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9/11 and 3/11

A Letter from the Editor

Carl R. Weinberg
Editor, Magazine of History
On Tuesday March 11, 2003, I was working in my office at North Georgia College and State University (NGCSU), when I received an email that I will never forget. It was sent to all faculty and staff on the campus listserv from one of my colleagues on the subject of “America’s Defense.” His email noted that some of our R.O.T.C. students were heading to the Middle East to join the thousands of troops already deployed there. Even if we opposed the drive toward war with Iraq, he argued, we should visit a website set up by the U.S. Department of Defense and add our names to a list thanking military personnel for protecting our freedoms. That same day, the U.S. House of Representatives, in a slap at French antiwar sentiment, had voted that its cafeterias would now serve only “freedom fries.” Six days later, the clock ran out on Saddam Hussein’s opportunity to comply with a United Nations Security Council resolution demanding that he surrender his weapons of mass destruction. Two days after that deadline, President Bush launched the U.S. war against Iraq.

As someone who opposed Bush’s “war on terror,” I was tempted to write back to my colleague immediately, but I held back. The prevailing atmosphere of this small, regional four-year state college was conservative, bolstered by a very visible military training program. Though I had stuck my neck out before, and earned tenure, the pressure to keep antiwar views quiet was intense. After all, the previous Thursday, President Bush had told the world that Saddam Hussein “possesses weapons of terror” and supported “terrorists who would willingly use weapons of mass destruction against America …” That very week, U.S. agents had captured Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged architect of the September 11 attacks. The shadow of those attacks was always present. I could vividly remember watching the second plane hit the towers on live TV in our history department office, as I prepared to teach a class, and how we adjourned to a student lounge to watch the horrifying scene unfolding in New York. Referring to those attacks in a March 6 press conference, President Bush pledged that this time, “We will not wait to see what terrorists or terrorist states could do with” these weapons.

Meanwhile, I headed to the drill field to join the faculty/staff team for a game of softball. I don’t remember who won that day but I do remember being in a fighting mood. At exactly 5:00 p.m., our game was interrupted by the daily ritual of “Retreat.” An amplified, recorded bugle played the military tune signaling the end of the official day. Dictated by tradition, the players stopped, took off their hats, and turned to the flag. Not me—I kept my hat on and turned my back on the flag.

The next morning, I replied to my colleague’s email and sent it to the whole list. I shared his concern for our students. But I pointedly said that “I will not be sending them messages of thanks on the Pentagon website, which would just add momentum to the drive to war.” The best thing we could do for them, I countered, was to oppose the coming war in Iraq and demand, “Bring the troops home NOW.” It was not a war for freedom, nor a war against terrorism, I asserted. Rather, President Bush was using the U.S military to “prop up the American economic empire,” as American leaders had done since the Spanish-American War.

The first response came from a colleague who was annoyed that I had used the list for political purposes in response to a non-political invitation to thank the troops. Fortunately, my department chair quickly chimed in and observed that “Neither message was devoid of political content.” Over the next few days, the emails kept coming. Most supportive messages—“Courageous words of wisdom” or “You go, boy!”—were sent to me privately, reflecting the perceived dangers of openly opposing the war. Though he supported the war, another colleague—and softball teammate—admired my “high-minded ideals” and now understood “why you turned your back so casually on the flag” during the game. A most poignant message came from a former student of mine who had served in the military. She opposed the war and hoped that my email would “at least make people think, instead of blindly follow.”

Negative responses tended to be sent to the entire listserv. A staff member with a son serving in Afghanistan called my comments “disappointing” and placed me in the category of “useful idiots.” Then the email discussion went global. By March 19, the day President Bush announced that U.S. troops were on the attack, I received messages from North Georgia students on active duty in the Middle East. Their emails were civil but angry—and they seemed to have forwarded the email to everyone they knew. As a result, five days into the war, I received a private email from an outraged NGCSU alum and member of the Georgia National Guard who found my comments “offensive and sadly mistaken.” “Are you related to Jane Fonda? How about Michael Moore?” he asked. He subsequently emailed the university president recommending that he ask for my resignation. This he thankfully refused to do.

The war of words that exploded in my private work world in March 2003 is one legacy of the attacks of September 11, 2001. The shooting war in Iraq that began a week later forms part of the backdrop for this issue as our authors size up the historical significance of 9/11 in light of the last decade. Did 9/11 “change everything?” Michael Sherry explores a decade of continuity and discontinuity. The impact of 9/11 on Muslims in the United States is the focus of Moustafa Bayoumi’s essay. Laura McEnaney analyzes the impact of 9/11 on American domestic politics by focusing on a variety of “homefronts” of the “war on terror.” Erika Doss examines the multiple and contradictory ways that September 11 has been memorialized over the past decade, with particular focus on New York City and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

In his teaching article on film and 9/11, Lary May shares his experience using post-9/11 Hollywood films—including Michael Moore’s—to teach about the post–World War II American “victory culture” and its decline in recent decades. Claire Potter provides a guide to using the rich September 11 Digital Archive, which includes photos, audio recordings, works of art, and ordinary emails, such as those I have preserved in my private collection. Martin Flaherty offers teachers ways to engage students with documents on the intense post-9/11 debate over human rights, sparked by the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo. Ralph Young shares his experiences, in the wake of 9/11, of organizing what became a decade-long series of teach-ins at Temple University. And finally, Ángel Flores-Rodríguez treats an episode of post-9/11 ballplayer silent protest—not of Carl Weinberg on a Georgia drill field—but of the far better known then-Toronto Blue Jay Carlos Delgado.

We hope that this fine collection of articles can help all of us think more deeply about the meaning of the September 11 attacks and their impact on our world. Thanks to consulting editor Mary Dudziak for all of her work on this excellent issue.

This article from the Magazine of History is also available on the Oxford Journals website, free access provided by the Organization of American Historians.

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