In four days’ time, the world’s newspapers and airwaves will again be full of references to international terrorism, marking the seventh anniversary of what the Americans have taught us to call 9/11. Indians can well be forgiven for paying less attention to the date than many others, for our experience of terrorism both predates September 11, 2001 and has been tragically renewed since, most recently in Bangalore and Ahmedabad (not forgetting Jaipur earlier in the year). And yet, for much of the globe, ‘‘9/11’’ was indeed a formative moment. Indeed, one could well argue that on 9/11, the 21st century was born. All right, there’s some hyperbole involved there. But if, as the historian Eric Hobsbawm has suggested, the 20th century really began with the assassination in Sarajevo that sparked the First World War, it is fair to suggest that, in the impact it has already had on the shape of our era, the 21st century began with the demolition of the World Trade Center just under seven years ago. What do I mean by that? The destruction of the World Trade Center struck a blow not only at the institutions of American and global capitalism but at the self-confidence that under girded them, the self-confidence of a social and political system that, without needing to think about it too much, believed it had found the answer to life’s challenges and could conquer them all. Equally important, 9/11 brought home to the US the stark consciousness of physical vulnerability — in a country that, despite fighting a dozen major wars in its history, had not seen a direct attack on a major city in living memory. No foreign force had attacked Washington since the British burned the fledgling American capital in 1812. It’s sometimes difficult to recall what America was like before 9/11. This was, after all, the country in which a scholar could complacently propound ‘‘the end of history’’; on 9/11, history, like Mark Twain, proclaimed that reports of its demise were exaggerated. In today’s ever-smaller world, knit together by instant communications, the joke is that ‘‘geography is history’’: on 9/11, geography — America’s distance from the rest of the world, separated from everyone else by two oceans — offered no protection. If only by bringing home to Americans the end of their insulation from the passions that have bedevilled the rest of the globe, September 11 changed the world forever. But the horrifying events of that one day are emblematic of our new century in another crucial way. The defining features of today’s world are the relentless forces of globalisation, the ease of communications and travel, the shrinking of boundaries, the flow of people of all nationalities and colours across the world, the swift pulsing of financial transactions with the press of a button. The planes, the cell phone, the computer, are the tools of our time. These very forces, which in a more benign moment might have been seen as helping drive the world towards progress and prosperity, were the forces used on 9/11 by the terrorists in their macabre dance of death and destruction. They crossed frontiers easily, co-ordinated their efforts with technological precision, hijacked jets and crashed them into their targets (as their doomed victims made last-minute calls on their cell phones to their loved ones). This was a 21st century crime, and it has defined the dangers and the potential of our time as nothing else can. It also provoked a reaction in the US that has already left an indelible mark on the new century. It was the 20th century that was famously dubbed, by Time magazine’s Henry Luce, as ‘‘the American century,’’ but in fact the 21st began with the US in a state of global economic, political, cultural and military dominance far greater than any world power has ever enjoyed. With a defence budget that equals that of the rest of the world combined, the US enjoys a level of comparative military power unprecedented in human history; even the Roman Empire at its peak did not come close to outstripping the military capacities of the rest of the world to the extent that the United States does today. But that is not all. When the former French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, called the US a ‘‘hyperpower’’ (hyperpuissance), he was alluding not only to American military dominance but also to the US as the home of Boeing and Intel, Microsoft and MTV, Hollywood and Disneyland, McDonald’s and Starbucks — in short of most of the major products that dominate daily life around our globe. And yet, before 9/11, Washington had been curiously ambivalent about its exercise of that dominance, with many influential figures speaking and acting as if the rest of the planet was irrelevant to America’s existence or to its fabled pursuit of happiness. President Bush had even campaigned against the nation-building internationalism of his predecessor, Bill Clinton. On many international engagements in 2001, the US’ “default mode’’ appeared to be to opt out. But on 9/11, Americans understood viscerally the old cliche of the global village — because 9/11 made it clear that a fire that starts in a remote thatched hut or dusty tent in one corner of that village can melt the steel girders of the tallest skyscrapers at the other end of our global village. And after 9/11, we have seen the opposite of the earlier attitude of the Bush administration: war in Afghanistan and the toppling of the Taliban government in Kabul; the invasion of Iraq and the fall of Baghdad, followed by occupation, Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, and now the ‘‘surge’’; the ‘‘global war on terror,’’ with the attendant curtailing of civil liberties, Guantanamo and rendition; and the addition of Madrid, London and Bali to the list of places targeted by Islamic terrorists loosely affiliated with al-Qaida. So, the 21st century has been born in fire and baptised in blood. But it need not grow up that way. The world now has seven years’ experience of learning to deal with terror without the abuses that were undermining the very values the terrorists sought to destroy. It just has to keep getting better at doing so. Americans cannot afford to forget Benjamin Franklin’s wise dictum that those who sacrifice liberty for security will end up with neither.