September 11, 2001: Historical Perspective vs. Lack of Precedent

by Rex Cherrington

The terrorist attacks were acts of war waged by villains, not nations. Since experiencing the horrors of Tuesday September 11, 2001 we have allowed the definition of war to include certain crimes when perpetrated against a nation. The emotions and thoughts of the American people are in uncharted territory. Americans are generally trusting and naive, therefore more vulnerable than most of the world’s people. Our range of experience includes violence, though not like the recent heinous behavior, either in degree or scale.

The suicide mission terrorist is hard to block. The Kamikaze pilots of World War II era Japan, guided by the Samurai Code (Bushido) would not have found civilians acceptable targets. The Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing was different, an act of terrorism by one or more persons from our own population. The USS Cole incident and the bombed embassies were far enough away to affect relatively few Americans in such a profound manner. Most Americans have never been in a terrorist’s zone of danger or in war’s combat zone. The American Civil War of the 1860’s offers historical examples of guerilla terrorism but black ink on a page can never have the impact of red blood on the street.

We speak of the loss of innocence at times like this. The Revolutionary War was fought on this continent. The War of 1812, also fought on this continent, saw the burning of our nation’s capitol. The Civil War saw American turn against American for nearly four years. Organized crime grew during Prohibition and there was increased violence. The Great Depression, while not known for its violence, tested the will of the American people in other ways. The World Wars, Vietnam War, domestic turbulence associated with that war, and racial issues all tested this country in various ways.

All the aforementioned are called loss of innocence experiences. How could we possibly have retained any innocence? Is innocence like an onion, with many layers? The facial expressions seen everywhere on that infamous Tuesday reflected another layer of innocence had been stripped away. People were struggling to focus but not having the realm of experience or understanding to put the morning’s events in perspective.

Friday, September 14 was officially declared a day of mourning. The spontaneous mourning of the preceding Tuesday was more moving in many respects. People were shocked, saddened, stunned, angered, confused and occasionally relieved when it was determined that loved ones were still alive. The panic buying of food and gasoline was an exception; generally our people were not terrorized, rather saddened and angered. In spite of suffering, Americans demonstrated great capability.

When there is threat, chaos and confusion people have questions; at first the senses are too overloaded for effective thought. The next phase, less somber though reflective, the people expect leaders to provide a plan; the idealistic demand a plan for justice and the less idealistic, who believe there is no justice, demand retribution.

One of the functions of leadership throughout time and in all lands is to make sense of confusion. The leader must relate the events to the followers in satisfactory form, assuring the followers that the leader comprehends. The explanation of events to help make sense of the situation is the next step in crisis leadership. Reassurance must be given to the followers that there is a plan for dealing with the crisis in the third stage.

Leadership was traditionally furnished by church and state, usually working together. What political leaders couldn’t explain was left to the clergy to draw upon religion for explanation, guidance and reassurance. Religious leaders receive less criticism than political leaders but possess less influence now compared to earlier times.

In the Classical World philosophers were the leaders for the politicians and clergy, hence an elite with considerable influence. The realm of the philosophers expanded to include writers of prose and poetry. With the innovations of moveable type printing, the thoughts of writers reached more people. Newspapers developed in the 18th century and flourished in the 19th. Not only the political and religious leaders were influenced by the literati but all who could read sampled a variety of ideas. The influence of the writer increased. A newspaper was commonly a component of a political machine in the 19th and early 20th century.

The addition of photography, cinema, radio and television to printed publications has given rise to what we collectively call "media." With nearly universal literacy and access to broadcast news, this third category of leadership, the descendants of the philosophers, has grown powerful.

Technological changes in communication changed leadership. The discovery that radio frequencies could be controlled through modulation (both amplitude and frequency) resulted in live broadcast, bringing the news into our homes for us to formulate our opinions based upon first hand observation. We foolishly believe that we have become our own news editors until reminded that someone selected what we saw.

At present, the words of a favorite commentator are awaited and often praised more than those of a government official. This media leadership, part politically practical and part morally judgmental, derives its power from the people who are free to change channels or use the "off" switch.. Political leaders are made and destroyed by their effectiveness or ineffectiveness with media. The concept of "presence," roughly meaning the ability to influence others through good looks, animated body language and strategic use of voice is leveraged through broadcast media.. The delivery of the message is prized more than the content.

Tall buildings amplify the potential for human loss when disaster strikes. The increased size of airplanes corresponds to greater potential for destruction when used as missiles. Never before have so many people, in all regions of the world, been able to see such destruction for themselves, so promptly. While there have been many technological changes in architecture, agriculture, manufacturing, home appliances, medicine and virtually every aspect of life, the effects of technological changes in transportation and information processing/communication have had far greater ramifications than the others.

Admittedly, people of today bear many similarities to those of thousands of years ago. The technologies set us apart. Though we are bombarded with information, we crave more. No evidence has come forth to suggest that our brains can process information better or more quickly than did the humans of previous generations. The events of September 11, the attacks and the reporting, are unlike anything before. Additionally, almost every American has access to information via the internet. Likely, during this past week more people went to: <http://www,> than ever before. This is where you will find up to the minute news releases along with photos from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Still, so many questions; people are seeking answers. Great demands are being made upon the political, religious and information leaders. If the leaders of the present can not fill the requirements, leaders of the past are quoted. More than one news commentator alluded to FDR, referring to September 11 as a "day of infamy." Comments about Harry Truman’s brand of leadership were made.

The main lesson of the Vietnam War in short form is that a war of invasion cannot be won if you cannot tell your friends from your enemies! The terrorist/guerilla is a warrior without a uniform. Don’t forget the unsuccessful Russian War in Afghanistan; draw upon its lessons! The terrorists have won the first battle; we must draw upon all of our resources, including history, for the victory over terrorism that is demanded and justified.

Americans are generally peaceful and peace loving, but when the peaceful enjoyment of this nation has been so violated we must respond. We did not declare a war, rather war was declared upon us by cowards who could not say the words!