September 11 in History: A Watershed Moment?

September 11 in History: A Watershed Moment?

by Mary L. Dudziak

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Hours after the collapse of the Twin Towers, the idea that the September 11 attacks had “changed everything” permeated American popular and political discussion. In the period since then, the events of September 11 have been used to justify profound changes in U.S. public policy and foreign relations. Bringing together leading scholars of history, law,


Hours after the collapse of the Twin Towers, the idea that the September 11 attacks had “changed everything” permeated American popular and political discussion. In the period since then, the events of September 11 have been used to justify profound changes in U.S. public policy and foreign relations. Bringing together leading scholars of history, law, literature, and Islam, September 11 in History asks whether the attacks and their aftermath truly marked a transition in U.S. and world history or whether they are best understood in the context of pre-existing historical trajectories.

From a variety of perspectives, the contributors to this collection scrutinize claims about September 11, in terms of both their historical validity and their consequences. Essays range from an analysis of terms like “ground zero,” “homeland,” and “the axis of evil” to an argument that the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay has become a site for acting out a repressed imperial history. Examining the effect of the attacks on Islamic self-identity, one contributor argues that Osama bin Laden enacted an interpretation of Islam on September 11 and asserts that progressive Muslims must respond to it. Other essays focus on the deployment of Orientalist tropes in categorizations of those who “look Middle Eastern,” the blurring of domestic and international law evident in a number of legal developments including the use of military tribunals to prosecute suspected terrorists, and the justifications for and consequences of American unilateralism. This collection ultimately reveals that everything did not change on September 11, 2001, but that some foundations of democratic legitimacy have been significantly eroded by claims that it did.

Khaled Abou el Fadl
Mary L. Dudziak
Christopher L. Eisgruber
Laurence R. Helfer
Sherman A. Jackson
Amy B. Kaplan
Elaine Tyler May
Lawrence G. Sager
Ruti G. Teitel
Leti Volpp
Marilyn B. Young

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Complicating glib assertions that 9/11 ‘changed everything,’ this provocative volume finds considerable, often worrisome, continuity, as with what Marilyn Young calls America's ‘puerile arrogance.’ Students of international relations, the law, and Islam will find these essays essential.”—Michael S. Sherry, author of In the Shadow of War: The United States since the 1930s

“I am exhilarated by the collective wisdom, creativity, and insight of this unusual yet riveting distillation of perspectives on September 11.”—Bruce Lawrence, author of Shattering the Myth: Islam beyond Violence

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Duke University Press
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American Encounters/Global Interactions
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September 11 in history

A watershed moment?
By Mary L. Dudziak

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3242-6

Chapter One

Ground Zero: Enduring War MARILYN B. YOUNG

I dread our own power and our own ambition; I dread our being too much dreaded. -Edmund Burke

Good afternoon. Today I ordered our armed forces to strike at terrorist-related facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan because of the imminent threat they presented to our national security. Our target was terror.... [Osama bin Laden and the groups associated with him] have made the United States their adversary precisely because of what we stand for and what we stand against.... [The U.S. strikes] were not aimed against Islam.... [The struggle against terrorism] will require strength, courage and endurance.... This will be a long, ongoing struggle between freedom and fanaticism, between the rule of law and terrorism.... America is and will remain a target of terrorists precisely because we are leaders; because we act to advance peace, democracy and basic human values; ... because, as we have shown yet again, we take an uncompromising stand against terrorism.-President William Jefferson Clinton, August 20, 1998.

Over the past twenty years or so, American presidents have periodically declared war against terrorism. William Jefferson Clinton's war against terrorism included efforts to assassinate Osama bin Laden, a doubling of the budget for counterterrorism and direct, ifineffective, acts of war: the bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant and the blasting of a bin Laden camp in Afghanistan, well known to the United States because it had originally been set up to train the same people to fight against the Soviet Union. Clinton also placed a $5 million price on bin Laden's head and pressured the government of Sudan to expel him. The one counter terrorist strategy Clinton did not consider was a major change in U.S. policy in the Middle East. Meanwhile, on and off throughout his presidency, sometimes with great intensity and almost always unnoticed by the American public, Clinton bombed Iraq and bombed it again. In mid- December 1998, just before hearings on his impeachment were about to begin, Clinton launched a particularly heavy series of raids, explaining that bombing was the only way to deal with Saddam Hussein's noncompliance with un inspections: "If Saddam defies the world and we fail to respond, we will face a far greater threat in the future. Saddam will strike again at his neighbors; he will make war on his own people. And mark my words, he will develop weapons of mass destruction. He will deploy them, and he will use them. Because we are acting today, it is less likely that we will face these dangers in the future." The future then arrived.

The initial response of most commentators to September 11 was that we had witnessed a historical watershed, one of those topographic metaphors historians favor. Jonathan Schell captured the feeling best in his first "Letter from Ground Zero," written for the Nation: "In an instant and without warning on a fine fall morning, the known world had been jerked aside like a mere slide in a projector, and a new world had been rammed into its place.... Has the eye of the world ever shifted more abruptly or completely than it did on September 11?"

What made it a new world? Editorials, politicians, sermons, and online opinion sites mourned America's loss of innocence. But pundits and politicians have regretted the end of American innocence before, as recently as the failed intervention in Somalia or, for those with greater historical reach, Vietnam. Terrorism did not create a new world, for, as a tactic, terrorist incidents were already familiar to Americans at home and abroad, as, on a more regular basis, they had become familiar to the Israelis, British, Irish, Italians, and French. The only new aspect of this act of terror was its happening in the United States, whose citizens had imagined themselves invulnerable. Many commentators, both here and abroad, expressed a kind of pleasure: now Americans would know how it felt to be unsafe, to be a target, to experience war, and this would have an effect on how they understood other countries with a longer history of devastation. Some, in this country, believed the attack would wake a hedonistic public to a renewed sense of self-sacrifice, civic responsibility, and ethical commitment.

Neither compassion nor spiritual renewal occurred. Instead, as is sometimes the case with individuals facing crises, the country became even more itself, almost to the point of caricature. Unlike other nationals, Americans often fly flags outside their homes on national holidays. After September 11, there were flags everywhere, all the time, even in New York. A headline in the humor newspaper the Onion reflected what has become a national problem: "Local Man Uncertain When to Take Down Flag." Unlike the French, who know the answer and don't care, or the British, who would never ask, Americans often wonder whether other people love them. After September 11, newspapers and television anchor people asked, plaintively or angrily or both: why do people hate the United States? The most frequent answer was reassuring: Americans were hated because they were envied, for their wealth, their freedom, their liberty.

The world that had seemed to crumble with the Berlin Wall in 1989 reappeared, a little dusty. Good and Evil, Us and Them, Enemies Everywhere. The view was bipartisan. Senator Joseph Lieberman, who could have been vice president on September 11, described the war on terrorism as a struggle between "the medieval zealotry and religious fanaticism of a holy war against the universalistic, humanitarian, democratic and tolerant ideals of America." The country's fundamental principles were "as much on the line in this war against terrorism as they were in our battles with Nazism and communism."

Along with the Manichean language came a revivification of a number of Cold War tactics, such as psychological warfare, embodied in the short-lived Office of Strategic Influence, whose open purpose was to spread disinformation abroad. Washington and Hollywood fell into each other's arms. In late October, forty Hollywood executives met with Chris Henick, deputy assistant to the president, and Adam Goldman, associate director of the administration's Office of Public Liaison. Leslie Moonves, president of CBS, explained their mission: "I think you have a bunch of people here who were just saying, 'Tell us what to do. We don't fly jet planes, but there are skill sets that can be put to use here.'" There was a clear need, both "domestically and internationally to tell the story that is our story."

The government acted quickly to blunt any questioning of administration policy, passing the "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act." Known as the USA Patriot Act for short, it provides for an unprecedented peacetime abrogation of civil liberties in a piece of legislation whose name itself discourages dissent. Nine months after its passage, in a move that makes the FBI ColdWar informant network look benign, the administration launched Operation tips, whose acronym must also have preceded its full naming. Through a pilot project in ten cities, the Terrorism Information and Prevention System will enable one million letter carriers, train conductors, utility employees, and ship captains to report "suspicious activity" by calling a toll-free number which will connect them "directly to a hotline routing calls to the proper law enforcement agency." The U.S. Postal Service declined to participate, and protests in Congress make it likely that Operation tips will follow the Office of Strategic Security into the rubbish bin. But Operation tips was the formalization of a system already in place, the Neighborhood Watch Program, whose original anticrime mandate was now expanded: "With the help of the National Sheriffs' Association, the Neighborhood Watch Program will be taking on a new significance. Community residents will be provided with information which will enable them to recognize signs of potential terrorist activity, and to know how to report that activity, making these residents a critical element in the detection, prevention and disruption of terrorism." One alert citizen in Williamsburg, Virginia, John Chwaszczewski, shot at a helicopter as it landed in his neighborhood to pick up a local businessman. "Maybe I overreacted," Mr. Chwaszczewski said. A Federal Express driver working in a Middle Eastern neighborhood in Brooklyn told a reporter: "Whenever I would go to a place where there was a lot of them [Arab Americans], I would tell the landlord, hey, you got nine people living up there or whatever, and they would call the F.B.I. and get them checked out." Raymond Arnold, a field-service representative for a local gas company, made the ColdWar connection explicit, recalling his earlier effort on behalf of patriotic observation: "A long time ago, I saw a Communist flag [sic] in someone's basement."

A presidential executive order made it legal to try alien terrorists in military tribunals, and the Geneva Conventions on prisoners of war was abrogated with respect to Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners, who would be held indefinitely, irrespective of any evidence, at the Guantanamo Bay military base in Cuba. Nongovernmental witch-hunters set up organizations to monitor thought. Among the first was Lynne Cheney, the wife of the vice president. Mrs. Cheney, a veteran defender of Western Civilization, had successfully opposed the National History Standards for being insufficiently patriotic. Now, as head of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), she published the names of over 100 academics guilty of criticizing U.S. foreign policy. In March 2002, William Bennett founded a new disciplinary organization, Americans for Victory over Terrorism (AVOT), whose mandate was to "take to task those groups and individuals who fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the war we are facing." Like ACTA, AVOT has a list of "internal threats" to America that includes Congresswoman Maxine Waters, President Jimmy Carter, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, and the editors of several magazines. In Maine, a student teacher lost his internship in a local high school for offering a course on Islam when parents complained that he was trying to convert their children. Meanwhile, in the first few weeks after September 11, some 1,200 immigrants, especially those from Middle Eastern countries, were rounded up and held in secret detention, while on the streets they were assaulted and, on occasion, killed. An unknown number continue to be held; the rest have been deported on various immigration charges.

Fifty years ago, the country had been informed it must gird itself for a long, indefinite struggle against godless Communism; now, the appeal was for fortitude in a struggle of indefinite duration against terrorism. Tactic was thus transformed into an ideology. A universal explanation transcended local sites of conflict: wherever acts of terror, as defined by the United States, occurred, there was Al Qaeda, if not literally, then metaphorically. Resistance movements that endangered governments judged legitimate by the United States were a danger to American security as well. Homeland security alerts recalled the mobilization for civil defense of the 1950s: the public was alerted to dangers that neither they nor the government could do much to avert.

Since 1945, American presidents have routinely drawn on the tropes of WorldWar II to justify their own wars. President George W. Bush compared September 11 to Pearl Harbor, and one can see the similarities: surprise; planes; many dead. The differences are more telling: Pearl Harbor was a military target; the attack came as the culmination of long-standing tension between the United States and another nation-state; there was a formal declaration of war. A more apt historical analogy might have been June 25, 1950, the beginning of the Korean War. Harry Truman responded to the North Korean invasion, which he cast as aggression across an international border, by securing support for U.S. military moves from a compliant un, putting American troops in the field, and calling for a worldwide mobilization against Communism. The stated goal was to drive the North Koreans out of the South in what was at first an unnamed military effort (later, a police action) but never a declared war. Having driven the North Koreans back, Truman went on to make war against North Korea, as Bush, who set out to capture bin Laden dead or alive, went on to make war on the Taliban. Along the way, the Truman administration was able to pass legislation contemplated earlier but deemed unlikely to succeed- in particular, the tripling of the defense budget. The enemy then, as now, was an amoebic "ism" that could take up residence in any number of surprising places, instantly deterritorializing them. The United States did not fight Koreans on that devastated peninsula, but Communists. The only Koreans (or, later, Vietnamese) around were America's allies, as, if the Bush administration has its way, the only Iraqis around will be those so designated by the United States, with the rest of the country subsumed under the single figure of Saddam Hussein, a personified weapon of mass destruction.

After the Chinese joined the North Koreans, Truman denounced them as "the inheritors of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, who were the greatest murderers in world history." At an informal lunch with reporters, Truman explained that Western jurisprudence had "originated with Hammurabi in the Mesopotamian Valley, [was] propounded by Moses and 'elaborated on by Jesus Christ, whose Sermon on the Mount is the best ethical program by which to live.'" Led by the United States, others could join the battle: "I have been trying to mobilize the moral force of the world-Catholics, Protestants, Jews, the eastern church, the Grand Lama of Tibet, the Indian Sanskrit code-I have been trying to organize all these people to the understanding that their welfare and the existence of decency and honor in the world depends on our working together, and not trying to cut each other's throats." The idiom, and the grammar, have a contemporary ring.

The comparison between the current war against terrorism and the early days of the ColdWar has been made by members of the Bush administration itself. In an interview with Nicholas Lemann, the National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said she thought "this period is analogous to 1945-1947 ... in that the events so clearly demonstrated that there is a big global threat." As in those early postwar years, the United States is the sole superpower, now so much the superior of any possible rival it is relieved of even the appearance of multilateralism. "It's good to have the Europeans supporting us to the degree they do," Richard Perle told the Foreign Policy Research Institute, but "the price you end up paying for an alliance is collective judgment, collective decision-making." The administration feels the price is too high. Zalmay Khalilzad, a former aide to Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and currently the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, put it even more bluntly in his 1995 book, From Containment to Global Leadership? The United States is and must remain the only world power. It should "preclude the rise of another global rival for the indefinite future." To prevent "multipolarity," the United States "must be willing to use force if necessary."


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Meet the Author

Mary L. Dudziak is Judge Edward J. and Ruey L. Guirado Professor of Law and History at the University of Southern California Law School. She is the author of Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy.

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