January 29, 2006


Finding a Place for 9/11 in American History (JOSEPH J. ELLIS, 1/29/06, NY Times)

My first question: where does Sept. 11 rank in the grand sweep of American history as a threat to national security? By my calculations it does not make the top tier of the list, which requires the threat to pose a serious challenge to the survival of the American republic.

Here is my version of the top tier: the War for Independence, where defeat meant no United States of America; the War of 1812, when the national capital was burned to the ground; the Civil War, which threatened the survival of the Union; World War II, which represented a totalitarian threat to democracy and capitalism; the cold war, most specifically the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which made nuclear annihilation a distinct possibility.

Sept. 11 does not rise to that level of threat because, while it places lives and lifestyles at risk, it does not threaten the survival of the American republic, even though the terrorists would like us to believe so.

My second question is this: What does history tell us about our earlier responses to traumatic events?

My list of precedents for the Patriot Act and government wiretapping of American citizens would include the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which allowed the federal government to close newspapers and deport foreigners during the "quasi-war" with France; the denial of habeas corpus during the Civil War, which permitted the pre-emptive arrest of suspected Southern sympathizers; the Red Scare of 1919, which emboldened the attorney general to round up leftist critics in the wake of the Russian Revolution; the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, which was justified on the grounds that their ancestry made them potential threats to national security; the McCarthy scare of the early 1950's, which used cold war anxieties to pursue a witch hunt against putative Communists in government, universities and the film industry.

In retrospect, none of these domestic responses to perceived national security threats looks justifiable.

While Mr. Ellis is unquestonably right that Islamicism poses no existential threat to the American republic, he wildly overstates the threat in every prior conflict except the Civil War and, even there, it's not at all clear that such a murderous war was a necessary response to what would have just been a split into two American republics. I'd argue that it was appropriate but for purely ideological reasons, not because the South posed any security threat to the North.

On the other hand, while the repressive measures he cites are not always pleasant to comntemplate later in the safety of the peacetime they helped create, the fact remains that by any objective measure you'd have to say that they were effective. Indeed, the only time domestic subversion ever thrived was during the Vietnam War, when the government failed to react with the rewquiredc harshness to open dissent. Even then, all it took was the popularity of Kent State in middle America to put an effective end to the anti-war movement.

A goodly portion of the extraordinary conformity of America can likely be traced to the eagerness with which we resort to such witch hunts. If you wish the Communist movement had been stronger here then the Red Scare and McCarthyism probably do seem unjustifiable. If you're just as happy that we didn't tear our country apart the way those European nations that had strong statist movements did then they seem entirely justified.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 29, 2006 10:42 AM

Southern seccession represented two exisential threats to the USA.

The first was economic. Control of the lower Mississippi and the Port of New Orleans would give the CSA a stranglehold on USA shipping and trade. They would in effect hold a knife to the Union's economic juggler until the St. Lawrence Seaway was constructed in 1959. No nation can allow another nation to hold such a knife. Economic growth of the industrial Great Lakes and the farms of the Great Plains would have been stillborn.

The second threat was the establishment of seccession of as a legal principle. Other regions, such as Mormon Utah, New England or California would have followed the South's example and left the Union a shell of its former self and Balkanized North America. Ironically, it is probable that Texas would have seceded from the CSA to reform the Texas Republic. So you have a dozen squabbling nations instead of one.

As historian Shelby Foote noted, before the Civil War the term "the United States" was a plural, afterwards it was a single.

Posted by: bplus at January 29, 2006 11:24 AM

Why would the South have refused the revenues it stood to gain from allowing shipping through?

why shouldn't the United States be a number of different nations?

Posted by: oj at January 29, 2006 11:35 AM

The demographics of a hypothetical independent CSA are interesting to contemplate. 1/3 of the South in 1860 was black (most but not all being slaves). Some areas, such as Georgia, were 50% Black. The Black birth rates were higher, encouraged by slave owners for obvious economic reasons. Slaves were used not just on the plantation but in industry as well. White immigrants from Europe shunned the South before the war and would have continued to shun the CSA so they would avoid having to compete with slave labor. ALl of teh European immigrants would have gone to the North, to the North's great economic benefit. Poorer whites, most Southerners did not own slaves, would have been unable to compete for jobs in any field that employed slave labor would either degenerate into slovenly White trash on a larger scale (maybe like the unemployed Romans displaced by slave labor the CSA might provide them bread and circuses) or emmigrate in search of jobs, probably up north or out west. There would be no Black migration to Northern cities starting around the turn of the century, they would not be allowed to go.

