How Asia Saw September 11, 2001
When 9/11 dawned, my wife and I were staying in New York at the Radisson Hotel, on the corner of 48th and Lexington, and were due to leave the next evening for Mumbai. The previous afternoon had been spent at Columbia University, where Prof. Jack Snyder had been dismissive of my warning that the Taliban’s main foe was the United States, and that even New York could be at risk from the terrorists they harboured.
‘This is the safest city in the world,’ was his response. That evening, a friend came over for dinner, and my wife, Lakshmi, mentioned that she was planning to have breakfast the next day at the Roof of the World restaurant in the World Trade Center.
Coming from a more relaxed civilisation, many in India rarely have their TV sets on, especially on holiday. But the next morning, there was a frantic call from our dinner companion of the previous evening. ‘Did she go to the World Trade Center? Did she? Tell me,’ our friend demanded. She sounded as if she was about to break down in relief when I told her Lakshmi was still in our hotel room, and she immediately ended the call.
Within seconds came another phone call, this time from a friend in Bangalore, who sounded almost as frantic. ‘Put on your television,’ she demanded. After a few muttered protests, I did just this, and was watching as the second aircraft hit the World Trade Center. I would have mistaken it for a movie except for the fact that it was unfolding on a news channel. There were images of people running, of smoke, of something horribly wrong happening.
Lakshmi and I changed as fast as we could and headed for the streets, watching the dust and the people as both came in apparent slow motion toward where we were. Reflexively, we called our family back home in India from our mobile phones and told them that we were safe. Soon afterward, it was impossible to place any more calls.
It was another five days before we could get a plane back to India. Every now and then, I remember the police officers at the precinct house we had visited on September 10 when our dinner companion was unable to locate her car. How many of them had survived the following day? These men were soon to show the world that they were heroes, even though only 12 hours before they had seemed like bored kids.
On the evening of 9/11, Lakshmi and I joined thousands of others who held candles in an effort to escape the darkness of the evil that had stricken the city. Friends in India warned me to be careful in New York because of my brown skin and beard. But there was no hostility in any of the faces that I encountered that day. Instead, all I saw in people’s faces was surprise and hurt. The people of New York showed then exactly why they knew themselves to belong to the most vibrant city in the world.
When we left for the airport to head home, we made sure that we arrived at the airport four hours before we departed to ensure we had enough time to get through security. That day, al-Qaeda took away the America that I loved and replaced it with a nation in lockdown. For this, as for so much else, it is impossible to forgive them.
Madhav Nalapat is UNESCO Peace Chair and a contributor to Indian Decade.
September 11 was my first disaster. I had just arrived in Washington DC by coach with my sister and her boyfriend, and we had noticed a column of thick black smoke in the distance. We didn’t know right then that the smoke was rising from a burning Pentagon. Nor did we know that the World Trade Center had been attacked. One of the interesting things about these types of situations is that sometimes the closer you are, the less you know for sure exactly what is going on. At least back then, before a smartphone was a constant companion even on overseas trips.
We walked to Washington’s Union Station to get some breakfast, but found most of the shops and cafes had closed up. We sat down while we decided where to go next. At the table next to us a woman was talking on a cellphone. ‘The World Trade Center has exploded’ she said. It seemed ridiculous, but we thought we should ask some other people what was going on, because clearly something was wrong. ‘The Mall is on fire,’ one person said. ‘They’ve attacked the Lincoln Memorial,’ said another. ‘There are four planes missing.’ ‘We’re under attack.’
Only the last claim proved correct, but unsure of who or what to believe we decided that whatever the truth, standing around Washington’s grand main train station, just a stone’s throw from the Capitol Building and Supreme Court, wasn’t the place to be. I actually knew the area around the train station very well – I had done a journalism internship just down the street only a couple of years previously. So I took us on a route that I knew led away from the city’s main buildings in the hopes that we could also find a telephone. It didn’t matter when we did, because for about the next hour all networks were overloaded and it was impossible to make a call out.
As we walked along the gridlocked streets we could catch snippets of what was going on as we passed cars with their windows rolled down. Everyone was listening to the news. I was struck by how orderly and civilized everything was. No one knew what would happen next – many wondered if more planes were heading Washington’s way. But no one seemed to panic. There was little if any frustrated beeping of horns as people sat trapped in their cars not knowing what was coming next. Maybe it was the shock.
