The 10th anniversary of what to the Americans is only second to the attack on Pearl Harbour during World War II falls today. The parallels are somewhat similar in that the nation was caught napping despite early warning signals, and then its leaders reacted with a sledge-hammer on the perceived perpetrators of the heinous crime inflicted on them.
The then US Administration assembled a 'coalition of the willing' (because there were so many unwilling) to wage what it called a 'war on terror'. They launched a terribly flawed, both by way of fact and by international law, invasion of Iraq as its leader initially became a prime suspect in what is now known as the 9/11 attack. It had the hallmarks of a hidden grudge as well at the highest levels of the then US Administration. They said that Iraq harboured Weapons of Mass Destruction but it turned out to be a weapon of mass deception.
An estimated 3,300 people died during the multiple attacks on US targets on 9/11; so many lives were also ruined as a result. Our Plus section today features a Sri Lankan who had a narrow escape. It was the turning point in the worldview of the US Administration, and in many ways, the American people. Back home, the scourge of terrorism had already hit us at the time. We have stated so many times before, but it is worth repeating, that then the Western world's priority was other issues.
The Commonwealth Secretary General, a former New Zealand Foreign Minister was in Colombo when 9/11 occurred. Hours before the strikes, he had met Sri Lanka's then Foreign Minister who had asked why the subject of terrorism was not on the forthcoming Commonwealth Summit agenda. When the Secretary General had asked the Sri Lankan Minister if he insisted that it be so, and received an answer in the affirmative, the Secretary General had made a face. The next morning though, on 9/12 he had come out all guns firing against terrorists the world over in a statement issued from Colombo. And not only did the subject get on the Commonwealth agenda, it also made it to the UN General Assembly agenda - to the top of the agenda at that.
As the US-led war on terror was unleashed, the pain, anguish and fear that the American people felt was shifted transcontinental to Afghansitan overnight and later to Iraq. Millions of people in those countries -- men, women and children -- went through a period of living hell making 9/11 pale into insignificance. The question was posed; how many Iraqi lives equal to one American life?
In the decade since 9/11, some US$ 2.6 trillion has been spent on the war on terror. Yes, they have neutralized the al-Qaeda, the group that was eventually found to have masterminded 9/11, and killed its leader recently, but in the process the moral standing of the US has taken a beating.
Most Sri Lankans would have sympathised with the reaction to 9/11. One would not have accepted the offering of the other cheek for another slap. But the US Administration lied to its people about Iraq and crucified those who did not toe the government line, branding them traitors. Today there are Americans who feel ashamed of falling for the total lie. And yet, there was justification to go after those who had so brazenly declared a Jihad on American soil, on the American people. It was the tactics adopted that were dubious.
Then came the double standards. While the US defence arm, the Pentagon, threw the book on the laws of war to the winds in its quest to crush the al-Qaeda, its diplomatic arm, the State Department, went about preaching the gospel of human rights to selective countries, including Sri Lanka, that had their own share of terrorism simply because they had not necessarily heeded the US advice. While the US strained to argue that its war on terror was not against Islam, it refused to give the same benefit of the doubt to Sri Lanka that its war on terror was not an ethnic war.
Recently a US spokesman called upon Sri Lanka to charge or release all suspected LTTE cadres now in custody while blithely continuing to keep al-Qaeda detainees indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay.
That the US, like any nation in the world has only permanent interests and not permanent friends is a fact of life. So is the realization that the end-game of the high-pitched exhortations from the US State Department and those who have PhDs on human rights and the ear of the Oval Office calling for 'independent' investigations into allegations of human rights violations during a phase of Sri Lanka's war on terror, is for the government in Colombo to fall in line with their foreign policy more than anything else.
Not that American democracy is not to be admired. With all its faults, the US is one of the most open, liberal and democratic societies in the world today. Yet, it has a dark side and a questionable track record. In the last thirty years it has engaged in direct military action in more than forty countries worldwide -- Iraq being the most contentious.
The events of 9/11 shook the Americans very badly and its Homeland Security Office that was set up as a direct result has clamped a heavy hand on civil liberties. The US was not what it was 10 years ago. At airports thousands are subjected to humiliating body checks, and those on the suspect list are under constant surveillance. Ten years on, Islamaphobia is still on the rise.
The 9/11 holocaust changed the psyche of the American people and the US Administration, though the incumbent President is at least trying to put some perspective into the knee-jerk reaction in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. The US war on terror goes on. Drone attacks on al-Qaeda targets continue in Afghanistan and Pakistan to where the war has shifted with civilian casualties overlooked as 'collateral damage'.
The US-led alliance has even taken the war to Libya, though on some other grounds. It seems they can take their war machines anywhere in the world at any time with UN mandate or otherwise.
For all that the US believes it is doing to put the world right, there are those who bitterly hate the country for different reasons and get a vicarious satisfaction in what happened on 9/11 ten years ago. There has to be something wrong somewhere if so many want to give the US a shot below the belt given the chance.
As the US finds ways and means to recover physically and psychologically from the effects of 9/11, resolve its own problems and reconcile differences, and on the other hand runs a crusade to crucify Sri Lanka at the altar of the public opinion one might say to them in the words of a great teacher from Asia -- turn the searchlight inward; be a lamp unto yourselves.