Ten years ago today, I took what felt like the longest bus ride of my life. Somewhere over the Atlantic ocean, my parents were on a plane heading from Amman to Toronto where I was finishing my studies, and in anticipation, I spent most of that morning refreshing a webpage tracking the plane’s movement. As the mid-afternoon flight crossed into the continent, I started for the door.
Maybe it was apprehension, or perhaps the fear of the inevitable parental criticism I was bound to receive should they land and find my face absent from the sea of people at the arrivals gate, but I remember feeling compelled to click that refresh button one last time. And across that glaring screen a single news headline scrolled across it: “Explosion rocks the Jordanian capital”. This is a moment in my past tattooed in my mind.
And so, unable to get through to anyone back home and pressed for time, I took a bus ride to the airport that felt like it lasted for hours, my mind flooded with questions along the way. Who did it? Why? Do I know anyone that could’ve been hurt? And more immediately, I kept thinking how on Earth do I break this news to my parents after their 14-hour flight. How do you even greet them? What face do you wear to mask sadness?
Terrorism was a word we associated with elsewhere. Anywhere but Jordan, anywhere but Amman.
Every Jordanian has a story they can recall instantly about where they were on that somber day, what they were doing when they heard the news, and how they heard it. More importantly, they remember how they felt. For me, it was a kaleidoscope of emotions. Anger, fear, confusion, disbelief - these are all words that come to mind. But when those bombs went off, I think what we all felt as a population perhaps was shock; an abrupt and deadly shattering of the tranquility we were accustomed to. Terrorism was a word we associated with elsewhere. Anywhere but Jordan, anywhere but Amman. A tradition of security and stability was eroded in a matter of minutes.
Terrorism was elsewhere. The death tolls of neighboring countries had left us hiding in the comfort of shadows, content with being the low-key country where stability was the default disposition, while madness ensued elsewhere. Anywhere but here. But Amman had been scarred and the wound ran deep. In the days that followed, a sense of national unity emerged, and then slowly, but surely, faded away. Robert Frost once summed up life in three words: it goes on. And so, we went on.
But the past, and whatever scars it bears, is never suspended in time – it’s a continuous thread that determines the present and the future. What path an individual or an entire nation takes can be based on a single transformative moment in the timeline. For Jordan, this was it. The irrational death of 57 souls. It shook us to our core because in that moment, everything we had come to believe about being safe in the Kingdom had vanished momentarily.
And that’s perhaps the most problematic thing about safety, we tend to define it in the present tense. We assess it on a current emotional state. Rarely do we look forward beyond the immediate horizon. But that’s not how it works. Ten years on, and the past still lingers behind us on that very thread that has brought us here – to this very point. And in the present day, reflecting on that single event, on that single day, means reflecting on everything that has happened since that day; the trajectory it catapulted us on.
So we’re forced to ask the questions that need to be asked: are we any safer today? Have we learned anything from the experience of everything that has happened since? Have the conditions that facilitated the past any different today?
We’ve learnt that terrorism does not operate in a bubble. No one grows up wanting to be a terrorist. They are conditioned somewhere along the way, and the primary tool of persuasion most often employed is the environment around them. Their mentors need only point out the obvious realities and the seed is planted. The religious ideology comes second.
We’ve learnt that injustice fuels all this, and whatever injustices were around ten years ago, continue to exist today. The same conditions continue to exist – and here, I’m looking at a decade’s worth of progress on a macro level; from a bird’s eye view.
The growing gap between the haves and have nots. A political and economic culture that breaths corruption, or at the very least, ensures a system of meritocracy remains absent. A total lack of genuine public accountability, where the mechanisms and channels to ensure the powers-that-be answer to the people are not a headline, but a new reality. An atmosphere of limited freedoms, undermined and eroded by a system of arbitrary laws employed in the name of security. An appointed power structure consisting of disconnected political elites. The same names and figures recycled within a political system. A decade of reform promises that either never actually arrive, or when they do, arrive so fashionably late that they are nothing by superficial headlines for the mainstream newspapers to print. Vision statements, and decade-long national strategies that have become carrots at the end of a stick that we never really get to taste. A political culture that creates legal loopholes to ensure the status quo persists. And then add to this the economic disparity. Add to this all the ingredients of everyday injustices. Every encounter demanding wasta to get anything done.
People are made of stories, not atoms.
Yet, just like the US post 9/11, Jordan’s 11/9 has become part of a new narrative that is confined strictly to a “war on terror”. A security narrative focused on muscle flexing. Those 57 lives that were stolen had to be for something? Isn’t hope supposed to emerge from tragedy? Isn’t it in the best interest of a nation to resolve the conditions that breeds all this? And not just talk about resolving them, not just promise to resolve them, but to actually work transparently towards resolving them? To render the superficial tangible?
We do not live in a bubble. Terrorism isn’t elsewhere; it’s everywhere. It’s the conditions that persist, the very conditions that allow it to thrive as it has undoubtedly done this past decade. Ten years ago it was Zarqawi and Al Qaeda, today it’s ISIS – there is always another entity that manages to manipulate on-the-ground realities to rally people to a cause. Strip away the ideology and what’s left is a group of people who are mostly fed up with the status quo and are simply desperate enough, or perhaps folly enough to believe violence is the only mechanism they can use to change it.
Those with non-violent tendencies took to the streets in protests over years; they formed groups that never reached critical mass because they were either bought off, or couldn’t agree on how to proceed, or were labeled and marginalized as outcasts, or were restricted by laws, or couldn’t manage to convince a population accustomed to fear and caution. We wrote articles. We debated online. We held forums for discussion. Created platforms for debate. Launched initiatives. Made films. And we repeated ourselves, over and over again.
We seem stuck in a cycle of repetition, and whenever we reflect on the past to ask that question of: “could this ever happen again?” we have to remind ourselves to ask the more demanding question of: “have the conditions that allow this sort of thing to happen, any different today?”
For sure, it’s a difficult question to ask, let alone answer.
We define our safety in the present tense, but rarely do we look beyond. We define it by symptoms rather than causes. All the forces of instability that we’ve labeled and attached abbreviations to (and argued needlessly over those abbreviations) are all symptoms of an environment that has remained relatively unchanged. We know this. The past decade (and more) have taught us this, in the harshest way imaginable.
We’re told that security is a prerequisite for reform and that may very well be the case. Without security, there’s no room to maneuver; nothing to build on shifting sands. But what do you do with that security once you’ve invested so much in it? Do you use it to build something better? Or do you use it to maintain a status quo? Do you suspend the past and drag it along with you into the present; into the future?
For those in power, perhaps the question becomes: have we done enough? Are we doing enough? Are we even serious about wanting to change these conditions? Are we moving fast enough? Are we being outpaced by opposing forces?
Because after all the “change is coming soon” headlines have faded, after strategies and statements and speeches all become documents nestled away in an archive to gather dust, what we’re left with is a trail that leads from that tragic day, to this day, now. What we’re left with a track record that extends further back than that, and when critically examined, allows us to determine whether we’ve actually made something for ourselves or just lingered in limbo, waiting for the next symptom to manifest. The next abbreviation in the war on terror. What we’re left with are questions we don’t like asking because they’re overshadowed with an inherent need to be grateful for the present tense – to be grateful for the relative safety we feel in this very moment. We’ll say elhamdullah - thank God – and move on with our present day. Rarely do we use the past to reshape the future. Rarely do we demand it.
So on a day like today, when our minds come across a moment - no matter how briefly – to remember the lives lost ten years ago; to remember the past - there’s a responsibility and a duty to ask the difficult but necessary questions that need to be asked.
If only to avoid seeing the past repeat itself.