|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
20 - 26 September 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Someone else's problem
Last Tuesday afternoon, in the office of the editor-in-chief, we watched mesmerised as a view of the top of the World Trade Center in New York, surrounded by a heavy plume of smoke, appeared on the screen. "America under attack" CNN subtitled the breaking news item. The volume was turned down and at first I did not understand what we had been summoned to witness. And then we saw the second tower, punctured by a gaping hole from which red flames were surging as more black smoke billowed furiously around the edifice.
It was rather unreal, like watching one of these break-the- budget science fiction movies that feature spectacular attacks on New York, NASA or the Pentagon. Were there aliens on the rampage? To add to the eeriness, the anchor was announcing that the Pentagon had just been hit. A few stunned reporters giggled nervously. This could not be happening. Someone asked if this was his private nightmare, and we were all part of it. But two words had caught my attention: "passenger plane." I made a dash to the telephone, my legs buckling under me. I was vaguely surprised to remember so clearly the telephone number I dictated to the operator. While waiting, I tried to work out the time in Florida. Was my daughter on a plane, on her way to Kansas? In a daze, I heard my younger daughter say: "Here, talk to your mother; she's having kittens," and took the cell phone that was pushed into my hand. "Calm down, mother, we're all fine," my older daughter said. "The children are home from school and we are not going anywhere." Had I known at the time that George Bush was in Sarasota, a stone's throw from where my family lives, I would have been in even more of a panic, if that were at all possible.
Reassured now, I went back to watching the horror unfold. As the authenticity of the scenes we were beholding sank in, we began to wonder how the United States, with its sophisticated arsenal of weaponry and information technology, had left itself open to such a simple plan. The unpredictable logic of terrorism had raised its head -- and, as expected, it was connected in the reporting with the word Muslim.
My heart bled for the victims, but my feelings of sadness began to change as the day wore on. Bush had been afraid to return to Washington at first, and the whole improbable scenario concocted to hide his momentary absence sounded rather pathetic, I thought. Fear is a familiar feeling for those living in the Middle East, and I really did not find it in me to blame him for taking maximum precautions.
When he came on television later, announcing: "we will use all our resources to conquer the enemy," a different kind of incredulity took hold of me. Although careful not to name the "enemy", it was becoming clearer by the minute that Osama Bin Laden was the prime suspect. Did the United States need "all its resources" to capture him? Was he more powerful than the most powerful country in the world? By nightfall, I gathered that America considered itself at war. What, with one madman? Did that justify the full mobilisation of not only the US military, but NATO as well?
The US had created the monster in the first place. In the days when they needed him to fight communism in Afghanistan, they had armed him and encouraged him. Couldn't they control him anymore? Had they allowed him to grow so much it now took all the Western powers to restrain him? As one expert after the other offered informed opinions, the ineptitude of the intelligence operators in the field came to light. Someone mentioned that the Americans could not infiltrate terrorist groups because that would mean dealing with many unpalatable characters. I could not help thinking that American intelligence work must have been conducted only at embassy receptions, by pompous "spies" and "specialists" who never bothered to learn the language of the country they were operating in, or listen to the grievances of the indigenous populations. They pooh- poohed the hatred generated by the United States' arrogant attitude toward anything that was neither Western nor lily-white.
The spectacle on CNN began to look so dismal as the day wore out that I forgot lofty political considerations and simply wept: at the children who had lost their parents, the parents who had lost their children and the general misery that had befallen the American people. Then, as I watched through the night, I heard Secretary of State Colin Powell giving the world his take on the catastrophe. America was going to find the culprits and make them pay for their horrendous crime. Furthermore, the civilised (Western) world was going to hunt down terrorism and extirpate it ruthlessly wherever it could be found. I almost applauded. I was all for an end to terrorism if such a thing was possible. But Powell did not stop there. America, he said, could not and would not live under the threat of terrorism. Mothers should not worry about their children when they left for school; law-abiding citizens should not be terrified walking the streets of their own cities. "We cannot be terrified: we are Americans," he concluded proudly. I felt anger well up in my heart. Why, Mr Powell? For many, many years the citizens of several countries have faced precisely that threat every day -- courtesy of the United States. Do they deserve to live in dread of being bombed off the face of the earth, annihilated while crowding some refugee camp or surviving in a poor hovel on the outskirts of Jerusalem or Baghdad, simply because they are not lucky enough to have been born American, or because they did not bow immediately to the formidable will of the greatest power in the world?
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