9/11: The Day We Started Looking at Everyone With Suspicion


9/11: The Day We Started Looking at Everyone With Suspicion

Illustration: Akshita Monga

In this age of Broad City and Brooklyn 99, you might envision New York City as a series of shitty flats in crime-infested hipster hotspots where inhabitants either struggle to afford their daily cold brew or are Trumpian moguls – the faces of uncaring capitalism. Maybe when you think of NYC, you think of the enduring legacy of late-night shows and Broadway or the Met Gala and Fashion Week. The serious minds among us will think of the United Nations headquarters, and perhaps of Donald Trump again, while sitcom lovers dream of the The Soup Nazi and Central Perk. 

Chances are, there’s one place you rarely think of at all: The Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre – unless it is September 11. The ultimate symbol of 20th-century NYC has now been rebuilt into a new World Trade Centre since a plane hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists decimated the buildings on September 11, 2001. But unlike the skyscraper, there are some things that never came back after 9/11 attacks. 

In August of 2001, I was nine years old, a few weeks from starting in fourth grade at my primary school near Toronto. My family was rounding off the summer holidays with a trip to the Big Apple. Although it was only a hop across the soft, porous Canada-US border, I had never been to this glittering wonderland before, and revelled in the touristy magic of it all: A trip to the Statue of Liberty, the top of the Empire State Building with its coin-operated binoculars, and of course, the Twin Towers. 

The ultimate symbol of 20th-century NYC has now been rebuilt into a new World Trade Centre since a plane hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists decimated the buildings on September 11, 2001.

Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

A month later, when I huddled with my classmates and teachers around a boxy television set (these were the days before live updates on Twitter), watching those same towers crumble in a spectacular cloud of smoke as people jumped from its windows, it felt as if it was something out of a nightmare. How could these solid, upstanding buildings that I had seen a month earlier be gone? And how could such a thing be happening, not three hours from where we sat studying French and geometry? 

Last year, as I thought of where I was when the attack happened and was scrolling through tweets and tributes on Twitter, the news of another attack came in. Afghanistan’s still-functional Taliban – an organisation separate from al-Qaeda that has allied with them – decided to mastermind a rocket explosion outside the American embassy in Kabul, shortly after midnight. The attack came days after US President Donald Trump withdrew his controversial offer to have peace talks with the terrorist group, due to two car-bombings in Kabul that killed, among others, delegates on a NATO mission and an American soldier. There appears to be no end in sight to a war that has ravaged Afghanistan since 2001, and defined the 21st century for the rest of the world. 

Thankfully, reports there were injuries from the Kabul blast. But the cancellation of peace talks is just one example of how the impact of terrorism goes beyond the idea of a body count. Its aim instead is to change our culture and way of life, and the message delivered by the 9/11 attacks even today is deliberate and clear: Nearly two decades after the 9/11 attacks, we must still live in fear of terrorism. We must still remove our shoes at airports and report unattended luggage; look sideways at “suspicious” foreigners and keep them out of our countries; and pursue an elusive ideal of security at the cost of freedom, like the amended Unlawful Activities Prevention Bill that allows the National Investigation Agency to declare individuals as terrorists without trial. 

Last year, on 9/11, the news of another attack came in.

Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

India has long grappled with violence on our soil, sometimes carried out by domestic terrorists, sometimes by our unfriendly neighbour Pakistan. We’ve seen gruesome riots, train bombings, Maoist insurgencies and civil unrest. But for those of us who were not on the frontlines of these conflicts, they were part of the background fabric of our chaotic lives. We knew that terrorism could happen here. Our own reckoning only came when it happened to us, on November 26, 2008. 

Mumbai had endured terrorist attacks before: Blasts in public places that left deaths and casualties that were soon absorbed into a city where life is notoriously cheap. Death is not enough to terrorise the average Mumbaikar, who takes his chances every day with local trains, monsoon floods, and precariously built chawls. But when Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists came by boat from Pakistan, Mumbai as a whole was held hostage, not knowing how many attackers there were, which areas they would target. For the first time we knew the fear of being under siege, and none of us, however insulated we were from the troubles of the city, could avoid a brush with 26/11.

For my part, I waited for news: Of a classmate who was celebrating her birthday at the Taj Mahal Palace; a friend who, hearing gunshots, had hunkered down in his flat in a police colony near Cama Hospital; and another who had gone to get a roll at Bademiya and heard explosions and screams. They all escaped, but others were not so lucky, and there is hardly a Mumbaikar who doesn’t know of someone who was affected by the 26/11 attacks. Terror sailed through Machhimar Nagar, Colaba and happened to us. 

Like the Big Apple of my childhood before the 9/11 attacks, the carefree Mumbai that existed before 26/11 will never come back. Now, military guards line the coast, and hotels greet you with metal detectors and bomb-sniffer dogs. Nor does it feel like we ourselves will ever be fearless and unguarded again. Even as the spectre of terror fades from our day-to-day lives, its shadow is cast over our minds, a constant threat that, for all our vows of “never again”, seems impossible to check. But then, I’m no foreign policy analyst or security expert. I’m just holding onto the last remembrances of a world where we weren’t all terrified.