That 9.11 Incident

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:36 am

Of course I remember 9/11/01. You don’t forget the day when you think you’re watching a rerun of a terrible accident — how quickly they got footage, you marvel briefly — and realize that you’re actually watching an atrocity in progress. You don’t forget the day when a student’s cell phone gets a text message that a plane has crashed on the Mall in DC (one day when you don’t care about them text messaging in class, and you don’t forget the relief that it wasn’t true, either). You don’t forget the day when you watch people die on TV, while your 8-month-pregnant spouse checks insulin levels.

I really did try to have class that morning. It was my Modern Japan class, and I tried — oh, how I tried — to talk coherently about terrorism in Japanese history. Nothing wrong with current events, if you can relate it to the course material, right? I talked about the bakumatsu assassination campaigns, about the right-wing assasinations and coup attempts of the ’30s; I honestly don’t remember if I got the Great Treason Incident in there or not, what with text messages and sharing what little we knew, and all. I do remember running out of things to say and dismissing them early, and being grateful when the president of the college cancelled classes for the remainder of the day. I went back to my office, called the college chaplain to see what was going on with regard to our small but noticeable Muslim student population (Everyone was fine: Cedar Rapids has the oldest mosque west of the Mississippi river and the local Muslim community is quite well integrated and respected), and went home to my pregnant wife.

It was a shocking event, to be sure. But it wasn’t quite such a surprise. It wasn’t all that long after I’d read Tom Clancy’s excreable Debt of Honor a book whose only redeeming feature (I’ve read quite a bit of Clancy’s work, and I find it wildly inconsistent in quality, which is why there’s always hope about a new one) was the ending — yeah, I’m gonna give it away — in which a businessman/pilot steals a jetliner, talks his way into the DC air traffic patterns, and obliterates a Joint Session of Congress, Tokkotai-style. (If you want to know how the immortal Jack Ryan solves the problem, you have to read Executive Orders, which is considerably more exciting and interesting and plausible….) Obviously, anyone teaching Japanese history has had to wrestle a bit with the issue of suicide attacks — human bullets, shattered jewels, divine winds, etc. — and they had been increasingly common in the Middle East of late.

Being Jewish, I have that slightly-greater-than-average-American-interest in Middle Eastern affairs, and that slightly-greater-than-average-paranoia about violent, hostile forces. Not only wasn’t the 9/11 attack not the first large domestic terror attack, it wasn’t even the first large, Islamist, domestic terror attack on the World Trade Center. The Taliban had long since destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas (nothing like destruction of cultural property to get an historian’s attention), not to mention imposing strictures on Afghani women that would make Draco blanch. US interests had been attacked overseas, the bombing of the Jewish center in Argentina proved the reach of anti-semitic violence (recently revealed to be al-Qaeda related, even) outside of the Middle East.

What changed for me, five years ago? As an historian, very little. The market for Asianists got a bit tighter, as the market for MidEast and Islamic specialists got better. I stopped having to work so hard to explain the terror of the Cold War, the potential of sudden death and the existence of ideologically and politically hostile entities on a world-wide scale. Changes in Japan since then have been subtle, and mostly not at all linked to our own national trauma. Hardly anyone, still, has made any substantial links between Japan’s history of suicide attacks and terrorism with our current situation, but I don’t see there being all that much to say about it except to suggest that people would be less surprised if they paid attention. I remain convinced that paying attention to historical evolution and forces is one of the best ways to anticipate problems and sometimes even to find solutions. Airport security changes have rarely affected us — though our 7-month-old got randomly selected for special screening, and they really did pat him down.

Historians really don’t do anniversaries (though we try to remember our spouses and parents as appropriate). The press does, because it’s easy to count by years, or fives, or tens, or twenty-fives, or hundreds, and then they come talk to us or to people who were directly involved [via], and we get an odd sort of retrospective and update. Historians don’t care about even numbers: for us, the “Sixties” ended with the Vietnam War, and both the 18th and 19th centuries were “long” ones; every “20th century” course I’ve ever taken started in 1890. But outside of the journalistic need for a “hook” to look back, there’s nothing special about five years.

