PETER YOUNG: What has the US learned 20 years on from 9/11?

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Peter Young

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SMOKE pours from the World Trade Center on September 9, 2001.

NEVER forget the loss, grief and pain that is deep, consuming and ever-present. This was surely the enduring message when America, with sadness and solemnity, paid tribute on Saturday to the nearly 3,000 victims of 9/11. It was the 20th anniversary of the deadly terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in 2001.

The huge loss of life of those inside the 110-storey Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, both of which were destroyed, and at the Pentagon and on flight 93 in Pennsylvania - as well as of the first responders who reacted to these terrible incidents with such bravery and dedication - makes it one of the worst disasters in the nation’s history. These were acts of extreme violence, the consequences and repercussions of which changed the world.

Despite the importance of continuing to honour those who perished, it is clear the annual remembrance ceremonies at the various memorials - Ground Zero, the Pentagon and Shanksville in Pennsylvania where flight 93 crashed - bring back extreme pain to all those involved. Emotions remain raw - even after so many years - for the thousands who had their lives disrupted or destroyed. The traditional practice of reading out the individual names of all the victims by family members and others is unbearably poignant; especially the separate deeply personal messages spoken at the same time, with people saying their grief had not diminished over the years and that they felt the spirit of their loved ones remained with them.

That such an horrific surprise attack could succeed on American soil was profoundly shocking. It created chaos and destruction and brought home to people the brutal randomness of sudden death. The enormity of what happened was almost beyond comprehension, and many thought the world could never be the same again. This was followed by anger - across a nation which at that time was still united in a manner which can only be dreamed of today - together with a fierce reaction and steely resolve to respond with the utmost force.

The commemorative events at the weekend have been so widely covered in the media that they do not bear further repetition. But I should like to offer comment on the broader aspects of the US stance and actions that since then have, in the opinion of many, sadly left the world a more dangerous place.

Any US President would have been forced by public opinion to chase down al- Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the 9/11 atrocities. So, an invasion of Afghanistan, where it was based, was inevitable. Moreover, it appears many other countries saw this as a defining moment and supported the US action as the world came together to condemn terrorism. But a long-term presence of US armed forces was another matter. Many consider it was a mistake to try to defeat terrorism through military occupation, but others argue it was effective in the case of Afghanistan because there has been no such terrorist attack on the US for some 20 years.

Meanwhile, however, among other actions the US damaged the rest of the world’s view of the West by its invasion - with its close ally Britain - of Iraq in 2003; and there followed accusations of the torture of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay who have been held without trial and the scandal of torture and mistreatment of those held in Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.

Iraq was invaded on the false prospectus of Saddam Hussein’s development of weapons of mass destruction which were never found. It was part of the misguided strategy of the so-called “neo-cons” in Washington to try to impose democracy in the Middle East but only resulted in huge loss of life and served to destabilise the region and lead to the rise of ISIS.

Many believe seeking to export Western-style democracy is doomed to failure. It is absurdly simplistic to think the principles and practices of democracy can be applied in countries that have different histories, backgrounds, traditions, institutions, customs, local conditions and way of life as well as varying loyalties and tribal conflicts. Furthermore, to do this through the application of force creates opposition, resentment and a lack of co-operation and is therefore unachievable. It is generally accepted it is never possible to prevent terrorism in the long-term by military force. Evil exists and terrorists, who have a warped ideology and dangerous disregard for human life, need to be confronted by force. But the experts say the only way to tackle this scourge on a permanent basis is a “hearts and minds” approach of addressing root causes like poverty and internal pressures arising from sectarian or religious strife.

So, while other countries accepted the need for a fierce US response to the horrors of 9/11, despite the use of a sledgehammer - through its so-called war on terror - the world has become, 20 years later, an even more threatening and perilous place than it was before.

The US appears to be going through a crisis of confidence, but perhaps it will seek in future to work more effectively in concert with other countries against the terrorism threat rather than using its military might. In his speech at Shanksville on Saturday, former President George W Bush spoke of the lack of unity in today’s America and what he called a “malign influence” that turns every disagreement into an argument resulting in the anger and resentment of current US politics. He called for a return of the unity that existed in the very different era of 2001. But most agree that this depends on strong political leadership to encourage those concerned to work together and try to bring back a spirit of tolerance and co-operation to public life – something that is lacking in America today.

IF MINNIS WINS ON THURSDAY HE’LL HAVE A MANDATE FOR ACTION

WHILE the emphasis this past week has inevitably been on 9/11, the most significant event here at home is, of course, the general election on Thursday. As a retired diplomat, I am instinctively reluctant to comment publicly on Bahamian domestic politics. But, from what I have heard and read, it might be worth making a few points.

