By Arthur I. Cyr
The twentieth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington DC, and the sky over Pennsylvania calls for thoughtful thought.
Two decades provide a useful space for a relatively sober discussion of how we reacted to the shocking, grotesque mass murder. The abbreviation for horror is “9/11”. How would an objective analyst rate the response of us Americans?
There is solid justification for good grades in terms of our national institutions and our behavior as people. Despite the dire nature of the attacks and the thousands of deaths of Americans and citizens of other countries, we as a national community were remarkably mature.
The population as a whole did not respond with hysteria or extremism. Such incidents were rare, relatively isolated, and have diminished over time. Illegal anti-Islamic acts led to prosecution.
The clearest parallel event to 9/11 is Japan’s surprise attack on US forces in Pearl Harbor Hawaii on December 7, 1941, which had serious and lasting effects on our social and political lives. Intense fear and anger resulted in the internment and widespread persecution of Japanese-Americans on much of the west coast of the United States.
The internment contrasted with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s emphasis on national unity during the war, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover opposed it, but the politically ambitious California Attorney General Earl Warren was adamant. This context makes the military service of the Japanese-American forces in the European arena all the more heroic.
The persecution of Japanese Americans is particularly notorious, but not entirely unique. There was less extensive discrimination against German-Americans in both World War I and World War II, and against Italian-Americans in the latter conflict. During the Civil War, there were bloody riots against conscription in the north, including the beating and murder of African Americans.
With this in mind, American tolerance of Islamic-American Americans and Muslims in general after 9/11 is impressive and noteworthy. Americans have demonstrated maturity in a fundamental way that is both ethically correct and practical.
Terrorist groups want to promote discord within our borders, along with anti-American and anti-Western sentiments elsewhere. To date, they have failed in any way strategically significant.
Failure to anticipate the attack on Pearl Harbor reflected the rivalry between the services and the limitations of intelligence, as well as the arrogance over Japan’s military effectiveness. In reality, it was only a few decades earlier that Japan’s navy had destroyed the Russian fleet with astonishing efficiency
Pearl Harbor demonstrated Tokyo’s innovative use of tactical aircraft for the strategic destruction of capital ships. American commanders did not foresee this, although the British previously successfully used the same strategy against the Italian Navy.
Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, more concerned than most about a Japanese attack, acted to keep aircraft carriers safe at sea. However, it was primarily about submarine and not about air strikes on Pearl.
Likewise, rivalries between our intelligence services, along with cultural arrogance, facilitated September 11th.
Immediately after 9/11, the United Nations and NATO acted unanimously. This was the military alliance’s first war effort.
Americans should be quite proud of the way we as a people reacted to the grotesque mass murder within our borders. This reference date of two decades is an opportunity for reflection – and renewal.
This is particularly important in view of our Afghanistan disaster.
Arthur I. Cyr is the author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Palgrave / Macmillan) and other books. Contact [email protected]