9-11: War Fever

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Mr.Leach is a Professor of History at Trinity College.

Within minutes of the horrific attack on the World Trade Center, Tom Brokaw of NBC News was declaring war on"terrorism." On almost every television channel references to Pearl Harbor were flying thick and fast even before the Center towers collapsed.

The daily news has been called the first draft of history. Today some people in the media seem eager to turn in their first draft while events are still going on. This is irresponsible reporting and dangerous history.

The instant war-talk reflects the shock and anger a great many Americans felt on the morning of September 11. But if such talk is understandable, it is nonetheless pernicious. Whether or not the attacks were acts of war, we don't yet know who committed them. War fever is never more dangerous than when it is unfocused, when the enemy is not yet clearly identified and war aims are not yet spelled out.

One thing we can sure of: The attacks on the World Trade Center were not another Pearl Harbor. September 11, 2001, was surely, like December 7, 1941, a"date which will live in infamy," in the words of President Roosevelt, and both catastrophes came by air. There the similarities end. In December 1941 the world had been at war for more than two years, there was never the slightest mystery about who carried out the attack, and a war declaration by the United States was inevitable. Today it is by no means clear who sent the hijacked planes into their targets, how they did it, or why. And even when the culprits become known, it is by no means clear that war will be the best way to punish and stop them.

For the astonishing fact is that the world in 2001 has been moving away from war. The last decade has witnessed awful carnage in Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, but nothing resembling the limitless nightmares of this century's world wars. The Cold War ended almost without bloodshed twelve years ago. Since then there has been heartening progress toward the forging of global solidarities to confront humanity's common problems, from environmental threats to epidemics to terrorism itself. New technologies applied to medicine and information processing hold huge potential for the welfare of the world's people if their benefits are justly distributed.

If we are provoked into war-against terrorism? Against whom?-in 2001, it will involve none of the massive and horrifically bloody military campaigns of World War II. It will more resemble a cold war of antagonism always on the edge of hot war, with similar costs: titanic sums of money spent on military security, civil liberties curbed, anxiety and paranoia displacing hope and confidence, the life of the mind constricted and contorted, and vast opportunities for human betterment deferred or lost.

World War I may have the most to teach us. In 1917, acting on the pretext that German submarine attacks had forced the United States into belligerency, President Woodrow Wilson gave up American peacemaking efforts and led this country into what he called"a war to end all wars," a war"to make the world safe for democracy." Privately Wilson had much darker thoughts about the costs of World War I. The night before he delivered his war message to the Congress, he told a newspaper editor,

11Once lead this people into war, and they'll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance. To fight you must be brutal and ruthless, and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fibre of our national life, infecting Congress, the courts, the policeman on the beat, the man in the street....

Wilson proved prophetic. The country descended into a frenzy of assaults on internal"enemies" that killed the promising reform movements of the pre-war years. Two decades after this"war to end all wars," the world plunged into World War II.

The historical lessons are plain. It is imperative that we resist any rush to revenge for the atrocious attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It is imperative that we give ourselves a decent opportunity to interpret the news that has blasted in upon us.

Meditating on the nationalist hatreds and tragic violence of World War I, William Butler Yeats wrote in a poem called"The Second Coming,"

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

People of good will must trust their democratic and humane convictions to prevail against the murderous passions that motivated the attacks of September 11. To think carelessly of war is to risk squandering the promise of the new century.

This article first appeared in the Hartford Courant September 13, 2001.

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Tristan Traviolia - 9/21/2001

The author's relationship of the events of September 11, 2001 to the 1910's is apt, but WWI is not the correct event. The March 9, 1916 attack on Columbus, New Mexico by Francisco "Pancho" Villa is a closer parallel. The United States responeded by invading northern Mexico for eleven months. General Pershing did not capture Pancho Villa. We can expect the same kind of military and civil resistance Pershing encountered invading Afghanistan or other nations that harbor terrorists. We have no choice in the matter though. The terrorists will not stop. Negotiations seem doomed to failure because terrorist fanatics view the world through perveted religious dogman that discounts compromise and embraces total capitulation by the target. Terrorists believe that their attacks can force the west to abandon support of Israel and cripple the western capitalist system. The terrorists will use weapons of mass destruction SOONER rather than later. We have to fight a long and costly war to defeat the ideology of terrorism. High casualties among military and civilian forces on both sides seem certain. When peaceful civilians can not go about their daily lives in safety then terrorist acts strike at the fabric of civil society. If anythin requires warfare to ensure it demise terroism meets the criteria.