9-11 HNN Editorial: The Price of Naivety

News at Home

Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

Do you remember where you were when you heard the news? Of course you do. This is one moment in time you are never likely to forget.

We are in a new world. For many young people the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are likely to be the most important events to take place in their lives for decades to come. What the assassination of President Kennedy was for Baby Boomers, the September 11 bombings are to the next generation.

For the past decade we have grown complacent, thinking that peace and prosperity are our special American birthright. No enemy seemed able to harm us. We almost convinced ourselves we had no enemies. In a word, we were naive. We neglected to establish needed security measures in our airports though studies repeatedly showed that people easily could circumvent them. We neglected to gather human intelligence on our enemies because that requires us to deal with unsavory people; instead, we trusted technology to do the job, spending 30 billion dollars annually on the effort (less because we were alert to the dangers around us than because the machinery was already in place as a result of the Cold War). Both of our great parties --the Democrats in 1992, the Republicans in 2000 -- nominated for president candidates who totally lacked experience in international relations, convinced that such experience was not needed.

Naivety is an old American tradition. Because we believe in freedom we think everybody around the world does--and that they agree with our definition of freedom. We do not understand that other people sometimes mean to do us harm. (We think: We are sincere therefore we aren’t a threat to anybody. They think: America is powerful and a threat to everybody: The Great Satan!)

We always think of ourselves as innocents. Like virginity, you can lose your innocence only once. But we seem to lose ours over and over again: after World War I, after World War II, after the Kennedy Assasination, after Vietnam. We forget our own history. The history that afflicts the rest of the world--war, depression, ugly violence--doesn't happen here, we believe. History doesn't happen here. We are beyond history.

The price we have paid for our naivety has been high. In the 1930s the belief that we were independent of history led us to take seriously the claims of isolationists, who contended that we safely could ignore the rise of fascism. In consequence we let the army wither and let Hitler and Tojo build vast war machines powerful enough to threaten our security.

Osama bin Laden and his ilk are the new Hitlers. They are fanatics. You cannot reason with them. They are beyond appeals to reason. Trying to reason with them is like trying to reason with a Nazi.

We have a right to be shocked. What has been done to us IS shocking. But we must disabuse ourselves of the notion that what has happened is contrary to the laws of nature. It is our belief in our existence outside history that is unfounded. That some people want to kill us should be a self-evident proposition.

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Jerome L. Sternstein - 9/17/2001

Ronald Karr would do himself and his students a favor if he sat down and read several recent biographies of Bin Ladin and studies of Islamic fundamentalism. (I could give him a bibliography if he was interested, but I suspect he isn't). He would learn that their hatred of America is largely a function of their hatred of Western values and civilization; that it is a hatred that can only be appeased, as one biographer of Bin Laden recently put it on NPR, by America "packing up and moving to another planet." Yes, Arafat and his followers would "love" the US if we threw Israel off the side of the ship -- much as the French and British did at Munich to Czechoslovakia -- but would the religious fanatics of Hamas or Bin Ladin's network be satisfied? Hardly. They hate us for what we represent, a value system and culture they despise.

Garett Gietzen - 9/17/2001

Mr. Shenkman has apparently confused political rhetoric with historical analysis. He asserts that the terrorist attacks are the result of a severe hatred of "freedom," and fails to acknowledge that U.S. foreign policy might play a key role. Such a facile approach may be understandable in general mass media, where rhetoric accomodates soundbites and satisfies limited attention spans, but is unacceptable in a forum that professes to use history to understand current affairs. The "Raison d'Etre" of the "History News Network" notes: "Among the many duties we assume are these: . . . To deflate beguiling myths . . . To put events in context . . . [and] To remind us all of the complexity of history." Yet Mr. Shenkman perpetuates the beguiling myth that a hatred of freedom must compell our enemies, and recognizes neither context nor complexity. He is not alone in choosing rhetoric over substance: on September 17th, George Bush contended that terrorists "are people who hate freedom." (cnn.com) Perhaps Mr. Bush can be excused, however, he is more concerned with political expedience than deep understanding. Historians ought to be held to a higher standard.

Garett Gietzen

Ronald Karr - 9/14/2001

This is supposed to be historical analysis?

Why do "other people sometimes mean to do us harm"? Just because they're irrational fools or born with the mark of Cain? Or could it have something, just something, to do with the fact that in the last 20 years of peace and prosperity we've managed to bomb half a dozen countries, killing thousands of civilians; that we've backed dictactors and supported drug lords; that we show no sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians?

As Malcolm X said after JFK's assasination, "All the chickens are coming home to roost."

Ronald Dale Karr
UMass Lowell