Sunday 9th September, 2007

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9/11, this era’s defining moment?

Apparently, like the rest of us, Osama bin Laden is concerned about the way he looks. The Associated Press reported on Thursday night that al Qaeda was releasing a new video of its leader in commemoration of the September 11 terrorist attacks. A still had already been posted on an Islamic Web site. It showed the fugitive terrorist mastermind, who is about to turn 50, in dire need of some eye cream. But he nonetheless tried to make himself presentable for the camera: he has trimmed and dyed his beard.

No doubt, in his last video released in October 2004, bin Laden wasn’t exactly star quality. He looked haggard and gaunt, his bushy beard unkempt—and grey.

Now, however, given his competition from beheading videos and Hollywood blockbusters, bin Laden seems to have realised that in order to appeal to a younger, martyrdom-loving audience, he must also look the part.

The West is having as much of an effect on bin Laden as bin Laden is having on the West. All he needs now is the eye cream.

Far away but real

No doubt, though, he’s had a greater effect than he had probably envisaged.

Tuesday marks the sixth anniversary of the terror attacks of September 11. And a debate is raging at American universities on whether that day’s events, and their dramatic, lingering fallout, constitute the single defining moment of this generation.

Six years ago Tuesday, 2,973 people were killed when the World Trade Center was attacked. The US military recently recorded its 2,973rd casualty, which included soldiers originally from the Caribbean and T&T.

Four years since the US-led invasion of Iraq, at least 77,852 Iraqis have been killed in the chaos and sectarian violence that ensued.

There have been the Bali club bombings, the Madrid train bombings, the London transit bombings, a lone shoe bomber, the Scotland airport fire, a transatlantic terror plot, and a JFK International terror plot masterminded by, yes, a Trinidadian.

Saddam Hussein was unearthed in a hole in the ground, his naturally grey-black beard was searched for weapons of mass destruction, and then he was hanged.

And all of this was splashed across newspapers and played out on television screens across the world. Instant technologies like camera phones and the Internet have enabled what happens a world away to be intimately a part of our world, right in front of our faces.

It sometimes seems alien to us here. What is real and right in front of our faces is the gobbled up pavement outside of the US Embassy on Marli Street and the separate form men must fill out to apply for a US visa in which we have to say whether or not we’re bomb-toting maniacs willing to die for this country.

What is in our faces is CNN talking about a Trinidad terror cell, the Jamaat al Muslimeen it is called.

What is in front of our faces is the smell of the shoes of the fella in front of us at the security checkpoint at any given airport, the fingerprint and eye scans at every port of entry that invariably ensure we miss our connecting flights.

What is in our faces is the Piarco security guard who once checked through my luggage, opened up my body lotion, and proceeded to smell it—just to make sure.

What’s in our faces is the omnipresent threat of racial profiling, used ostensibly to avert terrorist acts. Every so often in the news, Arab-speaking and Middle Eastern-looking men are thrown off aeroplanes because their language and look make other passengers feel “uncomfortable.”

Changing worldviews

And that, perhaps is the most damning evidence of how 9/11 could be the greatest defining event of this generation: the way it has changed people’s worldviews.

We’ve been inundated with messages that have ingrained new words or meanings into our heads, changing the semantics of our worldview: Islamophobia, WMD, burqa, Muslim, Islam, Arab, Middle East, Chemical Ali, Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Hell, even T&T had its own Operation Baghdad.

Iraq, the cradle of civilisation, is now an axis of evil.

Brown-skin, big-nose people like me are to be observed from a safe distance—or thrown off the plane altogether.

A new school in the world’s most multi-ethnic city, New York, that intends to teach its students in Arabic, has been forced to move, change its principal and may even be shut down as white New Yorkers protest, labelling it a madrassa.

In T&T, the visibility of Muslims has increased dramatically. No longer are they simply another brushstroke in our muddled landscape.

Terrorism is used to describe any sort of bombing—even the as yet unexplained Port-of-Spain dustbin blasts two years ago.

And with the rise of this kind of prejudice comes the rise of other intolerances. As the rise of Islam has paralleled its apparent threat, so too have racism and xenophobia spiked across the world, even in Western Europe. Local Indians know this feeling all too well when we travel or migrate.

And here, with our racially-incensed political climate, there exists the possibility of tolerance becoming impractical when so much seems to be working against this group or the other.

Arguably, the way we live, interact with and view our fellow man, the way human civilisation itself communicates and builds, is the most critical feature of life. And, if stemming from the events six years ago, then 9/11 would be not just the most defining moment in this generation’s lifetime, but also its worst.

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