Slavery might be formally ended and replaced with a system resembling apartheid (slavery in all but name). However, when the CSA celebrates its 100th anniversary in 1960, its racial make up would resemble that of South Africa with a tiny white minority trying to hold down a population 90% Black and Colored. MLK becomes the CSA's Nelson Mandella and a primarily Black nation is established in the South by the 1970s.

History can be so ironic.

Posted by: bplus at January 29, 2006 11:41 AM

The wouldn't refuse the shipping revenues, quite the contrary. They would have bled the Union economy dry for the priviledge of shipping down the Mississippi. No sovereign nation can allow any other nation to have that kind of power over their economy.

Posted by: bplus at January 29, 2006 11:43 AM

You prefer a world where the USA did not exist?

Posted by: bplus at January 29, 2006 11:45 AM

Regarding the Red Scare, the terror bombings that took place prompted the crackdown, not the existence of the Soviet Union. Active attacks on American citizens prompts a reaction. Mr. Ellis seems to be avoiding that little fact. That and the fact that the crackdown was very popular.

He seems troubled and shocked by that. Weird.

Posted by: Mikey at January 29, 2006 11:49 AM


The existence of several democratic republics on the area currently occupied by just one would make almost no difference to the quality of life here, though it would likely have kept us out of all those stupid wars Mr. Ellis lists, so would have improved it if anything.

Posted by: oj at January 29, 2006 12:04 PM

Mr. Ellis ( and I guess Orrin)is a perfect example of the two "camps" now present in the country. He does not see Islamofascism as an existential threat to his way of life, and doesn't see that we are engaged in another world war. He and the rest of the anti-war movement don't think that leaking of classifide information by our own CIA is treasonous and leads to more deaths of our soldiers and innocent Iraqis.
If we lose this war, Europe will become Islamicized, as well as vast portions of Asia and etc. Think our way of life might change in that scenario?

Posted by: morry at January 29, 2006 12:07 PM


You don't kill the cow as long as it's producing milk. Steady shipping revenues would have provided them an interest in a thriving North.

Posted by: oj at January 29, 2006 12:11 PM


Of course the irony is that the War produced apartheid instead.

Posted by: oj at January 29, 2006 12:12 PM


No. Europe will be a better place once Islamic than it has been as secular and that's going to happen even though we won the war. There are no Islamofascist states and won't be. It doesn't work.

Posted by: oj at January 29, 2006 12:14 PM

Ellis is arguing in favor of the status quo. The United States would not be what it is today if we had avoided any of those wars. This is just another symptom of the left's retreat to reactionism, if not Painglossianism.

From that point of view, it is entirely possible that a historian fifty years from now will include the WOT in a list of essential wars. Not because, without the WOT, the United States wouldn't exist but his United States wouldn't exist.

For conservatives, who can imagine a better United States, the issue isn't as clear. OJ says that the Civil War was our only essential war, if only barely. But that depends upon his idiosyncratic view that it would have been better for us to remain subjects of King George. I say that our only essential war was the Revolutionary War, although I could make an argument for two "wars" Ellis omits, but which are clearly more nearly essential than any post-Revolutionary War he lists: the putting down of Shea's Rebellion, without which there might not have been a constitutional convention; and Washington's campaign to put down the Whiskey Rebellion.

Posted by: David Cohen at January 29, 2006 12:14 PM


No, the Civil War was unnecessary, we did it because we wanted to not because we needed to. It was certainly worthwhile getting rid of slavery but like all our wars we didn't finish it so it ended up being rather a waste.

Posted by: oj at January 29, 2006 12:19 PM

Had secession become the norm, America would be just one of many Balkanized continents. OJ if you think that we would be just as well off replicating Europe's history, then I'd suggest that you check your basement redoubt for radon gas.

Sept 11 was merely the gauntlet thrown in our face. Does Ellis not see it as a prelude for worse things to come, a dress rehearsal for a nuclear strike? He thinks that the minor inconveniences of security checks and wire taps are not warranted in an attempt to keep us from nuclear war? It is good to be paranoid, but only if you know who you should really be afraid of.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at January 29, 2006 12:29 PM


Along the same lines as the importance of putting down Shays Rebellion, Bill Clinton deserves credit for crushing the militia movement after OK City.

Posted by: oj at January 29, 2006 12:37 PM


How did the devolution of Britain into America, Australia, Canada, etc.--though somewhat undesirable--truly matter? The devolution of the US into a couple states will be a similarly minor matter.

