LAT: “Was 9/11 really that bad?”

Interesting article with a title calculated to provoke: David A. Bell writes in the LA Times that the 9/11 attacks might have been a horrible act of mass murder, but “history says we are overreacting.”

I generally wince whenever I read the phrase “history says…” and Bell’s piece is in places certainly wince-worthy as well as in places quite thought provoking. In terms of the latter, towards the end of the essay, Bell asks why the United States has felt the need to frame every conflict since World War II as a bitter fight for survival against evil. He argues:

Seeing international conflict in apocalyptic terms – viewing every threat as existential – is hardly a uniquely American habit. To a certain degree, it is a universal human one. But it is also, more specifically, a Western one, which paradoxically has its origins in one of the most optimistic periods of human history: the 18th century Enlightenment.

Until this period, most people in the West took warfare for granted as an utterly unavoidable part of the social order. Western states fought constantly and devoted most of their disposable resources to this purpose; during the 1700s, no more than six or seven years passed without at least one major European power at war.

The Enlightenment, however, popularized the notion that war was a barbaric relic of mankind’s infancy, an anachronism that should soon vanish from the Earth. Human societies, wrote the influential thinkers of the time, followed a common path of historical evolution from savage beginnings toward ever-greater levels of peaceful civilization, politeness and commercial exchange.

The unexpected consequence of this change was that those who considered themselves ‘enlightened,’ but who still thought they needed to go to war, found it hard to justify war as anything other than an apocalyptic struggle for survival against an irredeemably evil enemy. In such struggles, of course, there could be no reason to practice restraint or to treat the enemy as an honorable opponent.

Ever since, the enlightened dream of perpetual peace and the nightmare of modern total war have been bound closely to each other in the West. Precisely when the Enlightenment hopes glowed most brightly, wars often took on an especially hideous character.

I find it personally very difficult to feel any less of a ‘reaction’ to the hideous attacks of 9/11 simply because the body count doesn’t measure up to ‘history.’ What happened on 9/11 should never be minimized. I do think however that the rhetoric of a dualistic end-game battle between good/evil obscures the complexities of international conflict in the 21st century and blinds policymakers to possible solutions to prevent future attacks. Bell’s argument provides some answers as to the origins of this kind of ‘total war’ mentality. I think the theology of Christian funadmentalism that is part and parcel of this president’s worldview is also partially to blame. Life is not an episode of “24” and our leaders would be wise to stop thinking in such apocalyptic terms lest that thinking leads to a prophecy self-fulfilled.
via Arts & Letters Daily

The Discussion: 11 Comments

The Enlightenment just can’t catch a break anymore. This is the kind of historical “analysis” that makes me cringe. So an overreaction to 9/11 is the natural outgrowth of the Enlightenment and Hegel? That is a little like blaming WWII on the Reformation. The idea that “existential threats” in war time, real or imagined, didn’t exist before the Enlightenment is beyond absurd. And how many wars could we list since 1789 that were not justified as “apocalyptic struggle[s]?” The Boer War? The Opium War? Spanish-American War? The Crimean War? The War of 1812? Those were justified as “apocalyptic struggles?” Either way you want to slice it, his theory is razor thin. This is the kind of meta-historical generalization that actually might appeal to Hegel, but I doubt to many historians.

Here’s a theory: the “overreaction” he is describing is part of a deliberate domestic political strategy to make pre-9/11 invasion plans more palatable. The “overreaction” is a calculated political move, not the result of some Enlightenment paradigm.

January 30, 2007 @ 1:34 pm | Comment

One of the reasons America views post-WW II wars in apocalyptic terms is because America has the nuclear power to bring on an apocalypse. That’s the danger of the overreacting Bell writes about. Many Americans suffer from the absolute corruption of absolute power — the power to kill every living thing on Earth (including themselves) –of Lord Acton’s saying. Even if they can’t push the button themselves, they’re thinking it.

I hear more and more people — including my elderly, church-going mother! — talking in terms of “We could take care of everything if we wanted to by dropping a few bombs.” I think a lot of the fear of the cold-blooded, merciless killer that Americans have is a projection of what they themselves might do.

January 30, 2007 @ 5:11 pm | Comment

Actually, Bukko, while I agree in some way, I would add a little rider to what you said. While I have certainly heard people say “they could take care of things by dropping a few bombs”, including my own mother, I suspect most of the people I have heard saying it are either a) the product of a generation where dropping the bomb was, at one time, an actual solution, or b) simply jesting. Those who are serious are simply sickos, and there are sickos in every society.

January 30, 2007 @ 11:08 pm | Comment

Of course, what happened on 9/11 should not be minimized but politicians have used it for personal gain. Bush was rather rudderless before 9/11. After 9/11, he suddenly found a mission to save America from terrorism. That’s how he got reelected by saying vote for me and I will save you from terrorism. Terrorism has always been a part of human lives and will always be because there are always bad and crazy people around. What we need is cooperation among many countries to deny terrorists of WMD (YES, that word again). But that is basically a police action but not a war.

