Student essays examine historical importance of 9/11 attacks

In September, FIU’s Global Learning for Global Citizenship initiative and The New York Times sponsored a student essay contest designed to make students reflect on and think deeply about the legacy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001. The contest was part of “Unity/Diversity: Reflecting on the Meaning of 9/11,” a series of special events organized by Global Learning to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

Students were asked to frame their essays as responses to historian Joseph Ellis’ 2006 New York Times op-ed piece titled “Finding a Place for 9-11 in American History.” They were asked to critically analyze Ellis’ contention that 9-11, while significant, was not in the top tier of truly significant events in history.

The contest yielded more than 50 entries that were reviewed by a panel of judges including Honors College Fellow and journalism professor Frederick Blevens, Global Learning director Hilary Landorf, Global Learning associate director Stephanie Doscher, journalism professor Moses Shumow and FIU Magazine editor Deborah O’Neil.

First place went to Frederico Armando, an international relations major born in New York and raised in Brazil. Second place went to journalism major Barbara Corbellini Duarte. International relations major Lucy Vega won third place. What follows are the three winning essays.

First Place

By Frederico Armando

An analysis of Richard Ellis’s article entitled “Finding a Place for 9/11 in American History” reveals that the historical importance Americans have placed on the 9/11 attacks may have been exaggerated, as was the reaction to such attacks by the United States.

Ellis looks at the 9/11 phenomenon from a historian’s perspective and does what most Americans haven’t yet been able to do: to analyze the 9/11 attacks in an objective manner and put it into an appropriate historical context. For most in the United States, those terrorist attacks still figure prominently in their minds as the event that changed everything; the wound that still won’t heal. It is the event that marked this generation and is remembered alongside the assassination of JFK and the Pearl Harbor attacks as transformative events in U.S. history.

One of the assertions that Ellis makes in his article is that the 9/11 attacks are not that important as events that threatened national security. Although those attacks clearly showed the vulnerability of a superpower and practically ended the erroneous post-Cold War notion that the United States was somehow impervious to an attack, they simply did not represent a serious threat to the survival of the United States as a country or to the American way of life.

In as much as it changed the way Americans viewed national security and destroyed the old realist ideas of power, 9/11 can indeed be considered a game-changer. Americans suffered an attack in their own soil and when the wave of patriotism ended and a response was called for, there was no state to retaliate against. The concept of asymmetrical warfare made itself clear as the United States scrambled to find an enemy on which revenge could be sought.

Richard Ellis appropriately places the response to the 9/11 attacks along such radical and exaggerated measures as the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the McCarthy era in the 1950s. Perhaps the 9/11 wound is still too new for Americans to analyze it objectively. The wave of patriotism that immediately followed the attacks united the country in an unprecedented way, but also had the unforeseen effect of stifling those opinions that dissented from the administration’s unilateral and radical response. All of a sudden, it became unpatriotic not to want to bomb Afghanistan or to think of Islam as anything other than an extremist, hate-mongering religion.

In many respects, Americans still live in the shadow of 9/11; it not only has unnecessarily dictated American foreign policy for the past ten years, but also obfuscated the fact that there were – and still are – real grievances in the Arab world regarding American actions in the Middle East. It may be that the actual game changer was not the 9/11 attacks themselves, but rather the American response to them.

Second place

By Barbara Corbellini Duarte

In 2006, the journalist Joseph J. Ellis analyzed 9/11, trying to place it in history. He did not think it merited a position in the top tier of events that have threatened American national security. He suggested that events like the War for Independence and the War of 1812 were greater threats to the survival of the American republic. Nonetheless, the terrorist attack not only led to many other events that were crucial to America’s current economic situation and security, but also changed the way the world looked at the U.S. For these reasons, 9/11 deserves a higher position on the journalist’s ranking.

