9/11: How Our Teachers Help Us Forget

We have forgotten 9/11.

Back then, four years ago, we all swore to “never forget” the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Everywhere you turned, American flags, waved proudly in the wind and bumper stickers declared our solidarity as a nation and reaffirming that pledge: “We won’t forget!”

What has happened to that vow? The flags and bumper stickers are being forgotten, slowly but surely. In a few more years, most people will scarcely even notice the anniversary anymore.

How can this be? How can such an important and seemingly unforgettable event as the attacks of 9/11 be forgotten? The answer is simple: we forget because we do not understand the historical significance of 9/11. What explains this is largely unrecognized: we do not understand this significance because, thanks to modern education, we don’t understand the historical principles that explain it. Today’s teachers deplore the idea of generalizing from historical examples to learn the principles that explain them.

But what is it about 9/11 that makes principled thinking so necessary? Isn’t it obvious that these terrorist attacks were important? Haven’t the causes of them already been identified? We’ve been given a whole long list of them, after all: American support for Israel, the continued presence of American troops in the Middle East, the mess left in Afghanistan after the Cold War, a “radical fringe group” of Muslims who hate the West for these incursions…the list goes on.

If you try asking for the essential, underlying cause that explains why this fringe group successfully attacked America, when similar disaffected groups around the globe did not, the reply is quick and incredulous: “Essential causes? Don’t be simplistic! We live in a complex world!” Did a history teacher ever ask you to list the seven causes of the Civil War, or the fifteen causes of the fall of Rome on a test? It’s the same issue. We are told that it is impossible to generalize from specific situations to find the guiding principles of history.

Most of us come out of school never questioning this, yet this is the tragically simple answer to the general misunderstanding and failing recollection of 9/11. History is a subject which most vitally requires principled thinking, as it provides the proper context in which to judge human action,. But when we are taught that generalizing from past consequences is impossible, the implication is that we should divorce each new conflict from the sum of human history and solve it “pragmatically”–by trial and error. But historically, this strategy has had disastrous consequences!

We are often told that, when conflicts between nations arise, it is always best to try a peaceful, diplomatic solution first. But is it actually good to spend weeks, months, or years negotiating with the leaders of Islamic theocracies or other terrorist states? Neville Chamberlain spent years “negotiating” with Hitler, giving him time to consolidate his war machine and begin his conquest virtually unopposed. By the time anyone had the courage to stand up to his plans of world domination, a long, horrific war was necessary to stop him. Keeping in mind the Islamic tyrants’ openly stated goal of a world dominated by Islam, judge for yourself whether this principle of “peaceful diplomacy” is always the best solution.

In contrast to this, consider some historical examples in which our enemies were met with overwhelming retaliatory force, not appeasement. Consider the Barbary wars of the early 19th century. The Barbary pirates, living in north Africa, were attacking U.S. merchant ships headed for the Mediterranean. European powers urged diplomacy and negotiation, paying a yearly tribute to the Barbary thugs. But in two separate wars, Presidents Jefferson and Madison sent the U.S. Navy and Marines to invade and punish the Barbary states. Jefferson merely recognized a threat to American interests by a bunch of thieves and murderers, and dealt with them as such.

The pirates never bothered U.S. ships again.

Another example is the U.S. defeat of Germany and Japan in World War II. The fire-bombing of German cities and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had the (correctly) desired effect of breaking the will of those nations to fight, not only stopping their quests for world domination, but discouraging aggression for decades to come. Japan, in particular, would have fought a U.S. invasion down to every last man, woman and child–and many hundreds of thousands more American soldiers would have died before the war on that front was over. Once again, America and her allies recognized a very real threat to free nations everywhere, and used whatever means necessary to make sure that threat was ended.

These examples are just a few of many, but the pattern remains the same. There is definitely a principle that can be learned from them: an overwhelming use of force against a threat to freedom will frighten aggressors away and break the will of those who support them, whereas appeasement only emboldens the aggressors and sends the message that they can get away with more and more.