Posted by: oj at January 29, 2006 12:42 PM

OJ: Then we're agreed about the Civil War. Putting down the militia movement, though a good thing, was not essential in either of the two meanings being discussed here. McVeigh probably did as much to destroy the militia movement as anyone.

Robert: Just between us, wasn't the argument for secession unanswerable (other, I suppose, with the Union Army)?

Morry: No one saying that destroying Islamofascism isn't important or right. We're just saying that they're not an existential threat to the United States -- certainly not as a force at arms.

Posted by: David Cohen at January 29, 2006 12:49 PM

Orrin, what do you call Iran? Just because a system doesn't work doesn't mean it can't last, recall that the failed Soviet state was around for some 70 years give or take.

Posted by: morry at January 29, 2006 12:49 PM

Iran is an imperfect democracy. Ironically, its greatest imperfection--the Guardianship--is the biggest brake on the extremism of its current elected leader.

Posted by: oj at January 29, 2006 12:58 PM

sure but Shay's and the Whiskey Rebellion likewise precipitated their own crushing.

Posted by: oj at January 29, 2006 12:59 PM

Orrin, the elected leader was chosen by the "Guardians" as well as all the members of the legislature. They only allowed certain people to stand for election. Recall that Saddam would tally at least 99% of the vote every time he ran. Do you think that MA could really do or say anything that the Guardian didn't want him to say?

Posted by: morry at January 29, 2006 1:23 PM

Sure the Islamicists are not a truly serious threat to us but then you have to remember that the Germans weren't a threat since the French had by far the strongest army in Europe. At some point you have to realize that a group attacking from the outside and groups eating away at the inside, which is what MoveOn and Code Pink and their affiliated groups are doing, will weaken even the Gullivers of the world.

Posted by: dick at January 29, 2006 1:29 PM


What makes you think these little nations would all be democracies? Or not fight wars with each other? Why do you want America to look like Europe?

Killing or milking the cow is irrelevant. If you were president of the North, would you allow the Union economy to exist and grow only on the sufferance of another nation?

The war didn't produce apartheid, reconstruction did. Getting back to the demographics, an independent CSA would have produced through its own internal demographics and the inability to attract European immigrants an American version of the current South Africa. Ironic, no?

Posted by: bplus at January 29, 2006 1:33 PM


The Islamofascists WILL be an existential threat to America as soon as suitcase nuclear weapons are available and become as common as car bombs. They have always had the motivation, soon they will have the means.

To prevent this nightmare, we should not hesitate to incinerate Iran (or let the Israelis do it for us with their "Samson Option") before an Iranian nuclear weapons program becomes operational.

Posted by: bplus at January 29, 2006 1:39 PM
Sept 11 was merely the gauntlet thrown in our face.

Think of it, rather, as a proof-of-concept; an illustration of how vulnerable an open and wealthy society* is to asymmetric threats that exploit those characteristics.

*These two factors are not unrelated, though I doubt anyone here needs a reminder of that.

Posted by: Kirk Parker at January 29, 2006 1:57 PM

Mr. Ellis forgot to include Washington's warrantless search of Major Andre's boot, thus violating the "American citizen" Benedict Arnold his right to unfettered communication with a foreign enemy. Lincoln also read quite a lot of mail and telegraph intercepts from American citzens. And FDR also read all cables leaving America after Dec. 7th, '41.

I've done a few historical comparisons myself, and principles hold up pretty well. However, we've never had an asymetrical war with open borders, jet travel, modern electronic communications and WMDs. Not to mention an intelligensia so blase about their own nation's survival.

Posted by: Noel at January 29, 2006 3:12 PM


Yes, never.

Posted by: oj at January 29, 2006 3:38 PM

Ellis' piece fails from the start, with poor analogies. 9/11 isn't comparable to WWII, true. It's comparable to Pearl Harbor: a battle, not a war.

And Morry is right: OJ is oddly and uncharacteristically short-sighted about Islamofascism. Communism, Nazism, rule-by-Mongol-hordism, and many others also "don't work" in the long run, but that's no excuse for complacency. All can create incredible misery before they go. And they don't even need bplus' suitcase nukes to be an existential threat to us: just some freighters and big trucks with crude dirty nukes, along with a fifth column of tranzis and pacifists.

Posted by: PapayaSF at January 29, 2006 3:38 PM

The Confederacy was near identical to the Union.

