- Gateway House - https://www.gatewayhouse.in -

Imagining Terror

I was ten years old on the morning of 9/11. We still went to school that day. Our teacher had written upon the board Franklin D. Roosevelt’s quote after the attack on Pearl Harbor, marking “a date which will live in infamy.” She knew we couldn’t fully understand what that meant.

Now, ten years later, most of what I can remember of 9/11 is the sense, however distant, of a brush with evil. It was no ordinary crime; it brought about vivid horrors for which no education is required to grasp; The orange flame and awful black smoke, bodies falling, the ravenous cloud of debris that suddenly roared down out from the sky to chase each tower to the ground.

Beyond that, change would soon sweep through the politics and people of my country, and the world would have to wait. The most lasting world events of my own childhood would only be learned through study, in the years ahead through the recorded memories of others.

9/11 left my generation with an understanding of terrorism built upon the foundations of pain, revulsion, and dread.  As more information came with time, imagination filled in what memory could not. For the scale of his inhumanity, Osama Bin Laden became the embodiment of evil; a demon who came to stay. Terrorism was an elemental force that lurked everywhere, that weighed upon us as something that could pour forth through any breach.

Just a few months ago, I was in Mumbai during the July 13th bombings. Leaving the office with some friends, we had parted ways with others who were getting on packed commuter trains for their nightly commute. Shortly after, hearing only that an explosion had gone off in Dadar, I felt for the first time the sharp, clenching dread of wondering whether I had just lost a friend (thankfully, I did not).

Yet what struck me far more was the reaction that I saw in the following days—or rather, the lack thereof. Trains that would have been deserted following such an attack in the US were packed with Mumbai commuters the very next morning.  What I initially assumed was spirited resilience soon revealed itself to be something else: a weary resignation to violence, all too familiar to those around me.

Many speak nowadays of the innocence of America shattered by 9/11. Yet it is clear to me that so much of it still remains. Despite the singular horror of 9/11 and the smaller incidents that have occurred since, death and destruction are thankfully not yet our daily reality. We speak of terrorism as something that can be vanquished, with the fervent determination of a people for whom the pain is still fresh and jarring.

Ten years later, our abstraction of the human phenomenon of terrorism –both in our relative insulation from continued violence and the way in which we think about the threat—no doubt frustrates our allies who view the world from a position not quite so removed.  Yet that lingering innocence, that instinct to think of terrorism as something akin to communism and fascism, allows us to muster the indignant resolve that has kept the US in the fight against it.

In the past ten years, that innocence has proven to be the source of both hope and misadventure.  As we enter the next ten years,it remains to be seen whether that innocence can even persist, or if it should.

Jonathan Yang is a former Summer Associate at Gateway House, and currently a student at Yale University.

This blog was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

For interview requests with the author, or for permission to republish, please contact outreach@gatewayhouse.in.

© Copyright 2011 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited