FWD; Americans Don't Understand That Their Heritage Is Itself a Threat (long & good!)
September 23, 2001
By CALEB CARR
We have heard a great deal of talk to the effect that the world will never be the same after the attacks of Sept. 11, that we are living in a new reality, and in one sense this is true. But this is not the first great and violent historical turning point that the United States has faced. In other words, to put it as Lewis Carroll's Mad Hatter might have, we have been in this new world before.
America experienced just such a prolonged moment during our own Civil War, when not only armies but also civilians were slaughtered in horrifying numbers because of a long-brewing clash between a dying, slavery-based agrarian society and a vigorous, newly industrial modern state. We weathered another during the days and years following Pearl Harbor, when the majority of Americans had no idea if or where Japanese planes might strike again and were later forced (as we have lately been) to reckon with enemies who were willing to engage in suicidal attacks to achieve their purpose.
Yet perhaps the most immediately pertinent of such precedents is offered by a much earlier conflict. In 1814, the United States was engaged in a bitter war, on land and at sea, with the greatest power in the world, the empire from which we had originally rebelled: Great Britain.
Many analysts of the War of 1812 have tried to explain it as an economic or political conflict of limited importance. But it would have been hard to convince the American civilians who suffered what amounted to terrorist attacks by ruthless British raiding forces between 1812 and 1814 that the conflict was either limited or explicable. The British assaults were astoundingly savage: women and children were mutilated and murdered along with civilian men and soldiers in a deliberate attempt to break the American people's will to fight. These efforts reached their culmination in the last days of August 1814, when a squadron of British ships loaded with soldiers and sailors sailed into Chesapeake Bay and up the Patuxent River with a terrifying objective: to burn the city of Washington to the ground.
The British force succeeded in this goal. By the night of Aug. 24, the White House, the Capitol, the Library of Congress and many other buildings emblematic of both the newborn capital city and the infant country itself were engulfed in flames. The government had been evacuated at the last minute, its officers (including President James Madison) scattering across the countryside. British action against remaining American soldiers and civilians continued to be, in many cases, merciless.
The questions asked by Americans in the aftermath of this momentous event were some of the same that I have heard all over our city and country in recent days: Why here? Why this?
The War of 1812 had little to do with specific political grievances or economic rivalries. It was prosecuted by the British because of a deep anxiety over the spread of American democratic republicanism. Having seen the bloody anarchy that had overtaken France during its revolution and having watched the United States peacefully and dramatically multiply its territory through the Louisiana Purchase, the British Empire -- a stratified society still largely controlled by its aristocracy and constitutional monarchy -- had grown deeply fearful that the spread of American-style democratic rebellion would mean not only economic competition abroad but also uprisings at home. In short, the British gratuitously destroyed important structures in Washington (and killed many innocent people) because those buildings were obnoxious symbols of American values whose spread and propagation the London government feared would spell the disempowerment of their own.
The British were right to fear as much, for in time it was indeed the rise of the United States that set the example for populations in colonies around the world to seize their own destinies and put an end to the imperial, socially regimented system on which British power depended. True, in the 20th century the United States and Britain would become allies in order to face the the common enemies of imperial Germany and, later, Nazi and Japanese totalitarianism. Nevertheless, it was the spread of American values that put an end to the colonialism and imperialism that were the practical and spiritual lifeblood of the British Empire.
Similarly, it is the spread of American values -- individualistic, democratic, materialistic and, yes, in many ways crass and exploitative American values -- that terrorist groups and the traditionalist, socially repressive societies that support them now fear. This fear has driven them to emulate the British forces of 1814 by damaging and destroying a group of structures that are among the most familiar symbols of contemporary American power.
Thus the why. But why here? Washington is perhaps understandable, but why New York?
The engine that runs the juggernaut that is expansionist American democratic capitalism (which is the force that opens the way for American cultural predominance) is housed, chiefly, in a comparatively few high-profile buildings at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Americans look (or in the case of the World Trade Center, looked) on these buildings as some of the most distinctive symbols of all that our city and nation can achieve and have achieved.
Our enemies in this war, by contrast, looked at them and saw -- still see -- the death of their own values, their own ways of life, their effective autonomy. Such perception breeds both malice and fear. Inside those buildings, the people behind this attack believe, is where the end of the societies they come from and the values that they live by was and is being planned (whether consciously or not), and there is where the erosion must be stopped. The terrorist obsession with the World Trade Center was, in this light, not irrational. In fact it was, viewed in the context of a war of cultures, entirely understandable.
That context must now be fully realized by our side in this conflict. We must all match the sudden comprehension and bravery of the hijacked passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93, who, realizing that their plane was going to be used as a flying weapon of mass destruction, immediately rose to challenge their captors, thus sacrificing their own lives to prevent a fourth crash that could have killed thousands more Americans.
The people of this country, it has often been truly said, have a very bad sense of their own heritage, and New Yorkers tend to be among the worst offenders in this area. We have been known to pull down historic structures with remarkably little concern, to crumble and pave over our past in order to make way for what we hope will be an even more profitable future. But there are moments when we must overcome this blind tendency and look to our history for both inspiration and solace. We know in our collective memory the nature of this struggle; that understanding must now move from our subconscious to the very forefront of our minds so that we can accept the full dimensions of the conflict that will very soon engulf the lives of not only New Yorkers and Washingtonians but all Americans.
Yes, this is war, and in all likelihood it will be a vicious and sustained one. What our enemies want is nothing short of an end to our predominance, and they will not forsake terrorism until either they attain that result or we make such behavior prohibitively, horrifyingly expensive. And this worst assault on the United States in its history happened in New York City because it symbolizes all that those same enemies loathe and fear most: diversity, licentiousness, avarice and freedom. Now, as we go about the process of adjusting ourselves to this new world of terrible conflict, we can and must take heart from that one seemingly paradoxical historical observation: both as New Yorkers and as Americans, we have been in this new world before.
Caleb Carr, a novelist and historian, is a contributing editor of ''MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History.''
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company
Fatima Lasay | [email protected] | www.hoydigiteer.org
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