9-11: What Historians Can Do to Help
On 28 January 1981 the new Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, remarked at his first news conference,"International terrorism will take the place of human rights in our concern because it is the ultimate abuse of human rights."
Now, twenty years later, and two days after a coordinated terrorist attack on the citizens and symbols of America, we may be on the verge of a profound appreciation of General Haig's remarks.
What we as citizens who are also historians know at the moment is how little we know. I am writing this on the evening of Thursday, 13 September. News sources continue to break stories of new developments hourly if not more often. Tonight arrests of possible terrorists were made at JFK and LaGuardia airports; the details are not clear but hope is raised that we may have gotten some of the perpetrators. But maybe not. Fire broke out again at the Pentagon. Rescue workers at the WTC, reminiscent of some Civil War soldiers, are writing their names, home telephone numbers and Social Security numbers on their arms in case their body needs to be identified. Reports from the White House and Defense Department suggest a large, possibly huge, call-up of the Reserves. Today the President and the Secretary of State have repeatedly described current conditions as a state of war. It is to be expected that stories will continue to break over the next several days or more.
While there may be a shortage of factual information, there has in the past two days been no shortage of opinion or speculation. From experts on grief to experts on international affairs, from inside sources close to the seat of power to private people far removed from power we all have had something to say about this event.
And through all of those news stories are videos of hundreds of relatives carrying photos of their missing loved ones, walking the streets of America's largest city..
While we have our own ideas and opinions, what I think we as historians know best is that initial reports are fragmentary, evidence is scant, documentation is fragile, initial impressions are confused and the future is uncertain.
What we can contribute to this crisis is our ability to document the events. I would hope that historians who live in the New York and Washington, D. C., area are already as close to the scene as the can get in order to collect and preserve primary documentation and conduct oral history interviews.
As some stability returns to New York and Washington, D. C., greater opportunities for historians to document this event, identify and preserve the documentation, should abound. Every effort must be made to work with local officials, fire departments, police departments and emergency workers to establish a chronology, a document base and an oral history interview base. We need to know, for example, how responders were organized, how were they trained, how decisions were made and so forth.
At the very minimum, I have encouraged all those around me to keep a personal diary our journal of what they were doing this week. Those who are far from the scene or not immediately affected still have observations and experiences that should be noted so that they become a recorded part of the American experience.
But there are other opportunities as well. In most American communities there are fund drives, collections of emergency supplies, prayer vigils and other humane and patriotic events. Let's get out and document those events. Let us get our students involved in the real tough work of preserving the past as it is happening in the present.
Sure, we all can lecture, we all can offer theories and platitudes. But what I think historians can do best now is go to the field and begin the long and tedious task of preserving the memory of this week.
If we fail to recover and preserve the documentation of these events, we may deny the future a chance to understand what General Haig meant when he juxtaposed two seemingly contradictory but nevertheless stimulating ideas.
If we fail to recover and preserve the documentation of these events, we rob the future of its memory.
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