Justice? Not for those I saw plunge to their deaths

Last Updated: Mon, May 02, 2011 13:13 hrs

Many of us are looking back in time today to a September morning in 2001 in New York that changed life as we knew it in America.

I relive that morning often, rather grudgingly though, forced by a strange compulsion to make sure I never forget.

The exact sequence of events have blurred over the years. Only certain images, moments remain crystal clear.

I remember getting out of the Canal Street subway station and seeing a gaping, black, hole in the North Tower, billowing with thick grey smoke.

Walking past a parked vehicle that had the radio on, hearing, over the distant sirens, the news commentator saying something about how they weren't sure what kind of plane had crashed into the tower...

Half-running, half-walking toward the buildings, my heavy laptop bag hitting against my thigh, when the second aircraft rammed into the South Tower, exploding in a roaring ball of orange flames.

Hours later, running again, this time to avoid the tidal wave of dust and debris from the collapsing buildings as it engulfed the surrounding streets.

And, of course, the incongruousness of it all taking place against the backdrop of a serene blue sky!

Then in the evening, while walking blindly along the streets of downtown New York trying to make sense of the horror I'd just witnessed, I came across a message scrawled on the windshield of a car covered with dust from the collapsed World Trade Centre towers: "F**K OSAMA BIN LADEN"

I was a fresh-off-the boat foreign student back then, a little over a month into my stint at the Columbia School of Journalism, and frankly, not well-versed enough in US and Middle East affairs to make the connection immediately.

But my Pakistani classmate, Fahad Hussein, did.

The next day, his face drawn and grim, he predicted accurately the sequence of events that would follow - the US attack on Afghanistan; the massive hunt for Bin Laden; and his own nation's awkward role in this whole tragic, messy and continuing affair that has changed the way we live our lives, get on planes and view much of the Muslim world (I should perhaps qualify, the last bit by adding that the attacks have spurred many efforts to understand Islam better).

But no one, not even Fahad, could have guessed then that it would take nearly a decade, and so many failed wars and lives lost, to track down the elusive mastermind of the September 11 attacks.

Full Circle

We'd just finished a lazy Sunday dinner at our Berkeley, California home when my husband's phone beeped a seven-word news alert from CNN: 'Osama bin Laden is dead, sources say.'

Disbelieving, I rushed to my computer to check the news.

Word of the al Qaeda chief's death was going viral on news channels as well as Twitter and Facebook. Flag-waving, national-anthem singing Americans were gathering outside the White House in DC, at Ground Zero in New York and at public places across the country to celebrate. President Obama was about to address the nation.

I watched Obama make his speech - sober, contained and thankfully, largely devoid of any 'rah-rah! America wins!' kind of gloating that so defined the Bush era.

Over the next couple of hours, more details trickled in.

An early morning 'surgical raid' by US forces on a compound in an affluent suburb near Islamabad. A brief firefight. Several killed, including one woman and four men (one possibly Bin Laden's son). Fifty-four-year-old Bin Laden resisting 'the assault force' until a bullet to his head ended it all. Americans 'in custody' of his body planning a formal Islamic funeral. And then, a quick burial at sea.

So it has come to pass. Our world's biggest bogeyman, the ideological chief of a multinational terrorist organisation, is gone. There's not even a grave left to mark him by.

Do I feel relief? Do I feel that justice has been served to those I'd watched plunging to their deaths back on that sunny day in September?

No, not really. It's not over yet. We all know it. There's still Afghanistan. And Iraq. And, well, Pakistan. The list is long.

No, what I feel, above all else, is an immense sense of waste, and of the sad, slow, march of time that inexorably catches up with one and all, no matter how fast we run or how well we hide.

Maureen Nandini Mitra is managing editor of Earth Island Journal, an award-winning US environmental quarterly based in Berkeley, California. In addition to her work at the Journal, she writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India.

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