There’s nothing all that special about 9/11, either…. yet. What meaning 9/11/01 will have, its historical import, is still up in the air, no matter how much anyone claims that it must mean this or that, that things have or haven’t changed as a result. 9/11 was the largest act of terror to strike the United States, just as the Holocaust was the largest anti-semitic genocidal event, but neither of them stands alone and to focus all our attention on those events of such distinctive scale to the exclusion of myriad “smaller events” before or since is historically stunted, or dishonest. That so many people were so shocked by the event, and have yet to put it in anything like proper context or perspective, suggests to me that historians — not alone among scholars, but perhaps uniquely — have a long way to go in inculcating (recovering) our long-term vision, our sense of complexity of the world, our experience — indirect but nonetheless real — with cultural and ideological and technological change and conflict.

4 Responses to “That 9.11 Incident”

  1. Mary Reisel says:

    Hello Jonathan,
    I’m new in the group, just joining after Mr. Sheftall introduced me to this interesting group, but even before my official introduction I would like to refer to your 9/11 remark.
    Coming from Israel and serving in the army there I can easily understand and identify with many of the things you mention. However 9/11 has changed my attitude to teaching in Japan. It made me rethink somewhat more philosophically what am I doing here besides a PhD and what is my mission here as a foreigner teaching Japanese people. Am I here only to go through the teaching material be it whatever it may be? I have also realized that many of my students are interested in world politics, the meaning of religion to religious people and the new balance of power in the world even if they don’t feel comfortable enough to mention it in class. They are more worried about what is Islam than the missiles from North Korea. I am trying now to find ways to filter more information and place for discussion about these issues and so far with good feedback from most of the students.
    I don’t know where we stand as historians, anthropologists or other professionls in Japan, but let us remember that teaching is also educating. It is about leading people through new ways of thinking and opening paths they haven’t seen before.

  2. I very much agree that education should be as much about ways of thinking as it is about content, and I try to include the relevance of information, when it is relevant, in the discussion. Part of my problem is gauging interest: what I think is relevant and interesting may not, in fact, have any relation to why students are taking a course; as a result I try to stick pretty close to my stated syllabi, and moderate digressions based on what’s actually happening and questions students ask.

  3. M.G. Sheftall says:

    Oh, what I would give to have students who ask questions, Jonathan! As a teacher, consider yourself blessed in that department.

    I also envy (that word seems quite strange in this context, I realize) your being in the States on 9/11. Being where I was on that day– and still am — i.e., in a provincial city in Japan with a two-digit ex-pat American population, felt like being on the far side of the moon. My world, my country, my city was bleeding, and here I was in a peaceful (if slightly gritty) burg in Central Japan writing up Communications Skills syllabi and trying to finish a paper on introversion and group reticence in Japanese EFL that suddenly seemed about as relevant in the Big Scheme of Things as what I’d eaten for dinner on 9/10.

    As I mentioned briefly in my otherwise long-winded self-intro of the other day, in the wake of 9/11 I experienced long months of doubt and angst not only about the state of international affairs, the humiliated, heartbroken agony of my homeland and the abrupt derailing of (what I had long mistakenly believed to be) some semblance of positivistic collective historical human progress towards “better things” (world peace? multicultural understanding and appreciation? elimination of famine and diseases?), but also about my own contributions — or lack thereof — to all this mess. Pushing forty, raising a family, nursing a waxing waistline and a waning hairline, I suppose I should have been happier about my station in life, ensconced in the Japanese national university system as a Japanese civil servant, living a safe — if rather mundane — existence in a prime position for sitting out what seemed (and still seems) to be turning into the nastiest sh*t-storm to hit humanity since the 14th Century. But instead of feeling comfortably reassured about that, I just felt redundant.

    In a way, everything I’ve been doing since has been an attempt on my part to repair the wound opened in my heart — and in my faith in the basic decency of the human species — by the events and aftermath of “That Day” five years ago, and to utilize all of the bad energy resulting from those wounds in some way that will be constructive, helpful and meaningful. Sometimes I feel that the only thing that keeps me from seriously considering ex-planetary retirement options is the belief that there are still more people out there doing their best to improve the world than there are people trying to accelerate Armageddon and blow it up. God help us all if that scale ever tips the other way.

    On a brighter note, nice to see you on Frog in a Well, Mary.

  4. John Stolzenbach says:

    I remember reading (some years back) an article in, was it Bungei Shunju? positing a real causatory ink between the Japanese kamikaze and the current Islamic fundamentalist bomber, going back to the Red Army terrorist who blew himself up at Ben Gurion airport in 1970 or so. Before that point, claimed the article, the idea of suicide to advance a cause was not countenanced under Islamic mores — but now the example of the Red Army terrorist inspired upcoming generations of terrorists to come. Make of this what you will.

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