A Leading Historian's Take on 9/11

Lawrence R. Velvel

There was a brilliant op/ed column titled "Finding a Place for 9/11 in American History" by Joseph Ellis, published in the New York Times of Saturday, January 28th. One of Ellis' two purposes was to raise the question of whether 9/11 merits the pride of place given to it by the Bushites in seeking various policies and various forms of expanded executive power. Ellis' view is that, because the terrorists do not threaten the continued existence of the republic, 9/11 does not rise to the level of several prior events that did. These include the Revolution itself, "the War of 1812, when the national capital was burned to the ground" by the British, the Civil War, "World War II, which represented a totalitarian threat to democracy and capitalism," and the cold war, especially "the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which made nuclear annihilation a distinct possibility." It is, one thinks, hard to argue with Ellis' view that these all presented an infinitely more serious threat to the nation than the terrorists do.

In the second part of his brilliant column, Ellis examines the immediate (precedential) response to particular threats, and the subsequent historical view of these precedents for the Patriot Act and wiretapping. His "list of precedents" includes the Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798 (which allowed closing of newspapers and deporting of foreigners), the denial of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the Red Scare of 1919, when the Attorney General "round[ed] up leftist critics in the wake of the Russian Revolution," the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, and the McCarthyism of the early 1950s, which included "a witch hunt against potential Communists in government, universities and the film industry." "In retrospect," says Ellis, "none of these domestic responses to perceived national security threats looks justifiable. Every history textbook I know describes them as lamentable, excessive, even embarrassing." They were examples of "succumb[ing]" to "popular fears."

Again, Ellis' views cannot be argued with (with the lone exception, perhaps, of the initial, April 1861, geographically limited suspension of habeas corpus along, and to stop southern efforts to break, the Philadelphia to Washington railroad line that was bringing Union troops to defend the capital city, which was surrounded on all sides and heavily populated by southern secessionists and was threatened with a potential takeover by the rebels).

In view of the efforts being made by the Administration to use 9/11 and the supposedly never-ending war on terror to change the nature of our government, and to make it a potential Executive dictatorship in the name of national security, it would behoove everyone of decent good will -- which would by definition exclude the right wing wackos, including those who govern us in the Executive today -- to pay close attention to Ellis' points, which bear strongly on what should or should not be permitted today. The need to consider what Ellis says is only the sharper because of the Democrats' intellectual (and "operational") incompetence in the Alito matter, and the fact that the secret wiretapping will soon come before both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee and will simultaneously be brought again to the attention of the citizenry. Frankly, I would call on all Americans to consider the deep importance of what Ellis has said -- something which, as far as I know, has not been done so far since he published his superb column a few days ago.

Editor's Note: Unfortunately, Mr. Ellis's column was offered as a feature of Times Select, so the HSC cannot reprint it for you here. You can get it by going to www.nytimes.com and paying a small fee, or by signing up for a free Times Select trial membership. In any case, Mr. Ellis's main points are fairly well summarized by Dean Velvel in his commentary.

Return to the Table of Contents

Articles may be quoted or republished in full with attribution
to the author and harvardsquarecommentary.org.

This site is designed and managed by Neil Turner at Neil Turner Concepts