U.S. Intellectual History Blog

9/11, History, and Memory: A Short, Rambling Post on a Complicated Topic

I was going to post about something entirely different today, but when I read my Facebook feed this morning I was struck by the volume, intensity, and, often, the thoughtfulness of posts about the 9/11 anniversary. I was flooded with my own memories of that day and its aftermath. I remembered the horror and fear, the latter of which extended for weeks. I was slated to give a paper at the ASA that fall and, for the only time in my life, I cancelled out on a conference. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the anthrax letters that followed them, going to our nation’s capital for an American Studies meeting felt incredibly risky. And following the immediate fear and shock, American culture and politics entered the ugliest years of my lifetime.   All of these things are worth remembering – need to be remembered – and in much greater detail than this sketch.

But those of us who felt out of step with the militarized patriotism of those years too often blamed a handful of men in Washington for a sickness whose roots were much deeper and whose effects were much broader.

A friend of mine posted to much acclaim on Facebook the following set of observations today:

Many people are posting versions of “never forget.”

So let’s review, shall we?

1) The 9/11 hijackers were funded by rich people in Saudi Arabia, none of whom have been punished for it.

2) President Bush had ample and direct warnings that Al Queda was a threat yet failed to take them seriously.

3) One security technology could have prevented the hijackings — secure and solid cockpit doors. The airlines fought FAA proposals for them for decades.

4) Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks but more than 10 years later more than half of Republicans still believed it did.

5) For one brief moment almost the whole world was united in horror about the slaughter. Yet our government dissolved that unity within 18 months.

6) The mania that gripped the White House in the wake of 9/11 generated massive violations of US and international law, significant violations of human rights, and a squandering of the moral high ground.

7) If the Supreme Court had allowed the voters to choose the president in the 2000 election we would have had sober, moderate, law-abiding, knowledgeable adults running the country and things would be a lot better now.

8) President Bush not only failed to defend us against Al Queda before 9/11, he let Bin Laden escape from Tora Bora and ceased serious efforts to capture or kill him while he shifted U.S. resources to a country that had nothing to do with 9/11.

Yeah, I am still angry.

You should be, too.

Never forget.

I certainly don’t think that we should let the Bush-Cheney Administration off the hook. They made matters much worse in many ways. But the mania extended far beyond the White House. Only a single member of Congress – Barbara Lee – voted against the extraordinarily broad language of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that preceded the invasion of Afghanistan. To this day, the sixty words at the heart of that measure constitute a blank check for the misuse of American power by the executive branch.   Only sixty-six Congresspeople and one Senator voted against the USA PATRIOT Act. The authorization to invade Iraq garnered majority support from both parties in the Senate. And it was a supposedly more moderate and competent Republican, Rudy Giuliani, who, at the 2004 Republican convention, engaged in arguably the single most shameless attempt at exploiting the attacks politically.

Outside of government, less than a month after the attacks, Andrew Sullivan warned darkly of Al Qaeda fifth columnists among the “decadent left enclaves on the coasts.” He didn’t need marching orders from George W. Bush or Dick Cheney to formulate that statement. Nor was Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” written at the behest of the Bush Administration. We were undoubtedly ill served by a truly terrible presidential administration. But it was not the sole source of ugliness in American life in those years.

And as the more perceptive critics of the Bush administration, like Andrew Bacevich, pointed out even at the time, there were deep continuities between the military and foreign policies of the Bush administration and those of its predecessors.

The horrible events of 9/11 and the ugliness that followed are now fading into the past. We are as far from 9/11 as the Carter Administration was from the Kennedy assassination. A large majority of this year’s high school freshmen were born after 9/11. And yet, in many ways, I still think we’re too close to those events to draw sober historical conclusions. At least I think I am too close to them to do so.

So instead, let me propose what I think ought to be some of the guiding questions for future historians who will set about understanding 9/11 and its effects on this country and the world.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, commentators placed great emphasis on how much America had been changed by them. Some of these claims were trivially false: irony (really sarcasm or snark) did not die. Nor did this country achieve a durable unity of purpose (and the unity of purpose it achieved in the short run was not entirely admirable). But 9/11 still feels like a watershed event. But in what way was it really one?

What really changed on 9/11? How and why did these changes happen? And how durable were these changes, for good or ill?

Those are the big questions that I hope we’re able to provide better answers for in the future.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Really enjoyed this Ben. I think it is really important to remember, as you have done here, how the Bush Administration was a creature of American politics and American culture, not a wacky deviation from it.

    This might seem strange, but one of the post-911 moments that hit me the hardest, in terms of realizing the ugliness that tragedy spawned, was watching people celebrate Bin Laden’s death as though a Super Bowl had been won, and then seeing even lefty-liberals like Jon Stewart dismiss anyone who found this disturbing. The idea that all the suffering leading to and following from 9/11, for both Americans and many civilians fought in the crossfire in Iraq and Afghanistan, could somehow be made a bit more bearable simply because we killed another person responsible for it just struck me as so crazy and myopic that I didn’t know what to do with it. I wasn’t sad Bin Laden was dead, didn’t care that we killed him; but it was just another body in a long lines of bodies that continue to be buried to this day, and to see people celebrating that like it was some kind of accomplishment made my heart sink. Anyway, I’ve ranted into my own reflections so will stop there, but thanks for the post.

