From the Archives… September 11, 2001 and the War on Terror

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On September 12, 2001, a editorial described the horrific attacks of the previous day as “one of those moments in which history splits, and we define the world as ‘before’ and ‘after.’” Yet as all of us know, history never rips in two. “Before” and “after” are never entirely severed, even in the moments of greatest historical rupture. The discontinuities of the past always remain within the whole cloth of the . As historians, we devote our careers to placing the seemingly new in historical contexts.

On September 12, 2001, a New York Times editorial described the horrific attacks of the previous day as “one of those moments in which history splits, and we define the world as ‘before’ and ‘after.’” Yet as all of us know, history never rips in two. “Before” and “after” are never entirely severed, even in the moments of greatest historical rupture. The discontinuities of the past always remain within the whole cloth of the longue durée. As historians, we devote our careers to placing the seemingly new in historical contexts.

These were editor Joanne Meyerowitz’s opening words for the Journal of American History special issue on “History and September 11.” Published a year after the attacks, this issue brought together scholars from across many fields to think through the attacks historically.

Several of the special issue’s authors used their historical scholarship to challenge the ideological formations of the early stages of the “War on Terror.” Michael H. Hunt argued that a deeper awareness of history would allow us to move past simplistic binaries in our framing of the War on Terror. He wrote “Historical perspective will not make any easier the resolution of the difficulties now facing the United States in the Middle East. On the other hand, it would be reckless to engage ever more deeply and especially militarily in the region without first considering the possible pitfalls that a historical perspective might reveal.” Likewise, Bruce R. Kuniholm rejected the Cold War–era framing of America’s geopolitical context after 9/11. Rather than viewing the War on Terror as a clash of states and civilizations, he wrote, “it is a conflict within states, within cultures, and within an increasingly global community over the values and ideas that underpin modernization and the norms and direction of modern civilization.” In his piece, Bruce B. Lawrence reminded readers that the terrorists who flew airplanes into the Pentagon and World Trade Centers were not just driven by religion, but also by global disparities in economic, political, and military power. Finally, R. Scott Appleby explored the historical worldviews of fundamentalist movements within Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

Meyerowitz added in her introduction to the issue that “if we learned anything from the events of September 11, we should have learned, once again, that we cannot understand American history by dwelling solely on the United States.” A number of contributors to this special issue took up this point. By working through the thirty-year history of pre-9/11 terrorism, Melani McAlister challenged George W. Bush’s claim that the War on Terror would be “a new and different war.” Nick Cullather examined U.S. development schemes in Afghanistan in the mid-twentieth century (this article was accompanied with student exercises and primary sources). John Prados looked to the first U.S. war in Afghanistan, in the 1980s, to understand the second war in the 2000s. Nur Bilge Criss examined U.S.-Turkish relations since the 1950s to study the roots of anti-Americanism. Similarly, Ussama Makdisi offered an overview of anti-American sentiment in the Arab world.

September 11 had historiographical consequences far beyond this special issue. The June 2011 issue of the Journal of American History included a state-of-the-field on “Terrorism and the American Experience” by Beverly Gage. When the September 11 attacks occurred, Gage writes, no “coherent historiography of terrorism” existed. But the period following the attacks has witnessed a new “post–9/11 boom” in writing on terrorism. Gage was interviewed for the June 2011 JAH podcast and her article was featured in the Teaching the JAH section.

One of the most widely-read articles in the Journal of American History in recent years has been Toby Craig Jones’ piece on “America, Oil, and War in the Middle East,” in the 2012 special issue on Oil in American History. His piece placed the twenty-first-century wars in the Middle East within a larger historical trajectory:

It is true, of course, that terrorism and especially the attacks of September 11, 2001, helped accelerate the drive to war in 2003, but to focus too much on 9/11 is to overlook and discount the ways that oil and oil producers have long been militarized, the role oil has played in regional confrontation for almost four decades, and the connections between the most recent confrontation with Iraq and those of the past.

Most recently, this blog has featured a number of posts that deal with the United States after 9/11. Interviews with authors Moustafa Bayoumi and Elisabeth Anker both examine the contradictions of post–9/11 culture. In a post published yesterday, Thomas Schwartz walked readers through his experience with the challenges of teaching about 9/11.

Several OAH Distinguished Lecturers consider the events of September 11 and their impact on American culture, public memory, and international relations.

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