Among the things I've missed: this January 28 New York Times op-ed by historian Joseph J. Ellis. called "Finding a Place for 9/11 in American History."
Ellis writes that the debates unfolding today about foreign and domestic policy are taking place in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks, and therefore he wants to address some historical questions about that day.
My first question: where does Sept. 11 rank in the grand sweep of American history as a threat to national security? By my calculations it does not make the top tier of the list, which requires the threat to pose a serious challenge to the survival of the American republic.
Here is my version of the top tier: the War for Independence, where defeat meant no United States of America; the War of 1812, when the national capital was burned to the ground; the Civil War, which threatened the survival of the Union; World War II, which represented a totalitarian threat to democracy and capitalism; the cold war, most specifically the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which made nuclear annihilation a distinct possibility.
Sept. 11 does not rise to that level of threat because, while it places lives and lifestyles at risk, it does not threaten the survival of the American republic, even though the terrorists would like us to believe so.
My second question is this: What does history tell us about our earlier responses to traumatic events?
My list of precedents for the Patriot Act and government wiretapping of American citizens would include the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which allowed the federal government to close newspapers and deport foreigners during the "quasi-war" with France; the denial of habeas corpus during the Civil War, which permitted the pre-emptive arrest of suspected Southern sympathizers; the Red Scare of 1919, which emboldened the attorney general to round up leftist critics in the wake of the Russian Revolution; the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, which was justified on the grounds that their ancestry made them potential threats to national security; the McCarthy scare of the early 1950's, which used cold war anxieties to pursue a witch hunt against putative Communists in government, universities and the film industry.
In retrospect, none of these domestic responses to perceived national security threats looks justifiable. Every history textbook I know describes them as lamentable, excessive, even embarrassing.
[I]t defies reason and experience to make Sept. 11 the defining influence on our foreign and domestic policy. History suggests that we have faced greater challenges and triumphed, and that overreaction is a greater danger than complacency.
I largely agree with the second tier of Ellis's argument. We should always stay vigilant about the danger of sacrificing our national values to national security panic. But the first tier, unfortunately, undercuts his position.
Three of the letters published in today's Times in response to Ellis make the point excellently.
To the Editor:
Our elected officials and the political process could benefit from a healthy discussion of the context and misjudgments in the Alien and Sedition Acts, Japanese-American internment and McCarthy scare tactics.
This is less likely to occur if we are asked to stake our nation and our lives on comparisons between the current terrorist threat and largely nonanalogous events that occurred 50 or more years ago — before the Internet, cellphones, plastic explosives, portable nuclear weapons and the rise of Islamic radicalism.
Nor is a balanced debate stimulated by Joseph J. Ellis's assertion that terrorism places our "lives and lifestyles at risk," but "does not threaten the survival of the American Republic."
This presumes on the future impact of terrorism, an area in which none of us should feel much confidence in our own clairvoyance.
Steven A. Grossman•
Silver Spring, Md., Jan. 29, 2006
To the Editor:
Joseph J. Ellis contends that 9/11 did not "pose a serious challenge to the survival of the American Republic," though the burning of the capital in the War of 1812 qualifies.
The attack on 9/11 was a watershed event, one that also included plans to destroy our Capitol and its occupants. What would it take for Mr. Ellis to understand the significance of that attack: the detonation of a nuclear weapon?
I will take our response any day over his apparent preference for "complacency."
Ronald K. Sable
Tucson, Jan. 28, 2006
The writer was a special assistant to President Ronald Reagan for national security affairs.•
To the Editor:
Joseph J. Ellis's ethnocentric view doesn't take into account that 9/11 is part of a broader string of deadly events in the international arena; unlike the War of Independence and the Civil War, 9/11 is part of a string of bombings around the world ranging from Bali, Northern Africa and Central Asia to London and Madrid.
Sept. 11 does not signify a national threat; it is a globalized one. It was the crowning achievement of Al Qaeda not only against America but also against the free world. Sept. 11's place in American history will be surpassed only in its place in international history.
Elise M. Stefanik
Washington, Jan. 29, 2006
The writer, a senior at Harvard, is an undergraduate fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
No, the 9/11 attacks per se did not endanger the Republic (though it is worth remembering that the terrorists may have been only a few brave people on United Flight 93 away from destroying the Capitol). But as a declaration of war on America, and a signal that international terror had come to our shores, it was surely a turning point. (Another Times letter-writer points to Pearl Harbor as an analogy: the Pearl Harbor attack per se did not imperil America, either.)
Have we on various occasions overreacted to security threats, in the process harming not only innocent people but our freedom as well? Yes. Should we stay complacent about the use of national security threat to justify government power grabs? Absolutely not. But calling for "complacency" about the significance of 9/11 can only play into the hands of those who would use 9/11 to justify infringements on freedom and abuses of power.