02 May 2011

Remembering 2001 in 2011

Unless you have spent the past 24 hours in a cave, you will have heard the news that Osama Bin Laden, leader of Al-Qaeda, hero within the jihadist terrorist movement, and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks was killed by US forces yesterday. I found out this morning during breakfast when I logged on to the internet to check my email and consequently almost choked on my oatmeal as I read the headlines coming in from The Washington Post. After almost ten years, I believed that perhaps bin Laden had died long ago or else was going to evade capture indefinitely. Between this, Wikileaks, and the Arab Spring it has definitely been an exciting year to be a student in the Department of War Studies.

While I am patriotic, I am usually not overly so (mostly because there are thousands of other Americans who are so rabidly patriotic that it more than makes up for my lack of outward shows of enthusiasm).  And call me silly, but I can't help but be moved by the significance of this event. I was 13 and in 8th grade on September 11, 2001, which meant that I was old enough to appreciate the magnitude and understand the wider implication of what happened. If 'Where were you when Kennedy was shot?' or 'When the Challenger went down?' were the questions to demarcate previous generations, 'Where were you on 9/11?' is the one that will be asked in the future of mine. In my case, I was at Hammond Middle School experiencing one of the most traumatic days of my life.

Although the attacks occurred at the start of the school day, the school administration did not feel it necessary to inform the students what had happened. I understand the rationale behind this since the youngest students in the school were perhaps 10 years old. Still, news that something terrible had happened quickly spread amongst the 8th graders although no one knew exactly what, and rumors can often be more vicious than the reality. I remember sitting at lunch listening as people said that DC had been bombed, that New York City had been invaded, and, what at that time had seemed the most implausible, that planes had been flown into buildings around the US. At that time my father worked in central DC close to the Capitol and White House, and I knew that he had been scheduled to visit the Pentagon that week. I remember it being an absolutely hellish afternoon as the rumors increased in frequency and atrocity, and I was all but sick with worry as I fretted over what had happened and whether Dad was fine. At long last, we were released from school and I was able to be reunited with my parents at home within 30 minutes.

Luckily for me, my father was alright (and I don't think he ever fully understood just how worried I was), but it was at home that I learned that some 3000 others were not. I think this is probably the first time that I heard the word 'terrorism' used...or perhaps it is just the moment when I learned the full extent of what the word can mean. It was for a lot of Americans, marking the end to the sense of security that existed prior to September 2001. (Perhaps it didn't exist at the time, but the tendency these days is to look back with nostalgia to the pre-9/11 period as a time of blissful ignorance.)

The events of that September day ten years ago changed the lives of everyone, but it is perhaps my generation that has been influenced by it the most. We are the ones who have fought (and will continue to fight) in the ill-defined and prolonged 'War on Terrorism' in Afghanistan and Iraq, who will bear the long-term economic and social costs of these wars, and whose futures have been formed in the resulting 'culture of fear' that has arisen. Just as the children of the 50s were influenced by their experience with the perceived nuclear threat of the USSR, so my generation has been impacted by our experiences with terrorism. More and more young people are entering the national security, counter-terrorism, and intelligence fields than ever before (except, perhaps, during the height of the Cold War). It has certainly played a factor in my decision to study international relations, OSINT, and terrorism. (Note: I can only speak from the perspective of one who grew up in the 90s and 00s ('noughties' here in the UK) and will not presume to speak for the experiences of those of earlier generations.)

The capture and death of Osama bin Laden therefore marks an important landmark of the US' 'War on Terror' since it provides a decisive victory in the first task initiated in the war: to find the man who was responsible for masterminding 9/11. Unfortunately, it is not the end of the threat, far from it since Al-Qaeda is merely one of the many terrorist organizations around the world and its cellular network will make it impossible to eradicate entirely. And, indeed, there are many around the world who will see bin Laden as a martyr in the struggle against the aggression of the US-led West. Already the US Department of State has issued warnings to its embassies and citizens abroad to be wary of a potential anti-American backlash. But it is important to remember that the vast majority of the individuals around the world are happy to see bin Laden go and I sincerely hope that this event will not feed the anti-Muslim sentiments that seem to have been brewing in the US for some time now. (I have been meaning to write a post on the differences between Islamic terrorism and non-radical political Islam for some time now, but have not yet found the time. They are two very different things, but most people seem unaware of this fact.)

In closing: In this time of celebration (as, from what I've heard, the general atmosphere in the US seems to be today), it is important not to forget the immense price paid to achieve this victory. In addition to the 3000 individuals who died on September 11, 2011, some 4,700 American servicemen and women have died and 30,5000 have been wounded in the War on Terror (Iraq and Afghanistan fronts). This number does not include the mass numbers of American and non-American civilian casualties sustained in the war. We must remember the sacrifice that they have made, and continue to make, in order for such victories to be possible.


Hopefully this will be the last serious post for a while. Usually turning on the news everyday is depressing enough without people having to read about it on my blog. (More importantly, every time I post something even remotely political in nature, I am afraid to check my inbox for fear that I've offended some relative/friend/reader or another. It is for this reason that I try to keep the politics in this blog to a minimum.) In the near future, maybe even tonight depending on how sick I get of revising (UK-speak for 'studying') postmodernism and critical theory, expect posts on: my trip to Seville, the last few days in London, and my pre-marathon freak out(s). (Believe me, there will be more than one.)

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