and would change in ways we could not immediately anticipate.”
It was the same for me and Fernandes, but Sobhan had an additional insight. He notes: “I certainly knew even then that not just the US would change, but my place in the world as a liberal Muslim. And so it has been. The biggest long-term impact of 9/11 has not been on the US but on the Muslim world and individual Muslims, in my view.”
That point of view makes perfect sense, because, back then, even while New York City came together relatively impressively, the US was pivoting to “fight back” against an ill-defined enemy it projected onto an imagined “clash of civilizations” comprising an assortment of convenient targets.
We now know that, on the afternoon of 9/11 itself, the odious war-monger Donald Rumsfeld (he was secretary of defense) wrote to his deputy Paul Wolfowitz to dig up connections between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. The next day, his purported boss, the haplessly incompetent George W Bush, repeated the request to counter-terrorism expert Richard Clarke, and was visibly disappointed when informed there was no link.
The world supported the US in its quest to hunt al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, but less than five months after 9/11 in his January 2002 state of the union address to the US Congress, the president was equivocating mendaciously about an absurd “axis of evil” comprising the Ba’athists in Iraq, their sworn enemies in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and -- most ridiculous of all -- the hermetically sealed dictatorship in North Korea.
In his 2006 book State of Denial, Bob Woodward details what the recidivist war criminal Henry Kissinger answered when speechwriter Mike Gerson asked why he had supported the devastating blunder into Iraq: “Because Afghanistan wasn’t enough. [In the conflict with radical Islam] they want to humiliate us. And we need to humiliate them in order to make a point that we’re not going to live in this world that they want for us.”
For these mindlessly hollow motivations, in the most morally bankrupt manner, the fires of 9/11 were stoked to spread across the planet.
As we have seen most clearly in the ongoing American abandonment of Afghanistan, there are no victors. Everyone lost.
“The impact of 9/11 on geo-politics has been widely discussed,” says Fernandes, “because the fall of the towers gave governments everywhere an opportunity to rationalize their suppression of fundamental freedoms.”
But that was not all, because the cataclysm “also spooked the financial markets and the economic tsunami that followed has re-shaped the world just as profoundly. The financialization of daily life proceeded at an even quicker pace. For journalism in the US -- and then in many other parts of the world -- the period after 9/11 completely altered the way the business of media was conducted. Right until Covid, the ripples of 9/11 continued to be one of the strongest influences on how we lived our lives.”
Making the comparison to the 1914 assassination that sparked World War I (which itself presaged World War II and the end of colonialism), Sobhan says that “9/11 was the Archduke Ferdinand moment for the 21st century.”
He explains: “The real epoch-defining event for Bangladesh and the rest of the Muslim world was the Iraq invasion in 2003. As a result of that war, the way in which Muslims interfaced with the rest of the world -- and more crucially with one another -- changed forever. But Iraq would not have happened if not for 9/11, so for our generation and for those who come, whose world has been forged in the aftermath of Iraq, we all live very much in a world that was born on that day 20 years ago.”
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.