This is the kind of principle that should be identified and used in foreign policy and other areas of life–but isn’t.

Take another example: we’ve all heard the phrase “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Have you ever stopped to think about whether or not it’s true? Let’s look at what the words in this sentence really mean, and see. First of all, to equate a terrorist with a freedom fighter is to make the assumption that terrorists are fighting for freedom. But freedom means freedom of the individual from government control; this is what the Founding Fathers of America understood and fought for.

But is this what the terrorists are fighting for? No. They are fighting to force their brand of religion on, not only the people of their own countries, but the rest of the world as well. They are not fighting so that individuals will be free to live their own lives (and to choose their own beliefs), but to give governments absolute, religious control over every aspect of an individual’s life. Now can you equate a terrorist with a freedom fighter?

Just to provide a little more proof, take a look at some other examples of people who have fought, not for freedom, but for a mystical ideology (like Islam). The Crusades and the Inquisition, both consequences of the Christian ideology, are excellent examples where the aggressors claimed to be working for a good cause (whether “freeing” the heathens of the Arabia from Islam or “protecting” the innocent from heretics), but were in fact working against true freedom of the individual.

For a non-religious example, look at Nazi Germany. Hitler used the supposed mystical superiority of the “Aryan race” to form a nation-wide cult bent on “freeing” the world from the Jews and other inferior races. But is freedom really what they were fighting for? Not if you mean freedom of the individual.

The principle to be found here, then, is that mystical ideologies lead to dominating, destructive aggression. But–keep in mind the first principle we identified–they can only do this in the modern era if free, rational nations pander to them and allow such behavior to go on.

Phrases such as “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” are common in our culture today. Yet, if we are careful to stop and properly define the terms involved, it quickly becomes clear that they don’t add up. The consequences of letting this kind of mistake pass are abundantly clear after a quick look at history–and the same kind of thing will happen again this time, if we do not learn that it is possible to think in principles and to learn from the past.

Now, with this in mind, perhaps we can puzzle out why so many Americans have forgotten 9/11.

We all know that the attacks on September 11th were a tragedy. Why? Most people will answer that it’s because thousands of innocent lives were lost, and it was here on American soil. But the same thing could be said of Hurricane Katrina. There have been destructive hurricanes before and there will be again. But a bloody terrorist attack by primitive religionists on the most technologically advanced nation on earth is a different matter.

Here is where the principles we identified before become important:, on 9/11, America was attacked not because she lacked the means to defend herself, but because she did not use those means. For twenty years or more, the U.S. government failed to respond to increasingly audacious attacks by Islamic terrorists, and appeased governments that supported them. Abandoning the tradition of Jefferson and Madison, our leaders instead embraced the strategy of Chamberlain–and met with the same consequences.

This is the real tragedy of September 11th.

But because most people do not understand those principles, and don’t see how we got to the point where America was–and still is–engaging in appeasement, they also don’t see that this is the root source of all the trouble, don’t understand that this is what makes the events of 9/11 so significant, and therefore don’t remember 9/11. In their minds, the terrorist attacks have been reduced, essentially, to the level of the hurricane disaster: a lot of people dead, but what’s to be done about it? We shrug and move on.

Given the true nature of and reasons behind the attacks, this mental attitude on our part could not be worse: without an understanding of the attacks, and a suitable response to them, more and worse attacks will be directed at us, and eventually some of them will succeed no matter how good our security. Unlike hurricanes, our enemies can sense our cowardice.

Principled thinking, as used in the above examples, can be applied to all different kinds of ideas and questions, in all areas of life, and is thus vitally important to learn. However, it is an absolute necessity for understanding issues like 9/11 and the “War on Terror.” We must learn what the proper response to such attacks is, and be able to evaluate whether or not the war is an appropriate response. Even some rudimentary thinking on this subject should make it apparent that knowing how to think in principles is not merely a matter of having a good education–it is, literally, a matter of life and death.

Audra Hilse is currently a sophomore at Lawrence University. She is majoring in history, and also enjoys philosophy and fiction writing.

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