Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
Political Science and International Relations disciplines
Mary Baldwin College
Staunton, VA USA 24401
This editorial by Prof. Bowen was published September 16, 2001 in the News Leader (Staunton, VA): p. E2.
It's not 1941, it's not 1187, but it might be 1914.
The unprecedented and horrific attacks on New York and Washington surely demand response by the U.S. How we respond, and to what effect, may color decades to come. At such a transforming moment some historic comparisons may prove useful.
More Americans are likely to have perished in Tuesday's attacks than died in the entire Revolutionary War. That fact alone should quiet those few who contend we are not now at war. Many Americans see in the rubble a clear parallel to Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, and the surprise element in the two events cannot be denied.
But this is not "another 1941." As the haze cleared that day, it was clear the Japanese Empire was our enemy, and Japan had attacked primarily military targets, not populated civilian assets in the raid. Evil had an address in 1941. Tuesday's killers come from throughout the Arab and Islamic world, yet apparently are agents of no government. They have no easily identifiable "address" unlike the Tokyo to which we swiftly sent Jimmy Doolittle's raiders to bomb.
Nor is this moment "another 1187," the year the Kurdish warrior Saladin rallied assorted Arab armies to drive the Christian Second Crusade from Jerusalem and ultimately from the Middle East. Osama Bin Laden portrays his cause in these long historical terms. His awful acts now are praised by Iraq, by our nemesis Saddam who hails from the very city of Saladin's birth (Tikrit, Iraq). But unlike Saladin, Saddam's and Bin Laden's campaign against us has not yet unified many Arab states into a similarly menacing anti-Western army.
But if we imperfectly are guided by these analogies, it may be that we now face "another 1914." That year an armed group of revolutionary fanatics used violence (assassination) to draw a state led by co-religionists into a war aimed at those the terrorists viewed as their oppressors. When Austria responded to the killing of their officials by these Serb terrorists in Sarajevo (Bosnia) with an attack on Serbia, Russia intervened and a regional war between states with differing religious traditions widened. In short order, a regional war became a continental war (when Germany weighed in on Austria's side) and later evolved further into the global conflagration we now know as World War I. In its wake, virtually all of the major players in world politics were transformed; a world so stable changed forever.
The lesson of 1914 for our times must be that we can underestimate the power of forces unleashed by hateful acts committed by small groups unaffiliated with any state. It is comforting to read expressions of support for the U.S. pouring forth from foreign leaders worldwide. But we should not confuse all these momentary gestures of sympathy for genuine support in the military measures now under planning by our Government. Moreover, if 1914 is the apt historic parallel, we must recognize that the audience whose response to our actions is most relevant is not those foreign governments, but the peoples in the streets of the Arab and Islamic world. Our televisions have spared us that reality: spontaneous celebrations Tuesday in Lebanon and within Palestinian-controlled areas reflected deep hatred for America that is widespread. Bin Laden's suicidal tactics may not enlist legions of volunteers, but his key aims (expulsion of the U.S. from Arabia; extermination of Israel) enjoy broad sympathy throughout the Arab world.
The events of 1914 ultimately served the assassins' goals: Serbia won Bosnia (though not on the battlefield) in the peace terms at that war's end. Empires hundreds of years old crumbled. The assassins' vile deeds were the harbinger not just of defeats for empires old and new (Austria, Germany) but of revolutions within members of the victorious coalition (Russia). Stateless terrorists planted a broad harvest.
If we are to learn from the reckless overconfidence of Russia, Austria and Germany in those times, we must avoid igniting passions that span borders and cause existing states to melt before them. An American response that ignites the Islamic and Arab peoples against governments that express favor toward us, or against those who now cooperate in our military operations, could destroy pillars of our world. Bin Laden and his followers knew that they alone cannot defeat us. Yet they acted as they did. Why? Could it be that only we can ignite in the Arab world the rage that can truly make Bin Laden into the new Saladin? As we sharpen our swords, it is this we must avoid.
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