9-11: The Questions That Go Unasked

News at Home

Mr. Briley teaches history at Sandia Prep School, Albuquerque, NM.

The last days have been difficult ones for me as a history teacher. While I still awaiting word regarding the safety of teaching colleagues and former students residing in the New York area, my current students ask how the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon could happen. Angry and frustrated, like many Americans, the students seek quick answers to a complex question. They stay glued to constant media broadcasts, which provide graphic pictures and coverage, but little analysis and understanding.

The media is fond of making simplistic historical analogies. To explain the plane hijackings which decimated the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the media has recalled Pearl Harbor, terming September 11, 2001 as a day which will live in infamy. The Pearl Harbor analogy equates the most recent attacks upon America with the “good war” of the 1940s; a clear struggle between good and evil. But Americans should be wary of such over generalizations.

While the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor provided the resolve for the United States to enter the Second World War, it also unleashed a wave of intolerance culminating with the internment of Japanese-Americans and the dropping of atomic bombs upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As the American government’s investigation focuses upon Saudi exile Osama Bin Laden, acts of violence and threats against Arab-Americans and Muslims have increased throughout the nation. One lesson that we should take away from World War II is the danger of racial hatred and bigotry.

Reducing complex issues to cases of good versus evil is tempting, but it ignores an essential question which Americans should be asking themselves: “Why are there people in the world so frustrated and angry with the United States that they are willing to sacrifice their own lives and kill thousands in their assaults upon structures which symbolize the financial and military power of the United States?” Yet this is the question which journalists have not asked of government officials as they repeat the description of the terrorists as evil, faceless cowards, enemies of civilization, and barbarians. In our anger and desire to seek vengeance against the perpetrators, the constant media barrage has produced little self-reflection. Many journalists seem to be caught up on how an American military response should be orchestrated.

Where are the voices of dissent in a democracy asking the tough questions of why so many in the world perceive America as a source of oppression? Perhaps rather than saber rattling and military posturing this is a time for humility and introspection. We are shocked when American cities and citizens are targeted, yet the United States is the world’s largest exporter of weapons. American bombs have fallen on Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Iraq, and Serbia, destroying lives and disrupting families. Those dead on the ground can little distinguish between the actions of a terrorist hijacker or a cruise missile launched from offshore.

We are still dealing with the legacy of foreign policy from the Cold War which often found America supporting anti-communist dictators in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Backing the Shah of Iran helped provoke a militant anti-American Islamic revolution in Iran. To counter the new regime in Iran, the United States helped arm Saddam Hussein in Iraq, who, in turn, became America’s nemesis in the Gulf War. The Afghan resistance to an invasion from the Soviet Union was financed with military hardware from the United States. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States lost interest in a destabilized Afghanistan. A country now governed by the Taliban, accused of sheltering Osama Bin Laden. Generations who have grown up in Palestinian refugee camps blame their fate upon American financial and military support for Israel. Economic sanctions remain in force against Iraq, but there are serious concerns as to whether economic embargoes endanger Iraqi children more than Saddam Hussein. While much of the world lives in poverty, Americans consume more than their fair share of the world’s resources. In the 1960s, Frantz Fanon warned in The Wretched of the Earth that the world’s dispossessed might seek regeneration through violence against the forces of colonialism. Walking out of a United Nations conference on racism probably does little to quell discontent in the developing nations of the South.

Rather than examine why some in the world might perceive the United States as the, “great Satan” and celebrate rather than mourn the loss of life in New York, it is easier to take refuge in the idea of American innocence and approve the record increase in military spending which the Bush administration plans to introduce. If not careful, the legacy of America Under Attack will be an enhanced national security state taking us back to the days of the Cold War; as well as a budget deficit which will necessitate dipping into the Social Security surplus and curtailment of domestic spending on health care and education. In other words, the quest for security may result in many Americans living less secure lives.

It is difficult to write these words of warning during such a time of anguish and pain. But if all this suffering is to serve some purpose, it seems that we need to take time for introspection and self-examination. Instead, Americans hear the government and popular media, who appear to be in lock step, declare that it is a time for unity and support for the President and military. Perhaps this is the type of thinking that got us where we are today.

At the risk of being labeled as less than patriotic, I maintain that American democracy is strong enough to handle self-examination and a discourse on American foreign policy. Like Frances Wright, in her 1828 Fourth of July oration, I believe that patriotism is not based upon a strict allegiance to one’s flag but rather to the principles for which that flag and nation were founded. The recent national tragedy in New York offers an opportunity to again ask whether we are living up to those principles.

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Larry Crump - 9/19/2001

I would like to respond to a couple of Mr. Briley's assertions. I do not believe, as he claims, that the use of atomic weapons in World War II was a case of intollerance. The use of those weapons was well thought out and debated by those in charge. The dropping of atomic bombs on Japan accomplished an objective, to end the war with Japan with the least amount of American casualties. I believe, as Americans, we have a duty to evaluate our actions before, during, and after any circumstance. I also believe, as Americans, we do evaluate our positions and actions in the world community. We made a mistake in World War II forcing Japanese Americans into relocation camps. We have since made efforts to compensate Japanese Americans for those mistakes. I believe we have learned from that experience and that is why you do not see Arab Americans being removed from their homes and communities. Sure there will be pockets of intollerance and violence. These actions will be condemned by most Americans. We have also shown restraint in the use of nuclear weapons. We take the use of nuclear force very serious and have not randomly bombed those who oppose our position and even attack our position in the world. I agree that we should ask 'why do they hate us'. However, because we are hated for our positions, policies, and actions doesn't mean those positions are wrong. Lets not assume we are the 'bad guys' because someone doesn't like us. Regardless of all this, it does not justify the actions of September 11, 2001. It does not mean we should not respond. Terrorism is never justified and should be punished quickly and forcefully and then we will evaluate our position in the world community. If the September 11 acts were justified because someone hates us, we will always be open to attacks and someone will always be justified in perpetrating those attacks.

Jeffrey S. Cole - 9/19/2001

Are we to take Etchison seriously? How can he suggest that Briley's well-reasoned and historically accurate argument equates with Falwell's hate-mongering, off-the-cuff rhetoric? America should be asking itself some hard questions at this time, not placing blame on the groups that Falwell or other extremists view as destructive--or the very cause of destruction to our society. As an Evangelical Christian and an intellectual, it bothers me deeply that we aren't looking inward and asking ourselves why we have allowed our leaders to pursue policies that foster hate abroad. I echo Briley's question and ask, Where are the serious dissenting voices in American society? We must be heard. It is gratifying to see many of the dissenting opinions posted on the History News Network's website. As for Falwell's comment, let me remind him (and us) that none of us is righteous.

Michael E. Etchison - 9/18/2001

Mr. Falwell got in a lot of trouble for saying that America got just what it deserved.

Isn't what Mr. Briley is saying a more sophisticated version of that?