In a few days, the United States of America will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York. It has now been a fifth of a century since 9/11, which means that there is an entire generation of people who have grown up in the aftermath of that event and the ways in which it changed the world.
As someone who lived through the event and has come to accept the new normal, it didn’t even occur to me that our current modernity is heavily influenced by the war on terror until the evacuation of Afghanistan became the main topic in the news these past two weeks.
As I took my daily dose of grim evening updates via television the other day, a small voice piped up and asked me: “What is going on? I was told that America is the best country in the World!”
I had forgotten that little people, far from being inured to the world around them, absorb information with a frightening capacity for retention and a gift for asking difficult questions. I had thought I was alone and safe to watch the news on this particular day and ended up having to answer questions as to why Afghans where desperately escaping their capital city and their homeland. What does one say to a child who wants to know why this is happening?
You ask a question back, that’s what. And so I did. “Do you know what terrorism is?” “Yes.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, summed up what these 20 years of war have done to us all, including the children who unwittingly put their adults to the test by asking one to explain imperialism, war, ineptitude, overconfidence, occupation, drone strikes, disinformation, misinformation, the spread of radicalism and three US administrations’ struggles in the Middle East not to mention the role of technology in all of this.
They say that if you want to test if you know a subject well, then explain it to a child. After a good longish talk with this future adult which involved far too much glossing over the horrors of human nature, I had to admit to myself that I couldn’t do it.
Is there anyone out there who can explain to a primary school child what was happening all through the middle and end of August in Kabul?
Twenty years ago, although I was not as young as my current inquisitor, I do remember asking similar questions of the adult in my life who was informed and willing to answer difficult questions to the best of their ability.
Like my young inquisitor, I had grown up with the propaganda of American superiority — not just technological or economic but allegedly moral as well. Youth have a nose for hinky business though and since things did not add up I had a lot of pending “why?” questions.
What I got at that time was a wry smile and one hint to set me off on the journey of figuring this one out for myself: “Ah, Pax Americana. You should look into that” was the gist of the message.
This week, dissatisfied that I have not given my young inquisitor the requisite information with which to start thinking this situation through for himself, I had to do my research all over again.
A lot can happen in 20 years. In so doing, I rediscovered the core truth of a saying that has been around probably from time immemorial in one form or another: ‘‘those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.”
The quagmire of the war in Afghanistan is a head-scratcher, but revisiting it came with an unexpected gift: the rediscovery of what a good public broadcaster can actually do.
The US is not exactly famed for the size and reach of its public broadcaster, almost every other wanna-be world power is miles ahead in terms of influence.
But somewhere in a corner of their journalistic wilderness is an oasis of astounding excellence.
I ended up spending a few hours on their public broadcasting service’s frontline outlet, listening to calm and incisive journalism that revealed a situation that I have to admit in the end is far to complex for me to pretend to ever hope to explain to a child after all. And yet, those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it…
I tried again of course to give my young inquisitor some context as to why it was important to care about what would happen to the Afghan people, especially children since they really are the innocents in this situation only to be met with a cheerful assertion that “at least Mr President Biden cares and is definitely going to make sure he fixes things in Afghanistan!” And this made me realise the beautiful function of time. I didn’t have the heart to explore the truth of that statement and so smiled and said nothing.
In 20 years’ time, perhaps, my young inquisitor will have figured a few things out about Pax Americana for himself. We settled on keeping the people of Afghanistan in our hearts this week.
In the meantime, I have been reminded of how grateful I am to the profession of journalism.
Done well, it is integral to recording the truths — and there are many! — of our human story, thus giving us a fighting chance of perhaps learning from our mistakes a little bit. If not now, maybe in coming generations, so long as we tell them.
Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report: E-mail: [email protected]