Lawrence Davidson: Ignorance and 9/11—An AnalysisRoundup: Talking About History
Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester PA. His academic work is focused on the history of American foreign relations with the Middle East. He also teaches courses in the history of science and modern European intellectual history.
On Monday 12 September 2011 I had sixty five students in a "Twentieth Century World" history class ask me what I thought were the origins of the 9/11 attacks. I said I was quite willing to tell them what I thought, but first they had to give me their opinions. The vast majority believed that Muslim fanaticism led to the tragedy. The only other competitive theory, held by a small minority, was that the attacks were the result of a conspiracy located within the U.S. government itself.
I made it clear that I do not believe in the conspiracy explanation, if for no other reason than it would be impossible to keep that sort of thing secret in a political environment (Washington DC) which leaked information like a sieve. I was more interested in why they thought Muslim fanaticism caused the attack. They could not answer the question in any specific way. It was just the majority opinion that was somehow "in the air." And, indeed, it is what our leaders and the media suggest and is, by now, part of a shared national consciousness.
Next I inquired why they asked me this question? They answered that as the fellow in the History Department who taught about the Middle East, they saw me as a credible source of information. With that established, I agreed that this was a good and indeed necessary use of class time. So I began.
I told them that Muslim fanaticism did not cause the attack. Clearly the belief that one was acting in a way approved by God made it easier to hijack the planes and crash them into their targets. But that belief was not the motivation for these acts. Rather the attacks on September 11, 2001 were performed as revenge for decades of U.S. foreign policy decisions that had caused enormous suffering in the Middle East.. Student reaction was something like: "foreign policy, what foreign policy?" I told those sixty five students that was exactly the right question. It was time (actually it was long past due) that they understood 9/11 in its historical context. I then led them through a brief description of the following events, all of which identified the United States as an enemy of justice and democracy in the Middle East:
1. In 1953 the U.S. overthrow the democratically established government of Iran and installed the Shah’s dictatorship.
2. In 1958 the U.S. landed troops in Lebanon in support of a Maronite Christian president who was seeking to subvert the Lebanese constitution. We repeated the mistake 25 years later, in 1983, when Ronald Reagan once more sent U.S. forces into Lebanon and quickly lost 241 servicemen to a suicide bomber.
3. We have subsequently backed numerous ME dictators, among them Mubarak in Egypt, Abdullah in Jordan, the Saudi monarchy in Arabia (where we kept troops on the holiest of Muslim soil), the king of Bahrain, etc. even while selectively opposing others such as those in Syria and Lybia. Our criterion for support is not whether a government is a dictatorship or democracy, but rather whether it cooperates or not with American policies in the region.
4. The notorious regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq was an excellent example of this criterion. For a number of years this dictator was the beneficiary of American support (we sold him his poison gas and biological agents). However, he eventually invaded Kuwait (which the British had lopped off from Iraq in 1913) and we then turned against him. Following the First Gulf War a U.S. sponsored blockade of Iraq resulted in the death of over half a million Iraqi poor people and children. I quoted Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s infamous 1996 confession on the TV program 60 Minutes that she thought all those deaths were "worth it." I am sure that Osama bin Laden thought exactly the same way about the deaths of the civilians in the Twin Towers and the hijacked airplanes.
5. And, of course, there is the consistent U.S. support of Israel in its policy of relentless absorption of Palestinian land. Which, in the eyes of many in the Middle East, makes Washington an accomplice in an imperialist and colonialist foreign occupation. As a function of this support U.S. sought to overturn the 2006 fair and free democratic election of the Hamas government in Palestine.
Finally, I explained to the students that however U.S. officials might rationalize these policies, it is simply naive to expect that those who do not like our behavior will stand by and do nothing. And they haven’t. As it turns out, most of those who have turned violent against us are non-state actors such as those associated with Al Qaeda because, over the last 60 odd years, those Middle Eastern governments that opposed the U.S., and also Israel, have been proven impotent.
The vast majority of Americans have no clue about this history of U.S. behavior. And, the truth is that we simply cannot think critically about what we do not know. As a consequence Americans have no historical context through which to understand the "blowback" such behavior engenders. That being the case they are susceptible to whatever fantasies the media and their leaders feed them, as well as innumerable conspiracy theories. Most Americans accept the story that the terrorism of September 11 was motivated by religious fanaticism and carried out by those who "hate our freedoms." (To this contention I reply that those who fight against the U.S. do not care what we Americans do in our country, they care what we do in their countries). The sceptics gravitate to the conspiracy stories. They too have it wrong though oddly the U.S. government, by acting in the way described above, did engineer the disaster.
In the case of my students I have filled in the knowledge gaps. It is hard to know how deeply they will ponder this new information and what they can do with it if they do think it through. In any case, as the saying goes, they are but a drop in the ocean. I know that is a depressing thought, but it is an accurate one.
I have come to the conclusion that the United States, for all its ability to project force, is in decline. It is in decline for the same reason that most past empires and power states have faltered. They falter because, over time, their elites become self-deluded and the general public kept in ignorance. The elites come to mistake their own perceptions, limited by narrow interest and/or distorted by ideologies, for objective reality. None of them have ever seen fit to integrate a "devil’s advocate" into their deliberations. Those who can see the world objectively are more likely than not to be ignored or outright fired. Without such people in the halls of power and the offices of the media we are blind. And, as the English poet Gerald Massey once observed, "in blindness we gather thorns for flowers."
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