Re: Joseph Ellis’ Column On The "Place [of] 9/11 In American History."
January 31, 2006
Re: Joseph Ellis’ Column On The "Place [of] 9/11 In American History."
From: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel
Appended below is a brilliant op ed column by Joseph Ellis, published in The New York Times of Saturday, January 28th. One of Ellis’ two purposes was to raise the question of whether 9/11 merits the pride of place given to it by the Bushites in seeking various policies and various forms of expanded executive power. Ellis’ view is that, because the terrorists do not threaten the continued existence of the republic, 9/11 does not rise to the level of several prior events that did. These include the Revolution itself, "the War of 1812, when the national capital was burned to the ground" by the British, the Civil War, "World War II, which represented a totalitarian threat to democracy and capitalism," and the cold war, especially "the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which made nuclear annihilation a distinct possibility." It is, one thinks, hard to argue with Ellis’ view that these all presented an infinitely more serious threat to the nation than the terrorists do.
In the second part of his brilliant column, Ellis examines the immediate (precedential) response to particular threats, and the subsequent historical view of these precedents for the Patriot Act and wiretapping. His "list of precedents" includes the Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798 (which allowed closing of newspapers and deporting of foreigners), the denial of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the Red Scare of 1919, when the Attorney General "round[ed] up leftist critics in the wake of the Russian Revolution," the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, and the McCarthyism of the early 1950s, which included "a witch hunt against potential Communists in government, universities and the film industry." "In retrospect," says Ellis, "none of these domestic responses to perceived national security threats looks justifiable. Every history textbook I know describes them as lamentable, excessive, even embarrassing." They were examples of "succumb[ing]" to "popular fears."
Again, Ellis’ views cannot be argued with (with the lone exception, perhaps, of the initial, April 1861, geographically limited suspension of habeas corpus along, and to stop southern efforts to break, the Philadelphia to Washington railroad line that was bringing Union troops to defend the capital city, which was surrounded on all sides and heavily populated by southern secessionists and was threatened with a potential takeover by the rebels).
In view of the efforts being made by the Administration to use 9/11 and the supposedly never-ending war on terror to change the nature of our government, and to make it a potential Executive dictatorship in the name of national security, it would behoove everyone of decent good will -- which would by definition exclude the right wing wackos, including those who govern us in the Executive today -- to pay close attention to Ellis’ points, which bear strongly on what should or should not be permitted today. The need to consider what Ellis says is only the sharper because of the Democrats’ intellectual (and "operational") incompetence in the Alito matter, and the fact that the secret wiretapping will soon come before both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee and will simultaneously be brought again to the attention of the citizenry. Frankly, I would call on all Americans to consider the deep importance of what Ellis has said -- something which, as far as I know, has not been done so far since he published his superb column a few days ago.*
*This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at email@example.com. Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.
January 28, 2006
Finding a Place for 9/11 in American History
By JOSEPH J. ELLIS
In recent weeks, President Bush and his administration have mounted a spirited defense of his Iraq policy, the Patriot Act and, especially, a program to wiretap civilians, often reaching back into American history for precedents to justify these actions. It is clear that the president believes that he is acting to protect the security of the American people. It is equally clear that both his belief and the executive authority he claims to justify its use derive from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
A myriad of contested questions are obviously at issue here — foreign policy questions about the danger posed by Iraq, constitutional questions about the proper limits on executive authority, even political questions about the president's motives in attacking Iraq. But all of those debates are playing out under the shadow of Sept. 11 and the tremendous changes that it prompted in both foreign and domestic policy.
Whether or not we can regard Sept. 11 as history, I would like to raise two historical questions about the terrorist attacks of that horrific day. My goal is not to offer definitive answers but rather to invite a serious debate about whether Sept. 11 deserves the historical significance it has achieved.
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. Some very distinguished American presidents, including John Adams, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, succumbed to quite genuine and widespread popular fears. No historian or biographer has argued that these were their finest hours.
What Patrick Henry once called "the lamp of experience" needs to be brought into the shadowy space in which we have all been living since Sept. 11. My tentative conclusion is that the light it sheds exposes the ghosts and goblins of our traumatized imaginations. It is completely understandable that those who lost loved ones on that date will carry emotional scars for the remainder of their lives. But it 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.
Joseph J. Ellis is a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College and the author, most recently, of "His Excellency: George Washington."