We eventually came to a printing shop that had its door open and a TV on behind the counter. The store manager was stood transfixed on the screen as we walked in. He didn’t say anything, and nor did we. We just stood there for an hour with him watching, speechless, as ABC News screened images of Manhattan veiled in thick, black smoke.
Not wanting our family to venture too close to Washington we decided to meet them at the metro stop furthest away from the city. We were meant to be staying the night in Washington, but had no intention of doing so now. We barely said anything on the way home. We just listened to the radio. Listening as people talked about how the world had just changed around us.
Jason Miks is editor of The Diplomat
The Sept. 11 attack was coordinated with military precision under the guiding principle that this act of terrorism must not only be done, but must be seen to be done.
There were seven TVs in The Daily Yomiuri’s open-plan newsroom in Otemachi, Tokyo, where I was working the night shift on Sept. 11, 2001. The Sports desk had three; one faced the desk occupied by the editor and managing editor; one sat on the filing cabinets behind the copyediting desk, one was on the filing cabinets behind the Systems desk, and one was placed at one end of a large, oval desk in the centre of the newsroom.
Tokyo time is 13 hours ahead of EDT, New York time. Shortly before 10 pm, I was searching for an archived article at the far end of the newsroom, with one eye on one of the TVs. CNN had interrupted its regular programming to show live footage of a fire near the top of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Under the “BREAKING NEWS” strapline, the subtitle read, “WORLD TRADE CENTER DISASTER.” The North Tower was hemorrhaging smoke into the cerulean fall skies over Manhattan. Just three months previously, I’d admired the Twin Towers and the Statue of Liberty from a restaurant near the top of the Empire State Building.
Absent some big sports or political event, the DY newsroom was always quiet on night shifts, manned by a skeleton staff of around 10 people. That night it seemed even quieter than usual during the 16-minute ‘phony war’ between American Airlines Flight 11 impacting the World Trade Center’s North Tower and United Airlines Flight 175 screaming into the South Tower at close to 1,000 kph, wings angled to inflict maximum damage. Colleagues had gathered round the oval desk, arms folded, saying little until a dark streak arrowed into WTC 2, and the tower noiselessly blossomed a terrible, angry orange.
Immediately, there was a great deal of swearing, shouting into phones and rushing around in the newsroom. The managing editor and other members of staff who had worked the day shift came back to the office to lend a hand. The first thing to do was to get an extra out. This was achieved within an hour of the collapse of the South Tower. It may seem odd that the extra, harking back to the golden days of newspapers, has survived into the 21st century in Japan, but it’s not so odd when you consider that slightly more than one daily newspaper is delivered to each household in that country. While a few people, including me, scrambled to gather enough news from the TV and wire services to cobble together for the extra a report to accompany the apocalyptic picture of the moment WTC 2 began collapsing, other staffers began ripping the guts out of the first three pages of the newspaper, making way for a first draft of history.
It may sound callous if I say the work was exhilarating, but it was, and though I didn’t leave the office for 56 hours—I caught a few hours’ sleep on the roof at dawn on Sept. 12—I wasn’t tired for even a minute.
Mark Austin is a visiting professor at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India.
I was on a night train from Shanghai to Beijing on the night of Sep.11. As we arrived in Beijing on the morning of the 12th, the news announcements came on and naturally led with this tragic news. I couldn’t believe my ears and asked my Chinese neighbours in the train car if I had understood the Chinese correctly about two planes crashing into the World Trade Center. They confirmed that I had indeed heard correctly, and then they started to discuss what the US response would be. I was too much in shock and too busy explaining the news to my non-Chinese-speaking American friend to take part in the discussion, but it ended after a brief time with one old man stating that the Americans would definitely attack whoever did this.
A day or two later, my next-door neighbour, with whom I rarely exchanged more than a greeting in the hallway as I had just moved into the apartment in August, knocked on my door and offered her condolences for the attack. While I thought it was highly commendable for her to be so neighbourly and caring, she also gave me the feeling that she expected me to be in the full throes of some patriotic fury about this attack (dare we say ‘national humiliation’) on my country. I thought about trying to explain that while I was concerned (Would there be more attacks? What were the long-term consequences of the fall of the twin towers?) and deeply saddened at the loss of life, I wasn’t angry and out for revenge. But I didn’t say this and just thanked her for her expression of concern.
In the weeks that followed, I also remember a taxi driver telling me that he had seen a person ‘dressed like an Arab’ and had been afraid to pick him up because he might be a terrorist. I tried to point out that the link was extremely tenuous and he had nothing to fear, but he wasn’t persuaded.
