As private citizens and as fellow members of this university, there is little we can do now — less than 24 hours after these terrorist attacks — but comfort, pray and mourn. Before the dead have been counted, and knowing less than we soon will about who was responsible, it is too early to comment on motives — too early, as well, to plan retribution.
As a national tragedy, as countless individual tragedies, as a blow to the pride of the United States and as a date of infamy, September 11, 2001 will now rank with December 7, 1941. We now come close to understanding what several of my senior essayists have sought in past years to comprehend: what it was like to be at Yale when Pearl Harbor happened.
But the events of yesterday have not taught us anything that we did not already know. As long as it is a great power, the United States will draw the anger of the dissatisfied: the Iranian hostage crisis demonstrated that more than two decades ago. American foreign policy and the American government is detested by some groups and many individuals at home and abroad: the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and Oklahoma City proved that.
As an open and democratic society, we are and will remain vulnerable: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by the pitiful Leon Harvey Oswald showed it takes only a modicum of skill and luck to cause a national catastrophe. Yesterday was a matter of time.
Historians are trained to be suspicious of historical analogies: they mislead more frequently than they enlighten. The analogy to Pearl Harbor is clearly deficient: there is today no nation against which to declare war. But the analogy is also suggestive. While Pearl Harbor was a tactical defeat for the United States, it was a strategic calamity for Japan, for while it did not fundamentally damage U.S. power, it angered and united a powerful country.
The results of yesterday’s attacks will prove similarly barren for their authors who, for all their ability to cause destruction, have profoundly underrated the resources and the resolve that are the strengths of this democracy.
Ted Bromund is associate director of International Security Studies and a lecturer in history.
My private emotions are doubtless similar to the sickening horror that most people are feeling: shock at the numbers of dead, shock at the depth of cruelty in using human civilians as part of the missiles and a kind of paralysis as one tries to gauge the levels of hate and frustration that must have led the killers to plan and then complete their task.
As a historian, the catastrophe underlines something I often feel in my own work: the profound fragility of what we try to call the “laws of war,” the ease with which they can be violated even by those who claim to espouse them and the particular part that the bombing of civilian targets has played in the history of warfare across the 20th century and now into our new millennium.
The TV images we saw, if we were not there in person, evoke the bleak moments of war in many lands: Madrid in the Spanish Civil War; London, Coventry, Dresden, Tokyo, Chungking and countless others in World War II; Vietnam, Chechnya, Belgrade, Baghdad, nearer to our own time.
Scholars of millenarian movements have pointed out that at certain moments one can not get away from the language and spirit that imbue the Book of Revelation with its terrible force. That is no solace whatsoever.
What we need is to come to grips with the hard facts of why this happened and to think about the full implications of what it means that it is our own technology within our own country that has been turned upon us all.
Jonathan Spence is a Sterling professor of history.
In the face of such a shocking event, it’s important not to speculate too much. Certainly many of us thought a major terrorist attack in the United States was very possible. But such an impressively complex and coordinated attack as this one, on the key symbols of American world dominance, is a real surprise.
It indicates a sophisticated and experienced organization, perhaps operating with at least the complicity, if not the active support, of a foreign government. It hugely expands a terribly difficult kind of struggle. If the perpetrators can be confidently identified, our government may well exact retribution against military targets.
I trust we will not be tempted to descend to the level of today’s terrorists in deliberately killing innocent civilians.
Bruce Russett is a professor of political science.
Under the aspect of eternity, the attack on Pearl Harbor 60 years ago was eclipsed yesterday by a darkness more fateful, frightening and — if we can keep clear about it — instructive. What can we learn? How fast?
For one thing, the fact that the world’s only superpower and global nerve center was brought low by four American civilian passenger planes signals a transformation in international politics. It makes a mockery of claims by the powerful that missile defense systems can shield a society such as ours. But it also mocks claims by the powerless that their violence is morally redemptive. Not this way, it isn’t.
The question now is whether a supposedly powerful America has enough will and moral resources to defend itself, not as a global directorate but as a wellspring of politics that nourishes hope instead of fear. We have been such a wellspring, at times. We still become that to countless newly naturalized citizens. Yet the bloody paradox that grips us is the newest global technologies we so boisterously generate have made our borders and others’ defenseless against one the oldest of errant human impulses, the religious and tribal fanaticism now carried by suicide bombers and airplane hijackers.
This is not John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry; it is not Lori Berenson’s commitment to guerrilla warfare in Peru. It’s no intifada. It’s an implosion of anything which anyone who still believes in politics should excuse or indulge in the name of victims of colonization or imperialism.
