21 years ago on this day, the world woke up to the news of the terrorist attacks in New York and witnessed one of the most influential events of the new century. The terror attacks affected not only politics but vast areas including personal lives of individuals.
To further discuss the issue, IQNA reached out to Rollie Lal, an Associate Professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs.
Lal teaches graduate courses on Transnational Security, Foreign Policy, and International Political Economy. She is also Co-chair of the Global Affairs and Religion Network (GARNET). Her research focuses on organized crime, terrorism, religious extremism, human rights, China, South Asia, and other areas. Previously Dr. Lal was Associate Professor at the U.S. Department of Defense’s Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies.
Here is the full text of the interview:
IQNA: Although more than twenty years have passed since the terrorist events of September 11, this event still affects political issues in the United States. What do you think is the reason for this?
Lal: The September 11 attacks were very shocking for most Americans and the government. People in the US were focused on the US strategy of forward defense, a thinking that the military would fight all wars away from home close to the adversary.
This would protect them against any adversary and keep the national borders safe. As a result, the loss of almost 3,000 people in the September 11 attacks was unbelievable to many. This proved that the existing US military strategy was flawed. It also indicated that something else was wrong.
Most Americans believed that the US foreign policy was good and virtuous. So the fact that some foreigners felt that our civilians deserved to die was shocking and horrifying, and caused a lot of discussion about why we had become a target. Was it that our foreign policy was wrong? Was it that the terrorists were crazy? Was it both? And how could we fix it?
IQNA: How do you think the terrorist attacksof September 11 affected the community and the lives of American minorities such as Muslims?
Lal: The terror attacks of 9/11 affected minorities and Muslims in particular very deeply. Americans suddenly became suspicious of Muslims and anyone who looked like a Muslim. This meant also increased attacks on Indian Sikhs who wore turbans, and anyone looking Middle Eastern or South Asian.
Minorities became hesitant to declare that they were Muslim. At airports, being Muslim raised eyebrows, as these minorities were all considered potential terrorists. Many Muslims took extra care to place the US flag in front of their home, to show that they were loyal citizens of the US and not terrorists.
This created divides between Muslims and other Americans who otherwise would not have cared what religion the minorities were. In fact, Muslims historically were greatly respected in the US as believers in one of the Abrahamic faiths.
IQNA: Some people believe that the American society has been severely divided due to the events of recent years, such as Trump's rise to power. To what extent do you accept this issue?
Lal: American society has increasingly become divided in recent years. And I do believe that Trump’s rise to power made the divides more pronounced. The cause of the divide runs far deeper, however. For decades, the US did not provide enough resources for the less privileged parts of society.
Poorer areas had poorer schooling and infrastructure, for example. The cost of university became prohibitive for many, and required loans. Richer people had access to better news sources, and poor people could watch CNN for free or Fox News. These sources often oversimplify things.
These seemingly small events create large ripples over time. We have seen an increase in people who have poor knowledge about electoral politics and how elections work. These people also don’t understand how the economy works, or why they can’t get a good job anymore.
This increased their susceptibility to propaganda and conspiracy theories by things like QAnon and Trump. It is much easier to hear a conspiracy about Democrats or Satanic groups than to think about why your skills are no longer competitive in the world today, or why your parents could afford a house with a plumbing job but you can barely pay for a small apartment.
Trump has taken advantage of these people, telling lies about COVID and jobs and elections. Now we have a large group of Americans who are living in a different reality than the other group. Their understanding of history and government are fundamentally different. Trump’s ideas were highly detrimental, and it will take a new leader as well as many new policies to reach out and convince this other side of America to join the country again.
IQNA: Why are conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks still published and accepted by some people?
Lal: Many people still cannot fathom that such an attack could be possible. They can’t believe several things: 1) that America was so vulnerable 2) that the government, that should be so powerful, did not know about this in advance 3) that people hate Americans so much, and 4) that so many people died in such a miserable way.
Many Muslims also fell for conspiracies because they could not believe that other Muslims could do such a thing. This led to other conspiracies about Jews and the US government.
Because these ideas are so incredible to sections of people, people need an escape for their mind. They would rather believe a strange conspiracy than believe that this attack was a reality. And that it can not be solved with a simple wave of a wand.
IQNA: Why do you think that despite the death of people like Osama bin Laden or the defeat of ISIS in the Middle East, terrorism still exists as a major security problem in the world?
Lal: Terrorism is a symptom of other maladies. Removing the leaders of terror groups will help make them less effective, but it does not remove the ideas and impulses that drive terrorism. Creating stability in countries like Syria and Iraq is more important, that can allow people to have faith in a real government instead of crazy radical groups.
Educating the population and creating jobs and security is most important in the Middle East and Asia. Slowly, people will find that normal society is what they want, not the fear and terror that is being sold by Islamic State and Al Qaeda. These terror groups have attraction when people feel that the existing government, society and religious networks that they are a part of are not attending to their problems or ideas.
Sometimes we find that young men are so scared of the new world where women have education and jobs, that these men turn to radical interpretations of Islam to try to turn society back to where it was hundreds of years ago. This is not effective. In the end, societies will need to deal with these adult terrorists who cannot be turned back to normal.
Some may be rehabilitated, others not. The focus must go on women and the children of terrorist groups. The women are the ones who raise the next generation, and a child of age 3 in ten years can become a terrorist if we do not find a better way to train him or her. Our policies must be more long term and strategic in thinking to deal with the long term threat of terrorism in all our countries.
Interview by Mohammad Hassan Goodarzi
The views and opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the view of International Quran News Agency.