Saturday, January 28, 2006

Finding a Place for 9/11 in American History - New York Times

Joseph Ellis is trying to put 9/11 in historical perspective. In particular, he asks, where does it rank in the list of events that have threatend the American republic? His "goal is not to offer definitive answers but rather to invite a serious debate about whether Sept. 11 deserves the historical significance it has achieved." Thus, he gives us his list--in order--of the greatest threats to America in its history:
...the War for Independence, where defeat meant no United States of America; the War of 1812, when the national capital was burned to the ground; the Civil War, which threatened the survival of the Union; World War II, which represented a totalitarian threat to democracy and capitalism; the cold war, most specifically the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which made nuclear annihilation a distinct possibility.

Sept. 11 does not rise to that level of threat because, while it places lives and lifestyles at risk, it does not threaten the survival of the American republic, even though the terrorists would like us to believe so.
There is one debate for historians: how would we rank them? And does 9/11 even belong?

But he has another question:
What does history tell us about our earlier responses to traumatic events?

My list of precedents for the Patriot Act and government wiretapping of American citizens would include the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which allowed the federal government to close newspapers and deport foreigners during the "quasi-war" with France; the denial of habeas corpus during the Civil War, which permitted the pre-emptive arrest of suspected Southern sympathizers; the Red Scare of 1919, which emboldened the attorney general to round up leftist critics in the wake of the Russian Revolution; the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, which was justified on the grounds that their ancestry made them potential threats to national security; the McCarthy scare of the early 1950's, which used cold war anxieties to pursue a witch hunt against putative Communists in government, universities and the film industry.

In retrospect, none of these domestic responses to perceived national security threats looks justifiable. Every history textbook I know describes them as lamentable, excessive, even embarrassing. Some very distinguished American presidents, including John Adams, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, succumbed to quite genuine and widespread popular fears. No historian or biographer has argued that these were their finest hours.
It may be a bit strong to say "no historian," but it is certainly the case that most have agreed with Ellis' general point. He concludes:
It is completely understandable that those who lost loved ones on that date will carry emotional scars for the remainder of their lives. But it defies reason and experience to make Sept. 11 the defining influence on our foreign and domestic policy. History suggests that we have faced greater challenges and triumphed, and that overreaction is a greater danger than complacency.
I'll grant that we have faced greater threats in our history, but none of those threats have had the same characteristics as this particular threat: international, non-state centered (though sometimes state-sponsored) terrorism. The sides are pretty hardened as to whether one believes the current Administration is justified in some of their domestic policies aimed at safeguarding the nation. But Ellis is being too simplistic in his analysis by implying--or believing--that all of these conflicts were fundamentally the same in character. It is nothing new to say that 9/11 revealed a new and different threat. Professor Ellis doesn't seem to believe that a new and different threat requires a new and different response.

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