  2. I see 9/11 and its aftermath, in many ways, as an expression of the collective insecurity that had been building, at home and abroad, since the 1970s—despite the bellicosity of the Reagan Era and the end of the Cold War. We built a collective insecurity into “the system” by making labor and institutions “responsive” to a mysterious ideology, i.e. market forces. And we had floundered, foreign policy-wise, since the end of Vietnam. Acts of terror grew in number and intensity, but we developed no answers to the deep roots of those acts. …My two cents.

  3. Wonderful post! I think more and more about September 11 from the perspective of teaching our young students about the event. The importance of this struck me in the fall of 2012 when, as a TA for a course, I was dumbstruck to realize that the vast majority of our students were children for the event. I was in high school when it happened, and the professor I was working for was already in college during that time. So we were the only ones in the room who could provide a “I remember what I was doing” perspective beyond the vague memories any child has of a nationally traumatic event.

    Even so, I wonder how historians will describe our era as a whole–I sometimes pity the historian who’s going to have to teach his or her class about 9/11, Katrina, and the 2008 financial meltdown in the same lecture. And as Ben said, we’re probably still too close to give the event true historical analysis–but we can certainly try now, and hope historians down the road pick up the baton and do even more.

  4. Ben–
    Thanks for this. I, too, experienced both the horror and sadness of the event, followed very shortly by the revulsion at the ideological lockdown that followed–the sense that any attempt to talk beyond slogans was somehow dangerous; I think this was really the first time I could see what dissent during WW I or the McCarthy era was like in mass psychological terms rather than cooly analytical ones, that I understood Bourne’s “war is the health of the state” in terms of the power to enforce an ideological consensus and to silence those who raised questions by simply invoking the specter of disloyalty–you’re either for us or against us. I recall receiving anonymous emails from students warning darkly of what should happen to me if I refused to give up what was called my “Bush bashing,” for instance. That the response to the horrible actions of radical Islamic terrorists should have been not an attempt to understand better, but only to divide the imagined world into the forces of good and evil, rendered those of us who thought critical thinking mattered and was important as a constituent of public life not only irrelevant but dangerous. And so we watched the match lit to a war with Iraq that thoughtful and knowledgeable people were powerless to stop, and watched our political representatives line up in lockstep over a set of war justifications that we knew they knew were bogus. It really had to be the nadir of faith in the idea of a democratic republic as at least potentially responsive to public reasoned argument. At least we don’t have to listen to Dick Cheney on American foreign policy anymore…oh, wait.

    In thinking about 9/11 and how it will be treated by historians, I suspect that the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11 will be seen as an interregnum in which various notions of U.S. power and purpose were floated, only to be replaced by a definite commitment to a permanent war-time state with a demonized enemy in the form of radical Islam, and a use of American power to extend a neoliberal globalized economy. What 9/11 did more than anything was to provide the pretext for that concentration of purpose. Here’s an interesting question for future history exams: without the events of 9/11, the U.S. would never have passed a national health insurance plan on the scale of the Affordable Health Care Act. Discuss!

  5. Let’s let a man who really knows about such things to say his piece:

    “Of course the people don’t want war. But after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.”

    — Herman Goering at the Nuremberg trials

  6. It meant a lot to me that the S-USIH site posted a piece on 9/11. Mr. Alpers, your piece was so well written and thoughtful’ the comments equally so. I’ve said this before but I think of this site as an oasis in a sea of insanity that can sometimes be the internet.

  7. Off-the-cuff rambling: the aftermath of 9/11 will be taken as the belated breakthrough of late Cold Warrior ideology in its popular form. The shift to a “permanent war footing” after 9/11 wasn’t a psychological novelty; that was already the state a lot of us were in, or thought we should be in, throughout the Cold War. But it was the moment when that attitude gained a certain institutional legitimacy that it hadn’t previously.

    The very fact that 9/11 was followed not by political chaos but by an extraordinarily unified national response should suffice to show that the attacks simply weren’t the incomprehensible shock everyone wanted to believe they were. We already knew how to react. We already had a ready-made national narrative of world-historical ideological conflict, one originally invented in the context of Nazism and Communism, but which for most people required very little modification to adequately cover the new boogieman of radical Islam instead. Too many of us were spoiling for a fight, especially after the apparent triumphs of 1989-91 made us overconfident in our ideological rightness. We had whole generations brought up on tales of Pearl Harbor and the “sacrifices” of the Greatest Generation, comfortable with the role of “world policeman” since Korea, and trained to expect a Soviet apocalypse. The “interregnum” of the 90s didn’t last long enough to substantially modify our assumptions about the Cold War past (and being the winners, we felt we had no reason to rethink those assumptions anyway). The Soviet apocalypse never came, but we were nevertheless ideologically “prepared” when we were ultimately hit by an alternative catastrophe in the form of radical Islamic terrorism. Such an attack on the “homeland” had never actually occurred during the Cold War, and so such a drastic official response had never become “necessary”, but the groundwork had long since been laid. It was our bad luck to have in power a bunch of jerks who were all too eager to build on that groundwork, people wholly uninterested in resisting the viciousness of our Cold Warrior impulses – either out of cynicism, or because they sincerely believed their own bullshit. Not sure which is worse.

    (I was in 7th grade when we invaded Iraq. I was certainly aware of it at the time; my school got the local paper delivered to every classroom and I remember reading the initial reports of the invasion on my morning break. I knew basically nothing of the debates in the lead-up to war, I knew nothing of the anti-war movement, but I knew that the official story of a just war against a tyrannical foreign dictator perfectly jibed with everything I had been brought up to believe about our country and its history. I learned better soon enough, but at the time I was entirely prepared to believe that the war was a fine thing.)

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