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The al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center (WTC) and Pentagon buildings on Tuesday, September 11, 2001 wasn’t simply another terrorist attack, but rather the terrorist attack against which all future ones would be measured. The events stick in my mind like bookmarks, to which I can turn back the pages of my memory to recall where I was and what I was doing at that time.
• 8:46 a.m.: American Airlines Flight 11 crashes into the WTC’s North Tower.
I am working in a Toronto bank building. Shortly before 9:00 a.m., my wife calls and says an airplane has flown into a New York skyscraper—details are sketchy.
• 9:03 a.m.: United Airlines Flight 175 hits the WTC’s South Tower.
In an uncanny coincidence, my job is planning for, among other contingencies, a potential business interruption due to a terrorist attack. As I join co-workers at a television, I’m struck by the similarity of unfolding events to the scenarios I dreamed-up to exercise my plan.
• 9:37 a.m.: American Airlines Flight 77 hits the Pentagon.
What’s next, I wonder, the White House? Rumors come fast and furious: Toronto is a target; an attack on the CN Tower is expected. We speculate. Co-workers try to relieve the tension with dark humour. Some are nervous about being on the 51st floor. Switching between news channels, we seek answers to un-voiced questions. We believe 10,000 lives have been lost.
Family members call in for updates. A son travels regularly, so there’s relief when my wife says she’s tracked him down—he’s safe.
We activate emergency call-lists. How un-real it all seems. Some co-workers leave for home. Those remaining see the South Tower collapse.
• 10:03 a.m.: United Airlines Flight 93 crashes near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
There seems no end to this tragedy: the North Tower falls. The news is overwhelming—I become outraged.
At 11:00 a.m., my division shuts down. No one wants to be that high up on the Toronto skyline. I head home.
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That morning, the world changed forever. The butchers’ bill was appalling: nearly 3,000 victims were dead and among them were more than 400 firemen, police and emergency workers. Casualties belonged to dozens of nationalities, including 24 Canadians. But perhaps the cruelest cut of all was seeing the mass celebrations in the capitals of Arab and other Muslim countries when news of the attacks reached them.
For many, it was an eye-opening experience—it became clear we were indeed in a culture war pitting international Islamists against Western Democracies. George W. Bush declared war on “terrorism,” but it went deeper: a clash between Western democratic culture and a religion-based belief system rooted in the darkness and ignorance of the middle ages.
Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida had sowed the wind; soon they would reap the whirlwind. The war in Afghanistan and the hunt for bin Laden and his followers have cost thousands of lives, including bin Laden’s and an unknown number of Muslims’, some of whom were innocent victims—and it still rages. The Iraq War, which began in 2003, has cost tens of thousands of lives and countless injuries, mainly to Muslims.
Post-9/11, Western Democracies face constant threats of lethal attacks from Islamic jihadists. Over 200 people were killed in the 2002 Bali bombings (Bali having been chosen because it attracts Westerners to its tourist destinations). The 2004 Madrid train bombings killed 191. Fifty-two were killed in the 2005 home-grown Islamist attacks in London. Dozens of other attacks have been botched by jihadists or averted by the alertness of beefed-up intelligence and security agencies.
Aftershocks of 9/11 are still to be measured. Among them, we can include the 2009 Fort Hood, Texas shooting and the July 2011 slaughter in Norway. In time, we may have a full accounting in terms of lives and treasure, but what of the cost of tolerance lost, supplanted by apprehension and distrust?
For many Westerners, Islam is no longer an object of curiosity and tolerance; post 9/11, it’s an object of fear and suspicion. And who can blame them?