The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 remain a watershed of American history, but understanding their significance in historical terms is elusive.
Some remembrances focus on the tragedy of civilian deaths, as well they should. They recall the swelling patriotism that unified a people who were split all too evenly — as seen in the 2000 election. That unity was fleeting.
Remembrances that try to bring context note that the ignorant bliss about external threats ended that day. In response, our federal government geared up with layer upon layer of bureaucracy, at great cost. Much of this was good; agencies began to coordinate their work and share information, and local public safety agencies now are better equipped to respond to disasters, both man-made and natural — also good.
Our transportation policies are less Pollyannaish, as well they should be. But having to remove one’s shoes before boarding a flight and tolerating security officials frisking 80-year-old women is an unsettling legacy.
Other “looking back” discussions set aside the emotional impact of the attacks and rightly shine a light on the speed with which civil liberties were trampled in the name of security. Again, as they did in the McCarthy era and after Pearl Harbor, Americans embraced policies that conflicted with our basic principles of due process, privacy and religious tolerance.
The attacks loomed large in the foreign policy arena, impelling moves that defied logic, such as invading Iraq. It made Osama bin Laden’s case to the Arab world that the U.S. truly was determined to be its oppressor. It also furthered another of the al-Qaeda leader’s goals, to weaken the U.S. economy.
The corollary event to the 9/11 attacks in American history, many say, is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. That morning, Americans were blissfully ignorant of how close they actually were to the German and Japanese empire-building of the 1930s, despite being an ocean away. Much of Europe and Asia had already fallen to brutal invasion, yet American sentiment was strongly opposed to getting involved. Only when a U.S. base was attacked was the nation ready to take on these evil forces.
The 9/11 attacks are dissimilar, though, in that the U.S. was not in blissful isolation that morning. In fact, the U.S. policy of asserting its interests throughout the world provoked the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. covertly supported bin Laden and other “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan in their resistance of a Soviet invasion in the 1980s. But when that support was withdrawn after the Soviet troops left, the country descended into chaos. The fundamentalist Muslim Taliban emerged to impose order. And bin Laden was left profoundly disillusioned about U.S. motives and bent on vengeance.
The Pearl Harbor attack thrust the U.S. onto the world stage. The U.S. defeated Japan and Germany, but the peace left a world polarized: a totalitarian Soviet Union occupying half of Europe and the U.S. advocating for self-determination for all nations — as long as those nations were loyal to the West. Isolationism would never again be possible.
So rather than see Pearl Harbor and 9/11 as corollaries, they might better be understood as bookends.
The first set into motion events that led to the so-called American century, when the U.S. dominated militarily and economically. The second, coming as it did at the dawn of a new century, cast into doubt the future of the idea of American exceptionalism.
Interestingly, the Dec. 7, 1951 issue of the Bangor Daily News barely noted the 10th anniversary of Pearl Harbor — the smallest of 13 front page headlines, at the bottom of the page, recounted in five paragraphs that “It was 7:55 a.m. Hawaii time, Dec. 7, ten years ago when a relatively small force of bombers, fighters and torpedo bombers began their attack on the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor.”
The editorial page ignored the anniversary, and ran a piece from the New York Daily News comparing a college football game to President Truman’s struggles with his generals in Korea.
So the orgy of analysis, the feast of remembrances about 9/11 may be inspired by our inability to face two hard truths.
One is that the attacks, understood as unprovoked, conflicted deeply with our image of ourselves as a big-hearted, tolerant, principled people. A parent, being asked by a child in 1941 why the Japanese wanted to attack America, would have had a cogent answer. In 2001, parents struggled to explain to their children why Saudi Arabian suicide hijackers did what they did.
The other hard truth, made even clearer as we wallow in this deep economic funk, is that the U.S. cannot afford to strut on the world stage. It must adopt a vigilant, defensive posture to thwart any future attacks like those of Sept. 11, 2001. But our resources are best devoted to the economic arena.
Like any milestone, the opportunity 9/11 offers is to better understand who we are as a nation, and where we want to go.