We all remember how blue the sky above Manhattan was on September 11th 2001. Who can forget the scenes we witnessed live on our TV screens around the world on that beautiful autumn day? It was a rare moment among only a few that we can recall so clearly, remembering exactly where we were and what we were doing.
We watched 2977 people die right in front of our eyes, as if we were there ourselves, and we couldn’t tear ourselves away, however horrific the scenes. It was the ultimate inhuman human story. It affected us like no other event perhaps because we could place ourselves there. We could immediately relate. It was New York, for goodness sake. The uncivilised had come to our civilised land to commit the most unspeakable evil. We felt close to the victims, as if we knew them, as if it could have been us that day.
Many of us have walked the streets of Manhattan, taken the elevator to the top of the World Trade Centre and gazed in awe across the city, looking down on tiny yellow cabs and miniature people scurrying about their business, watching the traffic build up on the Brooklyn Bridge and seeing the Staten Island Ferry shuttle back and forth. We could imagine what it might have been like to have that gaze interrupted by the shock of seeing a commercial airliner heading straight for us, dropping to our knees, calling our loved ones to say ‘goodbye’ when we knew there was no way out.
What if I were to tell you that a 9/11 had happened every month over the last twenty years? It would sound unbelievable. How did you miss it? Surely you’d have known. You’d have felt that same sense of shock and shared grief. Anyway, if it were true, you’d have seen it on TV. Someone would have told you.
The truth is, there weren’t 2977 victims of 9/11. The Global War on Terror that was initiated in the immediate aftermath of that day is estimated to have created millions of victims and the death toll continues to rise, most recently 10 members of one family, including 7 children, who were killed by a US drone strike in Kabul on the final day of US evacuations from Afghanistan.
We still don’t know precisely how many victims there have been over the last 20 years but research carried out by Brown University, and recently updated in a report for the 20th anniversary of 9/11, put the number of direct victims of the Global War on Terror at 900,000. Almost half of those are estimated to be innocent civilians. US counterterrorism operations continue in 85 countries around the world and there is little to no transparency around civilian casualties, making the 900,000 likely a significant undercount.
There have, then, been at least 3750 deaths for every month of the last 20 years as a result of US operations that were initiated in response to the events of that sunny morning in 2001. But, other than footage of the war in Iraq, we didn’t witness them. There were no TV cameras to observe their final moments, no relatives to tell their stories to the world, no public memorials, no mass mourning, no public outpouring of grief for them. We didn’t consider that it might be us this time. How could we? We didn’t know. If we did know, we couldn’t relate to them. They weren’t in a place that we knew so well. We couldn’t imagine ourselves there, in a dry, dusty uncivilised land, the home of the bad guys, the ‘evil doers’.
But each one of those innocent others was just as innocent as each one of those that died in New York, Virginia or Pennsylvania. The difference is that they died at the hands of the civilised and thus their deaths were justified behind civilisation’s mask. Let’s face it, we know that the Global War on Terror isn’t ‘global’ at all. It is simply another attempt to impose a western value system on non-western cultures, by moral insistence and ethical violence. Anyone not signed up to the War on Terror would be cast out of the ‘global’ club, no longer members of this planet’s community, united as the US would have us believe, against a common enemy.
Those who didn’t join Bush’s caravan of counterterrorism, would be considered terrorists themselves. “You’re with us or you’re with the terrorists” was the threat.
In Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere, families were instructed on how to live a peaceful, democratic, civilised life, while a gun was held to their heads. They were told that we are in this fight against tyranny together, while they watched their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and children blown to bits by US flag carrying drones.
Their doors were kicked in, their homes ransacked, and their children traumatised by western saviours who were there to fight the terror, not to inflict it. Husbands and fathers dragged off into the night, never seen or heard of again, so that their wives and children might sleep soundly in their beds in a promised bright new future, sponsored by US Inc.
Young men were told they were brutal monsters, before they were tortured in the most brutal and monstrous of ways by those carrying the banner of western values, human rights and civil liberties. Innocent men were locked up indefinitely in a far-off land, out of sight and beyond the reach of any legal jurisdiction,by those who designed and drafted international law.
Just as the colonial masters of old treated their native ‘barbarian’ subjects in the most barbaric of ways, the US and its allies have inflicted more terror on the globe than any of those that were labelled ‘terrorists’.
Yes, the sky was blue on the morning of September 11th 2001.
But it was too at noon on 31st October 2011. A 16 year old Pakistani boy called Tariq Aziz was driving to collect his aunt from a wedding, accompanied by his younger cousin, Waheed. Their car was struck by a US missile fired from a drone and they both died instantly. Tariq loved photography and football and had, just 3 days earlier, met Jemima Khan, the former wife of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, at a conference in Islamabad to discuss the constant drone bombardment of the province of Waziristan, where Tariq lived. At the meeting, Tariq had agreed to help Jemima with a project to document the horrors, the deaths, the injuries sustained by civilians under attack by US drones.
The sky was also blue on 24th October 2012 when 68 year old grandmother, and wife of a retired school headmaster, Mamana Bibi was picking vegetables in the fields for her family, surrounded by her grandchildren. The US drone killed her instantly, scattering her charred body parts over the field, also badly wounding 5 of her grandchildren.
The sky was also blue on the beautiful evening of 12th December 2013, the day that a wedding party in Yemen came under US drone attack. A convoy carrying male members of the party were heading to the bride’s family when a US drone killed 12, none of them members of a terrorist group, immediately creating more widows and orphans. A day of celebration, turning into a day of tragedy at the hands of the ‘good guys’.
There were blue skies on 30th August 2021, too, when 7 children in one family were playing in their yard and were killed in an instant by a US drone strike, described by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, as a “righteous strike”. Let that sink in for a moment. It was stated as morally right to murder 7 little kids as young as 2 years old. It later emerged that the adults that were killed, far from being IS-K militants, were in fact a contractor for the US military and a worker for a US based NGO. They too were waiting to be called for evacuation. Gen Milley could describe it as righteous, because that’s what the Global War on Terror is, a righteous war, one being fought on behalf of humanity, the ‘good guys’ vs the ‘evil doers’.
On the 20th anniversary of September 11th 2001, at 2.03pm UK time, I will recall the moment that I and others in the BBC World Service in London, where I worked, realised we were watching a terror attack, as the 2nd plane flew in to the South Tower. I will think of the 2977 victims who died that day, but I will also think of the millions of other victims of 9/11, whose deaths will not be marked by any anniversary.