“Remembering 9/11” ignores key points

“Consensus Opinion: Remembering 9/11” compares the past decade to those endured by WWII and Cold-War generations, before concluding “the threat . . . is no longer the driving issue . . . [its] effects . . . diminish over time.” The advice to students is to “focus on growing from the children of 9/11 into the adults who will shape the post-9/11 world,” by developing technology to improve the world. This view avoids unpleasant facts and duties, making it less useful than it could be. Allow me to outline a contrary view.

A decade after 9/11, we and our allies remain in what is called “our longest war,” with the stability of the outcome still in doubt. Why this is so, and how it may affect the future of today’s students, are questions which may refuse to “diminish over time.”

The usual description of 9/11—”An attack on innocent men and women, terrorism”—however accurate, is adequate only for children. No one calls Pearl Harbor a terrorist attack, not even the kamikaze attacks later in the war.

“Remembering 9/11” tells students to explore “ways of using technology to fight those things which fuel terrorism” enumerating these as “poverty, hunger and poor education.” Much as “terrorism” fails to describe 9/11, the attackers did not experience poverty, hunger or lack of educational opportunities. They came mostly from wealthy and privileged groups of their homelands. Nor do they cite these factors as grievances of their supporters.

The motives that they (and their allies) do claim for the attacks need not concern us. Published statements must be regarded as wartime propaganda, and in any case do not affect the unpleasant choice before us — that we must fight them or retreat.

The campaigns of the USA-led alliance—the successes and setbacks, troop escalations and withdrawals, the horrendous casualties—are all too familiar. Our own campus has its Tyler Brown Pi-Mile Trail, commemorating the SGA President (1999-2000) who as an Army first lieutenant was killed in action in Iraq on Sept. 14, 2004. Yet, a decade on, our students can confront these awful adult questions: Why so long? Why so inconclusive? Is it really over? If not, then why have we failed thus far?

Could a mobilized USA and close allies have applied overwhelming force to settle this matter completely, as in 1941-1945? Having drained the swamps by 2006, one might today read a commemorative “Liberation Plaque” while strolling the main square of a Tehran or Damascus. If this seems preposterous, then what (besides ignorance or bigotry) makes one think the peoples and places of Beirut or Baghdad any less deserving than those of Berlin or Kyoto?

Even as recently as 2008, could the region’s few democracies (Turkey, Israel and Iraq) have stood together to drive out the ‘terror-regimes’ that plague them? Students-as-adults can face unwelcome facts: We remain “at war” with Iran, even if we don’t say so in front of the children. Israel remains openly “at war” with most of its neighbors. Iraq is undermined. Modern Turkey, historically under threat from within and without, is preparing to assert itself, in Syria and who-knows-how-far beyond. The insistence that these undiminished aspects of recent history are “not 9/11-related” rings as childish as would a post-1941 claim that only the Pacific war needed to be fought. Could you imagine asking, “When did the Germans ever attack us?”

Coming back to our own duties, “Remembering 9/11” advises Tech students to “look at how to use technology to show the stranger across the globe as an actual person,” presumably as a way to combat propaganda on both sides. Lovely. But in wartime, or under tyranny in general, such communications are the first shut down. Even in good times, what we show them of ourselves may be used against us as evidence of our decadence or emasculation (how the world sees us through our popular entertainment), or to arouse envy of our affluence and a desire to seize it as spoils of war or to reveal points of actual vulnerability.

“Remembering 9/11” considers the war originating from that “day of terror” only in the past tense, as ending with the “death of bin Laden.” That we should be so lucky, to escape this burden, even as our allies remain under threat! Alas, adult-level consideration of recent (and not-so-recent) military history suggests an equally likely outcome: Students of today may be called upon to use their advanced education and experience in serving their country—its institutions and broader civilization — against emboldened forces of barbarism and tyranny. Keeping alive a mindfulness of this possibility is another good and grown-up way of “Remembering 9/11”.


R L Whetten


School of Chemistry


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