No clean break

Joanne Meyerowitz reflects on the legacy of 9/11.
Joanne Meyerowitz
Joanne Meyerowitz (Photo courtesy of Bob O'Connor)

By Joanne Meyerowitz
Arthur Unobskey Professor of History and professor of American studies, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

Shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, historians pointed to precedents: the surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor, say, and terrorist attacks — domestic and foreign — that had targeted civilians. They soon moved on to warnings against unnecessary and prolonged wars, with frequent reference to Vietnam, and to placing the security state within the long history of domestic surveillance, racial profiling, and violations of civil liberties. The common thread was that September 11 did not represent a clean break with the past. It was not “one of those moments,” as The New York Times had claimed, “in which history splits” in two.

Twenty years later, we’ve begun to address legacies as well as precedents. We’ve returned to the drawing board to chart the changes in the technologies of terrorism, war, and surveillance, including the histories of how extremists have used social media, how the military has deployed armed drones, and how high-tech data gathering has intruded on everyday life. 

We’re also seeing the recent past through the lens of Trumpism, with Sept. 11 as a key event that invigorated the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim xenophobia that Trump crafted into his variant of conservative politics. And with the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, we’re acknowledging again how Sept. 11 helped push U.S. foreign policy further away from the Cold War and toward the ongoing debacle of a misguided war on terror.

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