The giant’s feet of clay

The total stupefaction of the United States, the world’s superpower, left those reporting the news and those ingesting it dumbfounded. For a few horrifying hours, the citizens of the world’s most imposing city, New York, and America’s political nerve centre, Washington, experienced the terror suffered every day by other less fortunate people in countries where death has become too commonplace to mention: Palestine, Afghanistan, Angola, Congo, Sierra Leone or Sudan.

But “comeuppance” was not the word that sprang to mind for international commentators. “We are all traumatised by this terrible tragedy,” said a solemn UN secretary-general, echoing many of the world’s leaders. Even countries officially on Washington’s list of “rogue states” offered sympathy and condolences. An official statement from Cuba said that, in spite of its “modest means,” the Communist Caribbean state was “ready and willing to treat, care for and rehabilitate the victims” in this “bitter hour.”

On Wednesday, the enormity of the disaster and its global ramifications began to sink in. Commentators everywhere remarked on the attacks’ symbolism and the professionalism of their execution. People began to wonder if the US was a paper tiger after all — unable, for all its military might, to protect the headquarters of its military establishment. Terror sank its claws into the mightiest nation’s twin hearts: the capital, and the country’s communications, commercial and economic powerhouse.

America ground to a standstill. Ordinarily, some 4,000 aircraft criss-cross the skies every day. After the disaster, US airspace was cleared — an “unprecedented” measure, in the words of a US Federal Aviation Authority spokeswoman. All flights to the US were canceled and US- bound planes turned around mid-flight. In Canada, the national carrier suspended all flights and closed down airports. The entire North American continent was brought to a shuddering halt.

The situation was no better elsewhere. Europe and Asia were hard hit too, with Britain banning all commercial air traffic over London. British Airways canceled all flights to the US; in London, shares in airlines and tourism plummeted, with British Airways shares dropping by an extraordinary 21 per cent. All Lufthansa flights from Germany were canceled. Air transport was severely disrupted in Asia as well: Tokyo’s Narita International Airport canceled 354 international flights, while Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airlines suspended all flights to the US and Canada. Flights bound for the US make up over 25 per cent of all business for major Asian Airlines, including Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific.

Mayhem was not limited to air transport. Insurers around the world are facing record claims, and shares plunged on European and Asian stock markets. Many major international stock markets, Wall Street included, stopped trading entirely. The US dollar plummeted even as oil and gold prices soared, with fears of an imminent oil crisis spreading. Gold seemed the only safe option for investors facing stock market turmoil.

Plans for the International Monetary Fund and World Bank annual meetings scheduled for later in the month in Washington may be shelved indefinitely. Washington’s mayor, Anthony Williams, doubted that the US capital was capable of hosting any international gatherings in the near future.

Perhaps this crushing blow, and the scenes of jubilation from around the Third World, will act as a humbling experience once the dust has settled. Perhaps, too, policy- makers will realise that the US cannot live in sanguine isolation while a starving and destitute world seethes with anger. The rage of the disenfranchised and dispossessed, within America or beyond its borders, must come home to roost one day.