In general, the reactions I received from Beijingers in the following weeks were mixed: the US had it coming vs. the terrorists shouldn’t have attacked and killed civilians. A very good friend of mine several years later admitted laughing (not really that uncommon a reaction in Beijing from what I heard) when first seeing the footage of the World Trade Center attack. She explained that at least in her case, this was less about satisfaction in seeing the US get its ‘comeuppance’ than it was surprise. She also stated that once she saw the film United 93 it really drove home the point that ordinary people had been killed. Reflecting back on her initial reaction, she said she felt ashamed and cried after the film.
Doug Fuller is a senior lecturer at Kings College London.
As the diplomatic correspondent of The Tribune newspaper at the time, I was in the paper’s New Delhi editorial office when 9/11 occurred. It was very late at night, but the office was soon in full swing. I had received a call from a contact who described what had happened in the United States and who told me to turn on CNN. I announced the news to my colleagues as I rushed over to the TV to change the channel. I called the paper’s headquarters in Chandigarh to alert the chief news editor, a hands-on media hound called Mr. Don, and was surprised to find him unaware of the biggest news of the day – and indeed of the decade.
A team was immediately formed under my informal leadership, as the bureau chief had left for the day. For the next hour, each of us worked on the story like a man possessed, trying to flesh out as much perspective as we could for our Indian readers. The response to the situation was overwhelming. The main question of the night was: how could this happen to the only superpower in the world – and on its own soil?
Though I don’t remember now exactly what stories I wrote for the newspaper that night, one thing remains clear in my mind – it was an unimaginable day. The world’s sole superpower had experienced, for the first time, how it feels to be punched in the stomach by bloodthirsty terrorists.
The bigger picture, from an Indian point of view, was also clear: regardless of how unfortunate the events of that day were, in a way, it was ‘good’ for India as the mighty United States would better understand India’s concerns over terrorism, as well as Pakistan’s contribution to this global menace.
Rajeev Sharma is The Diplomat’s New Delhi correspondent and contributor to Indian Decade.
I remember Filipinos expressed disbelief that their former colonial master and global superpower the United States could be so vulnerable to terrorist attacks. They also became worried that another attack could seriously affect the situation of the 60,000 Filipinos residing in New York, as well as the more than three million Filipino-Americans who have their home in the US.
The panic which swept the globe after 9/11 reverberated in the Philippines through the establishing of terrorist cells in the southern part of the country, where a separatist movement has existed for several decades. Unknown to many people outside the country, the Philippines effectively became the second front in the US-led ‘war on terrorism.’
To prevent any terror attacks similar to 9/11, the Philippine government welcomed the return of US troops on Philippine soil, where they conducted regular military exercises and war games with Filipino soldiers.
It has been just one of many reminders that although the 9/11 terrorist attacks were aimed at the United States, their impact has continued to shake and shape the entire world.
Mong Palatino is a lawmaker in the Philippine parliament
Australians were shocked by the 9/11 attacks on the United States, which killed 10 Australians among the nearly 3,000 victims. However, it wasn’t until the Bali bombings a year later, which claimed 88 Australian lives, that the nation really realized its vulnerability to terrorism.
Like the Kennedy assassination – or in Australia’s case, the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government – many can remember exactly what they were doing when they first heard the news. In my case, my wife and I were watching TV in our flat in Tokyo when an American friend from New York state phoned with the shocking news.
We quickly switched channels to BBC World and then also to CNN, while Japanese stations were also quick to run blanket coverage of the attacks. It seemed surreal, perhaps a scene from a Hollywood disaster movie. But we knew that thousands of innocent lives had indeed been lost.
Then Australian Prime Minister John Howard was in Washington on the day of the attacks, and he quickly pledged support for the United States in its ‘war on terror.’ Australian security agencies were bolstered and a telephone hotline established encouraging citizens to report any suspicious behaviour.
‘Be alert, not alarmed’ was the theme of the Howard government’s ‘Let’s Look Out for Australia’ public awareness campaign in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.
Launching the $15 million campaign, Howard was quoted by the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper as saying: ‘I don't want Australians to become frightened, I don't want Australians to stop living their ordinary lives…If that happens then the terrorists win.’
Four terrorist plots have been foiled in the decade since 2001 involving largely Australian citizens, while no successful attack has occurred in the country – a fact which Howard recently credited to ‘the efforts of our intelligence and security apparatus.’
‘We have to remain vigilant. We have to put up with the inconveniences. But it’s worth it because they haven't won, and the way of life we treasure is still intact,’ he said.
