9-11: History Is Being Made
Mr. Phelps is a professor of history at Ohio State University.
I have experienced varying states of feeling that other people around the world seem to have felt as well -- disbelief, helplessness, horror, sadness, flashbacks to my own premonitions on airlines, instantaneous desire to shelter my children, memories of my various periods lived in New York, worries for acquaintances, general horror.
I have great outrage at the attack on innocent civilian life, which I not only oppose on rational grounds as barbaric but have been viscerally shakenby, giving rise to emotions difficult to characterize or express.
I have also been trying to draw rational and calm conclusions from the welter of impressions and news, which is not easy to do, both because of my own limitations and the dimensions of the situation. (As a historian, I will just say that it is something to be living through this, the sort of national crisis we lecture about all the time but generally do not experience directly ourselves.)
I have been meditating a lot about how much of the left -- and here I guess I should make clear that I consider myself a socialist historian, not just a historian -- has been mistaken in discounting the seriousness of this problem. I can recall a certain sniggering in the 1980s about"terrorism," as if it were merely an invention of the military-industrial complex, a pretext for American interventionism. I intend eventually to go back and read some of Noam Chomsky's writings, which I remember as being more or less along those lines. I very much admire Chomsky, but I have a sinking sense that he and we who admire him were wrong on some elemental level about how the matter should be treated. I hope I am mistaken, and that when I reread it, the work proves more sophisticated than I remember it now. I do not deny that"terrorism" has been used, like" communism" before it, to justify endeavors that had more to do with the assertion of power than with self-preservation, but to say that obviously does not cover the terrain.
Still, I have a lot of reservations about the way the issue is being cast in the media and by Bush administration spokesmen, and by the direction of national response. I find the idea that"America is at war" to be on some level understandable; what transpired was a clear act of aggression, force, terror, and violence--all features of wars, messy as they always are. However, to speak of what is happening as"war" is also rather indiscriminate and openeneded. I am highly suspicious of wars framed for democracy and freedom, since most of them have produced the exact opposite effect (thinking domestically alone, witness the WWI-era crushing of the domestic left, the Cold War McCarthy factor, the COINTELPRO and Watergate outcomes of Vietnam, and global offenses running from the Congo to Chile not to mention Hiroshima and Manila). This rush to a patriotism that really represents intolerance and ignorance is, I fear, replicated in this web site's handling of the issue, including its baiting of anarchists in the title of a Woodrow Wilson text. I believe historians, whose calling demands a commitment to human history and not just national history, and whose craft requires an open intellectual environment, must hold civil liberties in the forefront of their thinking about the direction of national events in the coming months. Talk in Congress about a consolidation of the CIA, FBI, and NSA, and a massive expansion of their charges, worries me, not only because it will probably be funded by siphoning from the social security surplus but because historically those secret agencies have been used not only as instruments against criminals but against American dissenters exercising their Constitutional rights of protest and association.
Furthermore, the"war" talk, I fear, gives advantage to the perpetrators. To me what is significant about these attacks is precisely that they did *not* follow the lines of engagement permissible in war, the prescribed rules of military conduct. Pearl Harbor was a sneak attack, but it was on the key U.S. naval installation in the Pacific. There was no military justification whatsoever for the attack on the World Trade Center. The Pentagon has a military centrality, but the use of civilians as weapons -- in the hi-jacked plane -- was illegitimate by any code of military conduct. No state has claimed responsibility. This was not an act of war but an assault on human life and liberty, a crime against humanity. To speak of it as"war" in a sense legitimizes the terms of the terrain desired by the perpetrators. It will mean an open invitation to destroy innocent American civilian lives, with every casualty a"victory."
I find myself torn between all of the feelings of repulsion and sympathy, admiration for those engaged in rescue operations, and a resistance to lines I have often heard on the radio today, typified by a talk by Robert Reich on"Marketplace" who said that before yesterday we were all innocent. Forgotten is Oklahoma City, the postal attacks, the school murders, the media hyping of crime in the streets, the shootings at Kent State and Jackson State, the massacre at Wounded Knee, etc. Loss of innocent civilian life is nothing new to this country. This is of a *magnitude* and *type* that is new, but Americans are forever losing their innocence in ways that their historians may find a bit disconcerting. In a sense it reflects the very weakness of historical knowledge -- or perhaps to be more precise historical understanding -- that people could speak in such oblivious ways about a national history shot through with violence and terror, along with its finer qualities.
I also worry that to repeatedly emphasize"America Under Attack" as the media are doing is to inflame the very sort of particularistic sentiments that motivate the sort of groups who are willing to do this sort of thing. The moral significance of the conflict derives from the indiscriminate murder of innocent people. Nationality from a moral point of view is beside the point, and the answer to their bigotry and barbarism is not a nationalistic spirit but the contrary assertion of internationalist solidarity and humane principles.
In that spirit I will be looking forward to reading contributions from critical scholars of the Middle East. The question that must concern us is, if Osama bin Laden is responsible, what has given appeal to him, the Taliban, and related currents? Essentially I suspect this represents a profound failing of American policy in that region, combined with the perception of America as the main imperial power, the sole superpower, and therefore the primary target. That the attack's brutality and barbarism will invite less, rather than more, sympathy for the oppressed and exploited of the Third World, that it will probably be greeted by enhanced discrimination against Arab Americans and Muslims, and that it represents the reversion of liberation movements to fundamentalist dogmatism, only makes it all the more tragic and awful.
I've gone on longer than intended, and I am expressing these things here, when I've barely expressed them anywhere else. I don't know why. Perhaps I think an internal dialogue among historians might be a good place to voice them, when I am otherwise just trying to absorb the dimensions of what has happened and to reflect.
My sympathies go out to anyone who is missing someone tonight lost in this disaster.
Department of History
Ohio State University
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