Finding a Place for 9/11 in American History

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Finding a Place for 9/11 in American History

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By: Joseph J. Ellis

Date: January 28, 2006

Source: Ellis, Joseph J. "Finding a Place for 9/11 in American History." New York Times (January 28, 2006): A17.

About the Author: Joseph J. Ellis, a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, is an expert on United States history and democracy. He has written numerous books on the subject, including a biography of Thomas Jefferson for which he was awarded the National Book Award, and Founding Brothers, which won the Pulitzer Prize.


On September 11, 2001, four commercial airplanes were hijacked and forced into suicide missions. Targeted at major American landmarks, two of them crashed into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, one into the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and one went down in rural Pennsylvania when passengers overthrew the hijackers and thwarted their plan to reach the White House. The suddenness and violence of these terrorist attacks left Americans in shock and searching for both answers and justice. In the days that followed the attacks, Americans wanted to know who was behind the hijackings. Public concern about safety and security also was dramatically heightened. Numerous bomb threats were received in major U.S. cities, and there were rumors that the terrorists had other targets beyond New York and Washington, DC. Traces of anthrax began turning up in the mail, raising the specter of biological warfare, in addition to the danger of more outright attacks. Americans found it difficult to cope with such a major threat on their own soil, something they had not faced as a nation since the attack on Pearl Harbor sixty years earlier. As a result, they were willing to accept and even embrace the drastic measures set into motion by President George W. Bush and the U.S. Department of Defense, actions they might have considered extreme in other circumstances.


AMHERST, Mass.— 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 preemptive 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.


There is no doubt that the events of September 11 were serious and tragic. They also illustrated the nation's vulnerability in a way that no previous terrorist threat had before by showing that America is not immune to devastation on her own soil. But Ellis argues that the September 11 attacks have assumed a greater role in shaping national policy than seems warranted by the facts of the events. The new government policies enacted to increase the safety of U.S. citizens, both at home and in foreign countries, have been broad and all encompassing, out of proportion to the attacks that took place on a single day in a circumscribed section of the country. While the events were devastating and showed an utter disregard for human life, they did not, in and of themselves, threaten the overall security of the United States. Responses to those events have even, in some cases, created new threats to the well being of the nation.

In an effort to protect the country from the perceived terrorist threat, the Bush administration took measures to increase security by changing the ways in which the U.S. interacts with other countries and their citizens. Such areas as transportation, mail and freight systems, and the ability of foreign students to work and learn in the United States were impacted. Subjects previously studied in cooperation by both American and foreign scientists and students were declared classified, ostensibly to prevent the use of this information by terrorists, but, in effect, limiting the participation of foreign experts and slowing research progress in those fields. Visa delays prevented students from many foreign countries from starting academic programs in the U.S. in a timely manner, and more than three-quarters of those delayed students were in biology, physical science, or engineering programs, all subjects the government flagged as of high interest to potential terrorists. In 2003, enrollment of foreign students in U.S. academic programs was down for the first time since the 1970s. By limiting the participation of foreign students and scientists in U.S. science and engineering endeavors, the United States risks losing their superiority in technical fields.

Some personal sacrifices Americans have made following the events of September 11, primarily as a result of actions taken by the Bush administration, involve a gradual relinquishing of many of the civil liberties upon which the nation was founded. Travelers are strictly limited as to what they are allowed to take onto an airplane, and airport security requires a far earlier arrival so that baggage can be searched and X-rayed. The Patriot Act opened Americans' private lives to scrutiny, giving the government the power to access an individual's medical and tax records, to get lists of books purchased or borrowed without giving any reason, and to enter a person's home and search it in secret without notification. Because the Patriot Act was enacted by Congress only weeks after the events of September 11, the nation was still in a state of emergency and was willing to take unprecedented measures in order to safeguard the country and thwart terrorists. In subsequent years, both Congress and the American people have questioned the scope of the act, and whether the actions taken immediately following September 11, 2001, were appropriate and proportional to the day's overall place in history.

In 2002, the American Civil Liberties Union launched a campaign against the PATRIOT Act called "Keep America Safe and Free" and began filing lawsuits on behalf of persons who felt victimized by the act. Federal judges, in two separate rulings, also declared sections of the act were unconstitutionally vague and imposed unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech.

In March 2006, Congress approved the extension of an ammended version of the PATRIOT Act.



Chomsky, Noam. 9–11. New York: Open Media, 2001.

Thompson, Paul. The Terror Timeline: Year by Year, Day by Day, Minute by Minute: A Comprehensive Chronicle of the Road to 9/11—and America's Response. New York: Regan Books, 2004.


Chaddock, Gail Russell. "House, Senate Diverge on 9/11 Response." Christian Science Monitor (September 27, 2004).

Weiss, Rick. "9/11 Response Hurting Science, ACLU Says." Washington Post. (June 22, 2005): A19.

Web sites

National Archives and Records Administration. "National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States." September 20, 2004. <http://www.9–> (accessed May 24, 2006).

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Finding a Place for 9/11 in American History

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