The events chosen by Ellis differ from 9/11 in many ways, demonstrating the difficulty of comparing them. Primarily, they were all wars that lasted years, while the 9/11 attack lasted less than a day. Secondly, the War for Independence, World War II and the Cold War happened when the U.S. was not yet the world’s premier super-power. Moreover, all of them were important to establish America’s leadership and institute capitalism as the world’s system. The 9/11 attack was the most significant incident to affect the U.S. sense of supremacy and security since the Cold War.

The terrorist attack caused such a huge impact because it was not only the destruction of two buildings, but also the destruction of several symbols. The World Trade Center represented the power and strength of capitalism and America’s economy; the Pentagon symbolizes America’s military might. When the three buildings were attacked, the idea that the stability of America and capitalism were in danger was inevitable. The world used to look at America as an indestructible fortress; the planes hit the very foundation of this perception, and the trust in the U.S. began to be questioned.

The author suggested that many of President Bush’s decisions after 9/11, such as his Iraq policy and the Patriot Act, were an overreaction that could prove more dangerous than the attack. The journalist made a correct assumption; President Bush started two wars that did not bring any benefits to the country, are still a problem, and destroyed America’s economic surplus. While Bush was so focused in the Middle East, other countries like China and Iran have had a chance to grow and today are a threat to the U.S. leadership of the world.

Maybe 9/11, if isolated, would not have been a great threat to America; yet, in history, nothing happens in a vacuum. Because of 9/11, the U.S. assumed positions that started a snowball effect; 10 years later, the government is still trying to control the avalanche. Perhaps, 2006 was too early to place 9/11 in history, and possibly 2011 still is. America and the world continue to feel the consequences of the terrorist attack, which unfortunately make 9/11 and the events surrounding it one of America’s greatest challenges. If 9/11 would not make Ellis’ top 10, it should definitely be in the 11th position.

Third place

By Lucy Vega

Joseph Ellis’ perspective in his article “Finding a Place for 9/11 in American History” was quite refreshing. After 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq, it seemed like a sin to criticize the Bush administration and its practices. Anyone who questioned or doubted our motives for invading Iraq as a response to 9/11 was labeled “un-American.” The administration waged an intensive PR campaign to instill fear in the minds of its people and create a deliberate and necessary platform to justify its policies and actions here and abroad.

The 9/11 attack was indeed a significant event in our nation’s history and an event that changed the political landscape forever. After 9/11, the term “terrorist” took on a whole new, broader meaning. And, the administration adjusted its policies accordingly. Like Ellis, I’m skeptical. I think 9/11 was a serious wake-up call to our domestic security but I don’t think the invasion of Iraq made us any safer or enhanced the lives of the Iraqi people.

Ellis first questions the Bush administration’s claim that 9/11 was a threat to our national security and he argues its significance to our history. In retrospect, we now know that 9/11 and Iraq had nothing to do with each other. The Bush administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was planning on using them against the United States was a well-orchestrated lie. If we take those claims into account, I do see an ‘imminent threat” and do find war to be a viable response to Saddam’s regime. Since that was not the case, I do agree with Ellis that unlike the historical events of the past, 9/11 was not a threat to our existence. It was a definite blow to our security and hegemonic power, but not a reason to spend trillions of dollars on a war that, in my opinion, was careless, calculated and unnecessary.

Ellis further illustrates the historical “slippery slope” of the Patriot Act and its subsequent revisions enabling the use of torture, wire-tapping and other excessive and broadly stated methods to combat terrorists who, in the words of George W. Bush, “hate us for our freedom.” These relaxed policy decisions were not only unconstitutional but they gave way to the scandal at Abu Ghraib and the widely documented prisoner abuse cases at Guantánamo.

If history has taught us anything, it has taught us that in a time of war, governments sometimes get it wrong. Widening the window of power and losing sight of the objective can lead to mistakes of epic proportions. Following 9/11, many innocent Iraqis were jailed, tortured and stripped of their dignity; a feat so devastating to their culture that repercussions are sure to follow for decades to come.

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