Posted by: oj at January 29, 2006 3:39 PM


The Germans were never a threat, even less after they took France.

Posted by: oj at January 29, 2006 3:39 PM


Khamenei wanted a contest between Moin and Rafsanjani but the reformers boycotted, screwing him and themselves.

Posted by: oj at January 29, 2006 3:44 PM


Of course they create misery, but not here. the story concerns our national security which none of them have threatened. We fight them because it's fun, not because we need to.

Posted by: oj at January 29, 2006 4:02 PM

The United States is a single entity.

We might have been balkanized if the left were able to complete their multi-culti divide-and-conquer methodology, but lucky for us television and the internet brought us together as a nation and homogenized us. We're Americans first now no matter what part of the country or the world we come from.

Posted by: erp at January 29, 2006 4:47 PM

You may never want to attack your beloved ayatollah's in Iran, OJ, but that is academic. Isreal has an arsenal of 200 nuclear warheads and Jericho II missiles that can hit any target from Libya to Pakistan.

The Iranian president has called for the extermination of Israel and declared the Holocaust to be a myth. The Israelis, children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, will not hesitate to prevent a second such destruction of Jews. Within hours of Iran announcing that they have an atomic bomb, Israeli missiles will will slag Iran.

Israel shall do so without hesitation, without apology and without remorse. And they don't give a flying fig for your opinion or the excuses you make for the Iranian leadership.

Posted by: bplus at January 29, 2006 5:13 PM


Obviously we need to take out their nuke program if Khamenei doesn't put a stop to Ahmedinejad first. That too has nothing to do with our own national security.

Posted by: oj at January 29, 2006 5:20 PM

Thius business about the "militia movement" is gravely misplaced. The handful of un-American extremists, even then largely infiltrated by the feds, were the opposite of the militia.

The militia is the whole body of civil society under arms, and it is doing quite well. Right-to-carry has already swept the country, and stand-your-ground laws are proceeding apace.

Ask Clinton whether he thinks he defeated the militia or whether the militia defeated him--he has already given his answer.

There is one way for the right to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory: forget who it was that brought them all this way. There is a certain supercilious disdain for some on our side for the gun rights movement. Buckley had this haughtiness, as do some others I can think of.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 29, 2006 7:56 PM

Waning interest, arrests leading to decline of militia
Maysville Ledger-Independent/September 9, 2002

Lexington -- The militia movement in Kentucky is waning due to a fading national interest and some high-profile arrests, experts and militia members say.

With former Kentucky State Militia commander Charlie Puckett in prison and Steve Anderson - another high-profile member of the group - being sought as a fugitive, the militia is in disarray, despite recent efforts to regroup.

The state militia is dead without Puckett's leadership, militiaman Roger Shanks of Lancaster said. Puckett was sentenced to 30 months in prison on federal weapons charges.

"It's not anymore," Shanks said when asked how the organization is faring. "When I joined, I joined because of Charlie Puckett."

The Kentucky militia's decline follows a national trend that has seen the number of civilian paramilitary groups drop from 858 in 1996 to 158 last year.

'Patriot' Free Fall
For the fifth consecutive year, the antigovernment movement that produced American militias undergoes a major decline

Almost nine years ago, on a warm October day in Opelika, Ala., Americans got an early taste of the violence that was soon to come from the antigovernment "Patriot" movement.

On that day, in the parking lot of a local shopping center, a Floridian couple who were deeply steeped in the conspiracist world-view of the Patriots gunned down a police officer who had stopped to check on the welfare of the woman's 9-year-old son.

Lynda Lyon, then 45, and common-law husband George Sibley Jr., 51, killed Sgt. Roger Motley, 38, after the officer asked to see Sibley's license.

The murder was a harbinger of the violence that was soon to explode in the Patriot world, culminating in the deaths of 168 people in Oklahoma City.

Now, the May 10 execution of Lyon, who like Sibley was sentenced to die for the killing, may likewise serve to mark the continuing demise of the Patriot movement.

Eight years after it began, the Patriot movement characterized by armed militias, wild conspiracy theories, a hatred of the federal government and government regulation, an overarching love for guns, and an occasionally strong dose of racism is less than a fifth the size that it was at its peak, in 1996.

Posted by: oj at January 29, 2006 8:14 PM

Quite a show OJ. You're on a roll here.

Regarding Ellis: historians are in the business of hindsight ... their opinions on current events resemble driving while looking in the rear view mirror.

Posted by: Genecis at January 29, 2006 11:21 PM