But the paradox of new technology and atavistic impulses also strips the powerful of any hope of annihilating an enemy’s violence through more violence alone — as we did in World War II. Where are the battle lines now? Suppose that United States obliterates Afghanistan in the next 48 hours or that Israel rolls over Palestine. Any reduction in the number of suicide bombers will be offset by accelerated fires of rage.
It used to be relatively powerless people, like the young Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., who warned the powerful that violence is an end game without an ending. Now the powerless have been stripped by their own would-be spokesmen of the moral right and credibility to make that claim. And we, the powerful, are left to find Gandhi’s and King’s truths within ourselves.
Jim Sleeper is a lecturer of political science.
Without losing sight of the magnitude and the heinous audacity of yesterday’s attacks and the loss of innocent lives, it is important to see the motivation for those who apparently declared a full-scale war against the United States. Whether or not these attacks were meticulously planned and skillfully carried out by Osama bin Laden’s Al Quaida organization (and its network of sympathizers and collaborators) and were backed and sheltered by the criminal Taliban regime are still matters of speculation.
What we can say with some certainty is that such attacks do not occur out of context. Conflicts in the Middle East — especially the ongoing Palestinian uprising and the everyday scenes of clashes, killing and destruction in the occupied territories — offer fanatical prophets like bin Laden a chance to capitalize on the embedded public frustration in the Arab and Islamic world and spearhead a self-styled war in which the United States is an inevitable target.
In their view these acts of violence are perfectly justified because the United States is the major supporter of Israel, and lives in New York and Washington are no more precious than those in villages of the West Bank, in their estimation. Possible retaliatory action by the United States in the forthcoming days and months may teach the perpetrators a lesson and even for a while reduce chances of future assaults.
Yet it is hard to believe that it reduces bin Laden’s appeal to committed extremists who are attracted as much to his interpretation of jihad as to his secret bank accounts or the mystique of fighting a superpower. Nor will it help resolve the Palestinian conflict or reduce the U.S.’ isolation in the region.
Without a constructive and evenhanded engagement by the United States — which this administration so far seems to have shied away from — it is difficult to see how we can expect a safer United States at a time when terrorism too has managed to successfully globalize.
Abbas Amanat is a professor of history.
Minh A. Luong
The coordinated acts of terrorism in New York and Washington will undoubtedly be remembered as a “wake-up call” for our generation. This is a tragedy on the scale this country has not seen since Pearl Harbor — but unlike 1941, our attackers remain unidentified. This is the new “face” of terrorism.
As a democracy, we embrace openness and freedom. But the terrorists exploited that openness to force us to face a grim reality — that our serene way of life may not continue. It is a stark challenge that requires a strong, united response from the international community, our government and by each one of us. But there are courses of action that we should avoid and others that we should take.
Let us not make the mistake we made after the Oklahoma City bombing by hastily assigning blame based on bias and prejudice. Just hours after the tragedies, a colleague of mine in Texas had to intervene to protect a student of Middle Eastern-descent from being harassed and possibly injured by a group of angry, frustrated classmates.
It would also be a mistake to succumb to political pressure and come up with a quick scapegoat. With the Wen Ho Lee debacle fresh in our memories, that “investigation” should be a poignant reminder that justice will come only when we focus our attention on the facts.
The press is already labeling this tragedy as a “huge intelligence blunder.” But counterterrorism is similar to being a hockey goalie. Opponents will take shot after shot at you, and if you are good — and our intelligence agencies are very good — you will block nearly all of them. We have successfully thwarted a number of terrorist attacks during New Year celebrations for 2000 and 2001, as well as terror acts planned for this summer. Undoubtedly there are many more successes that have not been disclosed. Because these attempts failed, terrorist organizations changed their methods that resulted, unfortunately, in success this time.
What can we do to tell the terrorists that they have not won?
The international community must act together to condemn terrorist acts and those who provide terrorists resources and safe havens.
Our nation’s investigative resources are unmatched, and we must to do our due diligence to discover who is truly responsible for these criminal acts.
Our institutions must be vigilant but continue operating so that our society can continue functioning.
We must review our security arrangements and make improvements where necessary.
We need to listen to other countries when they attempt to reach out to us. History is full of examples of potential friends who tried to engage us but turned into enemies when we did not engage them. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” We really need to ask ourselves, did we not listen before the big stick hit us?
But most importantly, we as individuals can make the strongest statement possible by exercising the freedom we cherish and fighting to protect our way of life.
The terrorists will have won if we live in fear and chaos. They will have won if our way of life is disrupted.
I am scheduled to lecture on weapons of mass destruction in San Francisco this weekend. The director of the institution who invited me called to ask if I would cancel my presentation.
I replied, “Absolutely not,” and explained why. I am going to make my own statement against these acts of terror by flying to California this Friday to give my lecture.
Minh A. Luong is a visiting professor of political science.