Jonathan Dresner: That 9-11 Incident





Of course I remember 9/11/01. You don’t forget the day when you think you’re watching a rerun of a terrible accident — how quickly they got footage, you marvel briefly — and realize that you’re actually watching an atrocity in progress. You don’t forget the day when a student’s cell phone gets a text message that a plane has crashed on the Mall in DC (one day when you don’t care about them text messaging in class, and you don’t forget the relief that it wasn’t true, either). You don’t forget the day when you watch people die on TV, while your 8-month-pregnant spouse checks insulin levels.

I really did try to have class that morning. It was my Modern Japan class, and I tried — oh, how I tried — to talk coherently about terrorism in Japanese history. Nothing wrong with current events, if you can relate it to the course material, right? I talked about the bakumatsu assassination campaigns, about the right-wing assasinations and coup attempts of the ’30s; I honestly don’t remember if I got the Great Treason Incident in there or not, what with text messages and sharing what little we knew, and all. I do remember running out of things to say and dismissing them early, and being grateful when the president of the college cancelled classes for the remainder of the day. I went back to my office, called the college chaplain to see what was going on with regard to our small but noticeable Muslim student population (Everyone was fine: Cedar Rapids has the oldest mosque west of the Mississippi river and the local Muslim community is quite well integrated and respected), and went home to my pregnant wife.

It was a shocking event, to be sure. But it wasn’t quite such a surprise. It wasn’t all that long after I’d read Tom Clancy’s excreable Debt of Honor a book whose only redeeming feature (I’ve read quite a bit of Clancy’s work, and I find it wildly inconsistent in quality, which is why there’s always hope about a new one) was the ending — yeah, I’m gonna give it away — in which a businessman/pilot steals a jetliner, talks his way into the DC air traffic patterns, and obliterates a Joint Session of Congress, Tokkotai-style. (If you want to know how the immortal Jack Ryan solves the problem, you have to read Executive Orders, which is considerably more exciting and interesting and plausible….) Obviously, anyone teaching Japanese history has had to wrestle a bit with the issue of suicide attacks — human bullets, shattered jewels, divine winds, etc. — and they had been increasingly common in the Middle East of late.

Being Jewish, I have that slightly-greater-than-average-American-interest in Middle Eastern affairs, and that slightly-greater-than-average-paranoia about violent, hostile forces. Not only wasn’t the 9/11 attack not the first large domestic terror attack, it wasn’t even the first large, Islamist, domestic terror attack on the World Trade Center. The Taliban had long since destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas (nothing like destruction of cultural property to get an historian’s attention), not to mention imposing strictures on Afghani women that would make Draco blanch. US interests had been attacked overseas, the bombing of the Jewish center in Argentina proved the reach of anti-semitic violence (recently revealed to be al-Qaeda related, even) outside of the Middle East.

What changed for me, five years ago? As an historian, very little. The market for Asianists got a bit tighter, as the market for MidEast and Islamic specialists got better. I stopped having to work so hard to explain the terror of the Cold War, the potential of sudden death and the existence of ideologically and politically hostile entities on a world-wide scale. Changes in Japan since then have been subtle, and mostly not at all linked to our own national trauma. Hardly anyone, still, has made any substantial links between Japan’s history of suicide attacks and terrorism with our current situation, but I don’t see there being all that much to say about it except to suggest that people would be less surprised if they paid attention. I remain convinced that paying attention to historical evolution and forces is one of the best ways to anticipate problems and sometimes even to find solutions. Airport security changes have rarely affected us — though our 7-month-old got randomly selected for special screening, and they really did pat him down.

Historians really don’t do anniversaries (though we try to remember our spouses and parents as appropriate). The press does, because it’s easy to count by years, or fives, or tens, or twenty-fives, or hundreds, and then they come talk to us or to people who were directly involved [via], and we get an odd sort of retrospective and update. Historians don’t care about even numbers: for us, the “Sixties” ended with the Vietnam War, and both the 18th and 19th centuries were “long” ones; every “20th century” course I’ve ever taken started in 1890. But outside of the journalistic need for a “hook” to look back, there’s nothing special about five years.

There’s nothing all that special about 9/11, either…. yet. What meaning 9/11/01 will have, its historical import, is still up in the air, no matter how much anyone claims that it must mean this or that, that things have or haven’t changed as a result. 9/11 was the largest act of terror to strike the United States, just as the Holocaust was the largest anti-semitic genocidal event, but neither of them stands alone and to focus all our attention on those events of such distinctive scale to the exclusion of myriad “smaller events” before or since is historically stunted, or dishonest. That so many people were so shocked by the event, and have yet to put it in anything like proper context or perspective, suggests to me that historians — not alone among scholars, but perhaps uniquely — have a long way to go in inculcating (recovering) our long-term vision, our sense of complexity of the world, our experience — indirect but nonetheless real — with cultural and ideological and technological change and conflict.


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