When terrorists converted passenger aircraft into missiles and flew three of them into the Pentagon and the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center (WTC) on 11 September 2001, Lakshmi and the present writer were a short distance away. As usual during visits to New York (NY), our place of stay was the Lexington Hotel, which at the time was owned by the Taj group. Headquarters had sent one of their finest to NY, Sam Bhadha, who was genial while being a very efficient manager of the cavernous hotel he had been put in charge of. The previous evening, Lakshmi had told a friend of ours, Professor Deborah Cordonniere, that she was going to have breakfast the following morning at the View of the World, a restaurant located inside the twin towers. We had spent nearly two hours after dinner searching for Debbie’s car, for she had forgotten where it had been parked. Street after nearby street was combed without any sign of her car. Finally, we made our way to a nearby police station and asked for help, being met with a smile and a shrug. Judging from the reaction, it was apparent that Debbie was not the only New Yorker who had forgotten where her car had been parked towards nightfall, nor was tramping the streets to locate it a priority for the New York Police Department (NYPD). Finally, the car was located, in a street that had been searched and missed by us an hour and a few minutes before, and a relieved Debbie went off to her home some miles away in the city. As mentioned, Lakshmi had told her of her intention to have breakfast at the WTC during the course of the evening. Next morning, a frantic Debbie called our room and asked where Lakshmi was. In our hotel room, obviously. “Not at the World Trade Center?”, was the immediate reply. While Lakshmi had been keen the previous evening to go to a restaurant that was more well known outside NY than in the city, she changed her mind after my suggestion that we instead go to the breakfast buffet at the Lexington itself. When Debbie called, it was barely a few minutes since we had gotten up, and she was inexplicably happy that Lakshmi had not gone to View of the World that morning. When Debbie realised that neither of us had any idea why she had been in turn frantic, she asked us to put on the television set in the room, which we did at the precise moment that the second aircraft slammed into the other WTC tower. In minutes, we raced down to the lobby and out of the hotel onto the street. In the distance, brown smog was rising, and almost in slow motion, could be seen specks that were people there. New Yorkers are similar to Mumbaikars, in that they have a brisk pace while walking on pavements, unlike the more laidback denizens of the Bangalore of those days, who ambled along and refused to believe that speed was as essential a part of walking as was the case with Hew Yorkers or Mumbaikars. We were to fly out the next day, but all flights were cancelled, and the ever-helpful Sam Bhadha agreed to allow us to stay an extra four days at a reduced cost in order to catch the next available flight back to India. That evening, we joined the throng of people who silently moved along the streets, many with lit candles in their hands. There has been much talk of nativist tendencies within the US population, such that many of European ancestry are supposed to look with hate on those who have a deep tan and who sport a beard, such as the present writer. Let it be said that beard and tan notwithstanding, the behaviour of every individual we encountered on the streets around our hotel that night of 9/11 was warm and welcoming of our presence. There was a fellowship of everyday human beings with other everyday human beings, as distinct from those who sought to cause terror and death. We were even given a candle each by a Good Samaritan who had several in her hand, and we were glad to join those who sought through that flickering, that comforting, light to lessen the darkness of what Osama Bin Laden and his backers and followers had done, which was to change the way the world looked at itself, and at the way many looked at each other. What the NYPD or the NY Fire Department or so many First Responders among New Yorkers did that day is testament to the fact that New York can rise to a challenge exactly in the manner Mumbai did during and after the 2008 attack.
Although 9/11 occurred on the watch of President George W. Bush, its seeds were laid during the administration of Bill Clinton. Among his favourites was Robin Raphel, who had an exceptional degree of affinity towards the terror machine that is the Pakistan military. Her tutor is widely rumoured to be Shafqat Kakakhel, a suave diplomat who was as committed to harming India as he was to the good life he led wherever he went. Clinton made her Assistant Secretary of State, and she made it her mission to somehow force India to surrender at least the Kashmir Valley to Pakistan. The other desire of President Clinton was to arm-twist Prime Minister Narasimha Rao into following the path subsequently trodden by Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, of destroying all domestic nuclear and missile capability. Rao weaved through such pressures, stabilising the situation in both the ISI-infested zones, those in Punjab and Kashmir. He was repaid for this by Sonia Gandhi setting up a Congress Tiwari under N.D. Tiwari (whose predilection for certain forms of aerobic exercise subsequently became known across the country). The Congress (T), which also housed Sheila Dikshit and Arjun Singh, could sway enough votes in 1996 to ensure that the BJP secured a much larger number of Lok Sabha seats than expected. To the end of his days, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was grateful to Sonia Gandhi for facilitating his party’s climb to the top of Indian politics, with himself occupying the same office that Sonia’s mother-in-law and husband had been the occupants of. In case President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney had an ounce of knowledge of the situation in South Asia, they would not have brushed aside Vajpayee’s offer to assist in the battle against the terror machine that had taken root in Afghanistan. Instead, Bush and Cheney retreated to the past and as in the 1980s, chose Pakistan as the partner in the War on Terror, something as strange as placing a compulsive arsonist in charge of the fire brigade. Small wonder that the Taliban revived, and the terror machine continued in its deadly fashion, ending in the retaking of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its Sino-Pakistan patrons on 15 August 2021. While India celebrated its independence from colonial oppression that day, the people of Afghanistan were thrown into slavery as a consequence of Biden early into his term repeating what Clinton had done in 1996. Putting the Taliban in control of Afghanistan. President Biden apparently does not see the irony in his going to the locations that had been attacked by terrorists on 9/11 two decades back. Terrorists nurtured and mobilised by the same group of extremists that had been responsible for providing the petri dish in which the 9/11 plot was developed into deadly efficacy. Just as there are biological labs that undertake “Gain of Function” experiments to ensure that viruses become even deadlier than nature has made them, the Taliban is adept at ensuring that an atmosphere get created in the locations they control as would enable terror groups to refine and perfect the instruments and methods by which they go about the task of mass murder of innocents. This is the group that President Biden and several other world leaders have given not only a free pass to, but also laid out a welcome mat for them. Bill Clinton escaped the blame that was rightfully his for 9/11. Will President Joseph Robinette Biden be as lucky when the next mass terror attack carried out by the new Afghan regime takes place, as it inevitably will? That is unless Biden reverses course, serving as a force-multiplier not to bigots and extremists but to the majority of Afghans who seek to prevent their country from once again be used as a dumping ground for international terrorists. Unless Biden does so, he will tarnish not only his legacy but the reputation of a country that prides itself as the “shining city on the hill”.