The 16th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center twin towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington D.C. and in the skies over Pennsylvania provides an opportunity for considered reflection.
Time passing provides useful distance for relatively dispassionate discussion of how we have responded to the shocking, grotesque mass murder, now customarily referred to by the shorthand term “9/11.”
How have the American people in total handled the challenge, now over the long term?
There is solid justification for high marks to the people, individually and collectively. Despite terrible destruction and thousands of deaths of Americans as well as citizens of other countries, as a national community we remained remarkably calm.
The population as a whole did not react with hysteria or any extremism. Anti-Islamic acts were mercifully infrequent, relatively isolated and waned over time. Collectively we condemn this behavior, investigate and prosecute related criminal attacks.
The clearest parallel event to 9/11 is the surprise military attack by Japan on United States naval forces at Pearl Harbor Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, which had severe, continuing repercussions within American social as well as political life. Intense collective fear and anger led to the internment and more general persecution of Japanese-Americans on much of the West Coast of the U.S. Racial hatred characterized brutal Pacific combat in the war on both sides.
Internment was contrary to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wartime emphasis on national unity, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover opposed the move, but politically ambitious California Attorney General Earl Warren was adamant. This context means that the military service of Japanese-American troops in the European theatre is even more heroic.
Persecution of Japanese-Americans is particularly notorious but not unique. There was less extensive discrimination against German-Americans during both World War I and World War II and against Italian-Americans in the latter conflict. During the Civil War, bloody riots against the military draft in the North included beatings and murders of African-Americans.
Against this backdrop, American tolerance of Islamic-Americans and Muslims in general in the aftermath of 9/11 is impressive and noteworthy. In a fundamental way, we have demonstrated maturity that is both ethically right and practically helpful.
Al-Qaida and similar terrorist groups have an interest in promoting Western hostility to the Muslim world, along with harsh measures within our borders. We have permitted them neither victory.
Failure to anticipate the Pearl Harbor strike reflected inter-service rivalry and intelligence inefficiency, plus arrogance about Japanese military effectiveness even though their navy, with stunning efficiency, had destroyed the Russian fleet only a few decades earlier.
Pearl Harbor demonstrated Tokyo’s innovative use of tactical aircraft for strategic destruction of capital ships, something that American commanders failed to foresee. Even Adm. William F. “Bull” Halsey, more worried than most about a Japanese attack, who acted to keep vital aircraft carriers safely out at sea, was concerned primarily about submarine rather than air attack at Pearl.
Likewise, secretiveness and rivalries among our intelligence and security services facilitated 9/11. In reaction, the U.S. government emphasizes coordination among intelligence agencies.
Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, the United Nations and NATO acted. The attacks marked the first wartime deployment of the military alliance formed during the Cold War.
Americans collectively should feel considerable pride about how we as a people have responded to grotesque mass murder within our borders. Again, this benchmark of the anniversary provides us an opportunity for reflection — and renewal.
— Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.