9/11, commentary, research

it’s the history, stupid

A while back, Foreign Policy magazine came out with a fantastic piece by Robert A. Pape, delving deep into an issue that is rarely discussed – the why rather than the how of anti-American attacks.

For nearly a decade, Americans have been waging a long war against terrorism without much serious public debate about what is truly motivating terrorists to kill them. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, this was perfectly explicable — the need to destroy al Qaeda’s camps in Afghanistan was too urgent to await sober analyses of root causes.

But, the absence of public debate did not stop the great need to know or, perhaps better to say, to “understand” the events of that terrible day. In the years before 9/11, few Americans gave much thought to what drives terrorism — a subject long relegated to the fringes of the media, government, and universities. And few were willing to wait for new studies, the collection of facts, and the dispassionate assessment of alternative causes. Terrorism produces fear and anger, and these emotions are not patient…

The narrative of Islamic fundamentalism did more than explain why America was attacked and encourage war against Iraq. It also pointed toward a simple, grand solution. If Islamic fundamentalism was driving the threat and if its roots grew from the culture of the Arab world, then America had a clear mission: To transform Arab societies — with Western political institutions and social norms as the ultimate antidote to the virus of Islamic extremism…

The goal of transforming Arab societies into true Western democracies had powerful effects on U.S. commitments to Afghanistan and Iraq. Constitutions had to be written; elections held; national armies built; entire economies restructured. Traditional barriers against women had to be torn down. Most important, all these changes also required domestic security, which meant maintaining approximately 150,000 U.S. and coalition ground troops in Iraq for many years and increasing the number of U.S. and Western troops in Afghanistan each year from 2003 on.

Put differently, adopting the goal of transforming Muslim countries is what created the long-term military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Yes, the United States would almost surely have sought to create a stable order after toppling the regimes in these countries in any case. However, in both, America’s plans quickly went far beyond merely changing leaders or ruling parties; only by creating Western-style democracies in the Muslim world could Americans defeat terrorism once and for all.

There’s just one problem: We now know that this narrative is not true.

New research provides strong evidence that suicide terrorism such as that of 9/11 is particularly sensitive to foreign military occupation, and not Islamic fundamentalism or any ideology independent of this crucial circumstance. Although this pattern began to emerge in the 1980s and 1990s, a wealth of new data presents a powerful picture.

Robert A. Pape, “It’s the Occupation, Stupid.” [emphases added]

Their insistence on the repeated failure to contextualize 9/11 is precisely the issue that I came across again and again last year, pouring over the pages of US high school history textbooks.  As James Loewen says in his wonderful and biting Lies My Teachers Told Me, publishers often omit material that could be perceived as offensive, causing them to tread through difficult topics “with extreme caution, evading the main issues, the ‘why’ questions” (Loewen 2007: 261).

And it was the treatment (or lack thereof) of these why questions, the potential motivations for 9/11 and anti-American attacks as a whole, that was one of the most interesting observations that arose from my analysis. While there is incredible detail on the actual events of 9/11 and the subsequent ‘war on terrorism’, very little attention is given to why such acts occurred. The circumstances of the attacks generally consist of a timeline of previous terrorist attacks against Americans abroad, and details of preparation for the attack, with most emphasis placed on 9/11 and the US response to the event. This is particularly obvious in lower-level texts. If any explanations for Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda’s hostilities against Americans are provided, they are brief and characterized by omissions of important facts or by emphases on trivialities.

One example is found in the first objective from Section 5 of Chapter 27 in a Teacher’s Edition of Holt’s American Nation in the Modern Era from Texas. The section is entitled “September 11, 2001: A Day That Changed the World,” and the teaching objectives read as follows:

After completing Section 5, students should be able to:

Objective 1: Describe how the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001, and identify how Americans responded. [emphasis added]

Objective 2: Explain how the events of September 11 affected the economy. Objective 3: Evaluate the steps American leaders took to find those responsible and bring them to

Boyer and Stuckey 2003: 820

Although the text prompts the reader to consider how the attack occurred, as well as how the citizenry responded, there are no questions that encourage students – either here or in any other textbook surveyed – to consider the motivations behind 9/11. Students are provided with little information about the background of the attack, so it seemingly appears that 9/11 emerges from nowhere.

Discussions of the war in Afghanistan in U.S. textbooks also lack important contextual details. Often only a brief history of foreign intervention in Afghanistan is provided before the account of the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 is described. Even then, the content is superficial, focusing on the previous Soviet invasion, with little to no mention of U.S. influence in Afghanistan pre-2001.

Americans are already infamous for having notoriously short sight-lines.  Yet one aspect of our viewpoint that (I think) receives too little attention is our inability to look back, to place key events in a larger context that is relevant to not only to our own past, but to that of other actors.  Too often, relevant historical details are omitted to shape an event in a more politically agreeable manner, leading to narratives of the past molded to directly reflect and reinforce current political agendas and aims.

Which is why I was nearly jumping out of my seat when I read this article, and why I hope it is just the start of a larger discussion.  One that needs to come to the forefront in our classrooms and our media, and to do so fast.

We need to look back before we can move forward.

Works Cited

Boyer, Paul and Sterling Stuckey. Holt’s American Nation in the Modern Era, Texas Teachers’ Edition. Boston: Holt, 2003.

Loewen, James. Lies My Teachers Told Me. New York: The New Press, 2007.

Pape, Robert A. “It’s the Occupation, Stupid.” Foreign Policy. 18 October 2010.


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