A year is not a long time in the history of the world but it is long enough to be rid of the cobwebs of illusion and hyperbole. Conventional wisdom accepts that 9/11, which has attained universal recognition in this abbreviated American form, changed the world. More reasoned analysis would, however, reject such a hyperbolic assertion. There is no doubt that in human terms the tragedy was colossal. Yet global terrorism was not invented on 9/11. It has become a cliché to declare, for instance, that India has lived with terrorism for nearly two decades. But this statement does reveal that terrorism and even suicide bombers have existed for decades, and that many other states and societies have been targets of this kind of violence. The modus operandi may have changed, but innocents have been killed in terrorist incidents in the past as well. Similarly, al Qaida and Osama bin Laden may seem not to have many parallels in history, and yet organizations like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or the Lashkar-e-Toiba were often as deadly in the methods they employed, and their cadre displayed an equally fanatical zeal.
The attacks did demonstrate that multi-cultural and multi-ethnic open and democratic societies are particularly vulnerable to terrorist incidents. But this tension between individual freedom and national security has been known for some years now, and ably documented by several political theorists. Indeed, even the “cruel divide” between Islam and the West, to use the phrase of the political scientist, Mr Fouad Ajami, has been in circulation for some time. The deeply flawed essay of the Harvard academic, Mr Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations”, had popularized the idea of the battle between Islam and the rest much before September 11, last year. But by attacking the most important economic and political symbols in the most powerful nation that has ever existed in the history of humankind, al Qaida was able to starkly demonstrate two important realities.
First, that the United States of America, despite the huge arsenal of weaponry at its disposal, was vulnerable and could not be protected, in any foolproof way, from such desperate acts of “asymmetrical warfare”. Ironically, 9/11 happened even while the Bush administration was stridently defending its decision to build a defence system that would protect the US from “missile attacks from rogue states”. Second, the terrorist attacks revealed that there were a sufficient number of people who hated America so much that they were willing to voluntarily destroy themselves to damage the US. While there is little new about popular anti-Americanism, the sheer intensity of this feeling was demonstrated on September 11, 2001, and in its aftermath in the protests that were witnessed all over the Muslim world. In bringing to the fore these realities, 9/11 did not change the world, but it profoundly affected the way the world was being viewed by citizens of the United States of America.