The history of terrorism did not begin on Sept. 11, 2001. Terrorism is as old as history itself. No country, no nation, no generation has ever been spared its cruelty and the agony terror can inflict on its victims. Are not abductions, piracy, drug trafficking, torture of prisoners, invasions and occupation of sovereign states, ethnic cleansing, persecution of minority groups, the trial and death of Socrates, the assassination of Gandhi, the long imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, the assassination of Rabin and Sadat, the demolition of houses, or the arrest of the innocent, all acts of terror? Before Sept. 11, daily acts of terror went by unnoticed.
Until Sept. 2001, most Americans were under the illusion or the delusion — that, since they lived in the most technologically advanced country in the world, they were blessed with absolute security. Until that date many in the West believed that terrorism was the lot of the poor, and that acts of terror were committed in slums unknown to the rich and powerful.
It is a sad truth that the tortured, the persecuted, the unfairly arrested, the unjustly imprisoned and cruelly massacred from the Third World have no faces and no names. Their misery, their pain, their screams, their cry for help and their dead, mutilated bodies are only noticed by the Red Cross, the Red Crescent, Save the Children and other humanitarian and relief organizations. Few in America, for example, are aware that many men, women and children from Africa, Asia and the Middle East perished on Sept. 11, 2001.
The attack on New York and Washington was undoubtedly a horrific act. It was directed at the world’s only superpower and the world’s greatest economy. It affected the entire world and brought misery to almost every home. It marked the end of an era and caused a global political earthquake. It caused divisions, polarization, political agitation and battles that will never be forgotten. It set the stage for ferocious battles in Afghanistan, the collapse of the Taleban regime, the arrest of many “suspects.” It unleashed an unprecedented and unjustified wave of animosity in the West toward Islam and Muslims.
Although no links were found between Iraq and the attack on America, the war on terrorism took an unexpected U-turn and hit Iraq. After months of weapons inspections and a great deal of haggling and negotiation in the UN, the forces of the “coalition of the willing” started bombarding an oil-rich Arab country.
The war on Iraq will occupy an important place in history books. It has divided our global village into two camps. A large camp argues that the war is unjustified, illegitimate and immoral, and a small camp believes in pre-emptive strikes and considers the war moral, legitimate and absolutely essential for world security in general and for the national security of America in particular. History will pass the final verdict, when we are long gone and forgotten.
It is a pity that the goodwill and the sympathy which the United States received from every corner of the world after Sept. 11 could not set us firmly on the road to peace. It is sad that the Iraq issue was not settled peacefully, despite the genuine pleas, the loud protests, the many demonstrations and the long negotiations. Instead, the gates of an inferno have been opened. We know better than to believe that an F-16 and a “smart” bomb are smart enough to distinguish between civilian and military targets.
The war in Iraq will ignite violence in the Middle East. It will claim thousands of victims if it does not stop soon. It is sad that the media is covering the war as though it were a video game, and not a war that daily takes the lives of people who will be missed by their families and friends. The war will inflict pain and suffering on all of us, regardless of who we are or where we live. Those of us far from the war zone may lose jobs, money and a few relatives or friends. Those of us trapped in the war zone will be injured or killed by smart bombs or conventional arms. We will all suffer psychological pain.
Since Sept. 11 we have all lived in fear. Americans fear terrorist attacks against unspecified targets by unspecified suspects. The entire world is holding its breath, afraid that a new world disorder may soon show its ugly face.
It is hard to be sane when surrounded by madness. It is hard to be rational in an irrational world. But that is exactly what we should
Under the rubble of the twin towers were buried people of many colors, races, religions and nationalities. They are a great symbol of the bond that unites humanity and a prime example of our cultural diversity. Surely the victims of the towers would want us to defeat terrorism, but do not want us to wage wars and kill innocent civilians in their names.
Terrorism will not be defeated with drones, F-16s and smart weapons. It will be defeated with justice, humility, honesty, truth, compassion, friendships, trust, respect for cultural diversity, reverence for world faiths and love for humanity and international law. Our knowledge and our experience should be a torch lighting the way in the long dark tunnel which the world entered on Sept. 11, 2001.
Dr. Ibtissam Al-Bassam is academic adviser to assistant director-general for education, UNESCO (Paris). She was formerly the dean of College of Education for Women in Riyadh and King Fahd Academy in London.