Anthony Fensom is The Diplomat’s Australia correspondent.
Despite the legendary hostility to the United States in my country, the attacks on Sept. 11 were greeted with shock in all quarters. Images of the twin towers smouldering like giant cigars were etched onto our TV screens like a recurring nightmare. There was sadness in our house, sadness at the lives lost, and hope that the perpetrators weren’t Muslim. When it was soon understood that al-Qaeda was responsible there was trepidation. True, many in Pakistan refused to accept that Muslims could do such things, even those from the fringes of society. But people still refused to accept it. All agreed that many would soon die in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There was immediate anxiety that our country, for nearly three years now an isolated pariah state under military dictatorship, would soon become a battlefield.
‘How is your family? Are the children OK?’ I remember asking a cousin in Islamabad on Sept. 12, 2001, fearful of yet more turmoil in the national capital inspired by events in New York. No, it was life as usual she said. There were kids to drop off at school, jobs to go to, bills to pay. But soon things did change. Our country was quickly transformed into an ally, our dictator rehabilitated as a bastion for moderate Islam, whatever that really meant.
The terrorism would quickly transform us too, as would the human rights abuses of a state that, like so many others, used this new war on terrorism to clamp down on dissent. Things seemed to change only slowly at first. There would be the odd explosion in Peshawar, a random shooting in Karachi, nothing, unfortunately, we hadn’t seen before. There would be rumours too of someone’s cousin disappearing, of a journalist’s house being fired upon. The rumours soon turned into a flood of violence, grief, despair, fear and resilience. There were emergencies, sacked judges, then mass protest and a return to formal democracy. All the while the bombings and the war continued. They still continue without any clear end in sight for Pakistan.
Mustafa Qadri is a Pakistani journalist.
I was in the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh with two colleagues when I heard about the attacks. We watched events unfold on TV in the main bar for about 30 minutes, then retired to one of my colleague’s rooms at the FCC, ordered some beer and watched the end of the world as we knew it unfold on CNN. We knew what would happen next.
Having spent a year and a half in Afghanistan under the Taliban, the attacks on Sept. 11 weren’t surprising, although the scale of devastation and the targets selected were as breathtaking as they were shocking.
There was no doubt in my mind that bin Laden was responsible and that an invasion of Afghanistan was imminent. Initially, I wrote a story that gave directions to bin Laden’s house in Kandahar and that of his next door neighbour, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. Within a few days, I was among an initial group of journalists heading to Pakistan and the Afghan border.
Looking back, I’ve always thought the Americans squandered precious time by negotiating with Pakistan over access to landlocked Afghanistan – the initial bombing campaign ahead of the invasion began almost a month after the attacks. This gave the Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders a head start.
Had Washington acted more decisively and immediately parachuted 10,000 soldiers into southern Afghanistan to ring-fence Kandahar when the chances of catching bin Laden and Omar were much greater, the 9/11 decade could have shaped-up very differently.
Luke Hunt is The Diplomat’s Southeast Asia correspondent.
I was still asleep at 6:30 am on the morning of September 12, 2001, when the BBC Hindi bulletin first brought news of the attacks to India. When I awoke an hour later, I immediately switched on the radio so that I wouldn’t miss the 8:00 am broadcast on All India Radio (AIR). Part of my daily routine was to listen to the BBC or AIR before heading off to my classes at the University of Delhi.
When the newsreader announced that terrorists had attacked New York’s World Trade Center and reduced it to rubble, I couldn’t believe my ears. I didn’t move for half an hour, until I’d listened to both the Hindi and English bulletins.
An overwhelming desire to see the news on TV took me to the university’s Mansarovar Hostel, which was the only place a migrant student with limited means had any access to TV. By the time I arrived, the TV room was packed with students watching in complete disbelief, stunned by the images of planes crashing into one of the tallest buildings in the world, and unable not to digest the fact that the most powerful nation in the world had come under siege from terrorists.
Wherever I went that day – the library, classrooms, the canteen – the mood was sombre, but the discussions animated. Speculation had already begun about a possible war in Afghanistan. India, itself a victim of terrorism, was discussing the need for an all-out war against this scourge.
I still have the radio set on which I first heard the news, and whenever I happen to see it in my cupboard, the memories from that day come flooding back. While I’ve moved beyond an old transistor radio, ten years down the line, the world is still grappling with the after-effects of the news it broadcast that morning.
Sanjay Kumar is The Diplomat’s India correspondent and contributor to Indian Decade.