January 31, 2007 @ 1:13 am | Comment

All the comments here make some good points. While I totally agree with 88s’ closing theory, I have to say that this does not contradict or diminish Bell’s point about the post-Enlightenment Western phenomenon of looking at its crises through an existenial lens. Just about every native resident I know in Singapore and China and HK and Malaysia and Thailand has expressed amazement to me at America’s protracted grief over 911 and its intensity even half a decade later. To me, the grief is very real and not surprising; to them it’s mystifying. And this is not just a personal anecdodatal observation. Back when I was in Singapore I read with great fascination an article by Pico Iyer in which he said:

Whether out of pragmatism or real moral clarity, the old cultures of Asia, famous for their worship of ancestors, have often shown themselves ready to learn from their descendants.

To many on this side of the world, therefore, America’s dwelling—and dwelling—on its losses of two years ago appears unseemly. The firemen who gave their lives in the World Trade Center are heroes to inspire the world. And most Muslims regard the assault of a few fanatics as a blot on their religion, not a triumph. Yet America, determined not to look up from the event and to keep brandishing its wounds before the world, looks at times like an angry child who lacks the perspective of his elders. When a troublemaker tries to provoke you, even schoolboys know that you get the best of him by turning away and going about your business. Each time the U.S. revisits its sorrow, it provides Osama bin Laden with another victory and lives down to the terrorists’ caricatures of it.

I don’t agree with Iyer (one of the few times I don’t). But I do agree, completely, that this is how many in Asia view America’s never-ending obsesion with 911.

January 31, 2007 @ 10:53 pm | Comment

” Just about every native resident I know in Singapore and China and HK and Malaysia and Thailand has expressed amazement to me at America’s protracted grief over 911 and its intensity even half a decade later.”

Haven’t these countries, mainly China, been doing the same thing about what Japan did more than 60 years ago?

January 31, 2007 @ 11:16 pm | Comment

Yes. But…the shrine!

February 1, 2007 @ 9:25 pm | Comment

@88s: you’ve got a good point. I think Bell is arguing, rather badly, that the Enlightenment gave us the whole “We’re too civilized for War but in the case of _insert totally evil enemy here_ we’ll make an exception” approach. This is similar, I think, the “Serious People Believe Iran is the new Nazi Germany” argument that Glenn Greenwald spends so much timing thumping.

Bell botches that whole argument, however, with his writing. Or perhaps LAT botched it with their editing. Clocking in at over 1100 words, I wonder if Bell was cut down from 1500.

Anyway, you’re right that the existential thing isn’t always the case. I’d also argue it’s not peculiarly Western, but it might be peculiar to nation-states?

February 2, 2007 @ 1:28 am | Comment


I’d say most of the people making this “existential threat” argument, who describe the war(s) we are fighting in apocalyptic, ‘good vs. evil’ terms, are precisely the people who are against most of what the Enlightenment stood for. They are mostly religious fanatics or Straussian neocons: for the former, history begins and ends with Jesus, for the latter, history begins and ends with Thucydides. Characterizing these groups as symptoms of the Enlightenment is just ass-backwards; these are the groups generally most opposed to Enlightenment values, other than elements of the Foucault-worshipping Left.

February 3, 2007 @ 12:12 am | Comment

I agree with the article Bush and Neocons said War Against Terror is a fight to the death kind of a deal but its not. Terrorists dont want to kill all of us, they want to kill for political ideology. So to say if we dont fight terrorists without any restrictions that we will all die is foolish and stupid. There is no such thing as war on terrorism. You cannot declare war on civlians, terrorists are civilians, they dont form armys. Their ordinary people who want to kill for political reasons, so you cant fight a war against a stateless organization. This is a low intensity conflict not a war, if this was a war it would be a war that will never end. So you cant invade or bomb some country or place to end a struggle against a stateless group of civilians who can inflitrate any society. No one ever fought successfully a stateless group. We need to stop viewing everything we dont like or disagree with as evil or wrong. We need to get off of our moral high chair. As long as we continue to be blind and ignorant then this conflict will never end as individuals will continiously exploit our ignorance and stupidity for their gains. The root of this terrorism can be traced to our Cold War policies in the Middle East and we never learned from that and instead we continue to make more mistakes.

February 3, 2007 @ 12:34 am | Comment

Each year, since 9.11.01’s 3,000 dead, more than 3,000 US citizens have died un-necessarily at the hands of drunk drivers and more than 3,000 infants have died un-necessarily from our broken health care system. Over-reaction? Hell yes!

February 6, 2007 @ 7:21 am | Comment

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