February 24, 2006
Ellis Has Found a Place for 9/11
Joseph J. Ellis makes quite a bold argument in his article “Finding a Place for
9/11 in American History.” He argues that the events of that infamous day are not so
crippling to our nation as many make them out to be. Although over four years have
passed since that day, it still is very fresh in our American memories. Initially, I was
against Ellis’ claim, but after further consideration and digging deeper, I now agree that
Ellis is most likely right in his saying that 9/11 was not, in the grand scheme of things,
that detrimental to America.
As I mentioned, once I saw where Ellis was going with his article, I was against
him. Thoughts along the lines of “How dare he?” were swimming in my head. After all, I
still remember quite vividly the details of September 11, 2001. I was a sophomore in high
school. I had just walked into my history classroom to hear people talking of a plane
flying into one of the twin towers. My history teacher turned the television on and we
saw some of what was going on. Before I saw it on TV, I had pictured a small one-person
aircraft flown by someone who was probably drunk. It was a little hard to swallow what
actually had taken place. I did not have much time to dissect that event, however, because
ironically that day all the sophomores had to take a required military standardized test in
the auditorium. So off we went to do that, oblivious to the terrorizing that culminated that
eventful day until after we had completed the test.
I remember how odd I felt after hearing the news. It was very surreal. I spent the
following days glued to the TV or radio, hungry for news updates. Due to my reaction
when the events actually took place, I think it is clear why Ellis’ article would rub me the
wrong way. But then I decided to consider his statements. Right off the bat I realized I
was not giving him much of a chance. I had lived through 9/11, which made it more real
to me than the wars and such he compared it to. I could not even begin to comprehend the
other events he mentioned, events that, according to him, were tremendously more
devastating. After admitting that I could concede that he may have a point, and so I read
the article again from a less-biased mindset.
After reading it once more, and doing my best to ignore my own personal
experience, I could begin to believe that while 9/11 was a terrible day, it did not quite
match up to the other events Ellis considers to be the “top tier” of national security
threats. He mentioned the Revolutionary War, which is unbelievably obvious as the most
important thing in American history. We would not even be America if it weren’t for that
War. He also mentioned the War of 1812. I did not know as much about this war, so I
decided to leave this one as neutral. The Civil War was again glaringly obvious in its
magnitude. The outcome of that War determined whether or not our Nation would
survive. World War II also seemed obvious. Had the outcome been different…well, I do
not even want to think about the terrible way we would be forced to live today. The Cold
War I had usually chalked up as mostly propaganda in my mind, but after considering it a
little more, especially concerning the Cuban missile crisis, I can see how crippling it
would be to have to live in such fear, whether or not it was grounded.
Before making any more judgments on this Ellis character, I decided it would be
very beneficial to learn more about him. I turned to “Google” and learned from a
seemingly credible website that Joseph Ellis is not only a history professor (which gave
him authority in my mind), but also a recognized scholar who has written seven books
and won at least one award. His authority was clearly demonstrated to me at this point.
Coupling this authority with my personal agreements that I detailed above, Ellis’
argument that 9/11 does not make the top tier of threatening American events seemed
very accurate indeed.
After confirming that Ellis was right in arguing what he called his “first question,”
I was more apt to believe his second question on how historically we have responded to
such terrible events. He cites what we now know as colossal mistakes, such as the
Japanese-American internment camps during World War II and the McCarthy scare of
the 1950s. I believe whole-heartedly that these two events, along with the others he listed,
were awful mistakes. I remember learning about them in history classes from elementary
school through college, and no matter which grade-level or what teacher, these things
were always taught as unfortunate happenings in our history. And even if I did not have
such a string of teachers telling me these events were sad, common human sense seems to
do the job quite well itself.
Ellis uses these examples as illustrations of how the government should be very
careful about using 9/11 as their jump-board for any anti-terror movements; they should
not repeat past mistakes. Granted, many could justifiably argue that “hindsight is 20/20”
and proceed from there, but I like how Ellis incorporates Patrick Henry’s quote and
encourages the government not to repeat the same type of embarrassing mistakes it has
made in the past. He is very wise in his phrasing by delicately saying he has a “tentative
conclusion,” (emphasis mine). This conclusion is that 9/11 should not be the basis or
even the majority behind any foreign or domestic policy.
It is hard to swallow that at first, if one does not read it objectively. It helps that
Ellis mentions the victims of 9/11 and their pain. He is not discounting the validity of
their feelings nor the horrible reality they have had to live through. He is simply stating
that such pain is not enough to build policy on. This makes sense to me. Of course 9/11
should be included when the government is deciding such things as foreign policy, but it
need not be the main factor. The infamous examples Ellis mentioned are not merely
worthy of inclusion because they show government folly, but most importantly because
they show that the folly occurred based on too quick and too biased of a reaction. The
government responded, which it should have, but it did not take enough into account.
This is true of those past mistakes, and could very well be the case of its reaction to 9/11.
In order to accept Ellis’ conclusion and answer to his self-raised second question,
you must accept his first. If 9/11 were a more traumatic and threatening event to America
than it was, then more dire action should be taken. However, since it does not qualify as
such a threat, such decisive action need not be taken based on that day’s events alone.
Ellis is qualified to make this statement, strong as it may be. The man knows American
history, and he knows it well. He makes it clear that he has not come to his conclusions
lightly. He considered the emotional aspect, but more importantly, he considered the
long-term effects, based on similar events, which have already come full-circle.
Joseph J. Ellis makes a strong case in his article. Simply reading through this
article once was not enough for me, personally. I had to dig a little and find out who this
man was. Once I learned he was indeed qualified to assess the situation, I had to think
about what he was saying beyond my own personal experience and emotional
attachments to the subject of 9/11. Finally I was able to see that Ellis not only knows
what he is talking about, but he truly puts forth an argument worth considering. His idea
of learning from past mistakes is not a new one, but a very useful one. I encourage all
readers to look at all articles, more specifically this article, for what it is truly worth and
not merely what they initially think it is. An article such as this, written by someone with
authority and credibility, and written well, is worth standing behind.