Many people seem to be asking whether, in calling an election so many months ahead of its due date, the Prime Minister has something up his sleeve, when it seems unwise to hold one at a time of a surge in COVID infections and at the height of the hurricane season. So perhaps he has a compelling reason of which others are unaware.

Electioneering has been strangely different this time with an absence of the usual large rallies and virtual ones instead while campaigners have still been out and about. But one aspect that has been controversial is the FNM’s commercials carried on foreign TV news channels criticising the PLP and its leaders on a personal basis.

Some think that instead of such negativity it would have been more effective for the FNM to spend time explaining and promoting its own policies on a range of issues of importance to the electorate – for example, the election-winning proposal to provide free food for all children in government schools.

The indications seem to be the FNM will prevail again but with a reduced majority – and it has been reported to have won last week’s advance poll. Assuming Dr Minnis secures a second five-year term as Prime Minister, his position will be strengthened to such an extent that he will be well placed to push through much-needed major reforms.

So, I have heard that people are wondering whether he and his colleagues will listen to the call - published in The Tribune - by the Organisation for Responsible Governance (ORG) for new policies that would ensure “transparent and accountable governance”. ORG has produced an “open letter” identifying a series of issues and policies which the group suggests should be priorities for the next administration. These are wide ranging and look to me to be wholly pertinent. Many believe it is good that pressure should be brought on the government in this way in an effort to improve not only its transparency and accountability but also its efficiency and effectiveness.

This comes, of course, at a particularly difficult time for the country. The Tribune commented editorially in June that there was no secret about the situation in which The Bahamas finds itself. It was in debt even before being hit by the twin blows of Hurricane Dorian and COVID-19, and now the national debt exceeds $10 billion.

One does not have to be a trained economist to realize that, without a huge cut in public spending, the only way forward is to stimulate economic growth. Since it is the business sector that creates wealth so it must be a priority to make it easier to do business and to reduce the cost of it – in particular, to reduce bureaucracy and regulation. But, even if legislators establish a framework for this, what is surely needed is a system of “checks and balances” to ensure that officials carry out their tasks honestly and expeditiously – in connection, for example, with business licences – and are accountable for their actions.

Since the FNM has pledged to improve governance, rebuild the economy, help small businesses and create new jobs, perhaps a new government will find it helpful to take heed of ORG’s suggestions.

As for the election itself, I found it interesting while in the car the other day to listen to my good friend Wendall Jones on his daily show on Love97. I hope I am quoting him correctly as saying there was a need to build on the amazing country that we all enjoy by fighting corruption, showing discipline and adopting good business practice for the betterment of all. I hope I also heard him properly as adding that in a modern Bahamas pragmatism should be the order of the day rather than what he called emotionalism and that people should vote on that basis rather than on old loyalties as has often been the case in the past. It seemed to me that there could be no better advice than that.

FAIRY TALES CAN COME TRUE

A NEW star of women’s tennis has burst upon the scene. What a pleasure it is to write about the superb achievement of 18-year-old Emma Raducanu from Britain in securing her wonderful victory in the final of the US Open on Saturday.

In a thrilling clash, she defeated Canadian Leylah Fernandez - at 19 also still a teenager - to win the women’s title in straight sets 6-4, 6-3. She thus became the first British woman to win a major in 44 years, and, given the strength in depth of today’s women’s game, it is being called one of the greatest underdog stories ever. Having entered the tournament as a wild card, Emma had to go through the qualifying rounds and was the first qualifier ever to reach the final of a Grand Slam and then to emerge as champion.

Her performance during the two-hour long final, which has been described as one of the most dramatic matches in recent women’s tennis, was outstanding.

After her earlier meltdown at Wimbledon, there had been doubts about her ability to handle the pressure at the top level of the game of which she had had little experience. But throughout the tournament she displayed impressive calm, quiet resolve and self-confidence together with an iron will and ruthlessness in overcoming a number of top players. As some commentators observed, her technique and overall ability were so good that she was capable of handling extreme pressure on the court while coming out on top.

What has also been impressive is her demeanour off the court, with her ready smile, modesty and self-deprecating humour as well as her composure at such a young age in handling TV interviews and speaking so eloquently.

Emma Raducanu’s superlative success in becoming a Grand Slam champion has blown everyone away. She has earned enormous praise in Britain from every quarter – including a personal message of congratulations from The Queen. She has become a role model and her accomplishment will doubtless inspire other young people to take up the sport. Everybody will surely now wish her well as she pursues what promises to be a spectacular tennis career.