9/11 and the Duty to Remember

It would be indecent not to dedicate the Principal’s Perspective this week to the event that changed our nation fifteen years ago. On that day, nineteen Islamic terrorists killed 2,507 civilians, 343 firefighters, 72 law enforcement personnel, and 55 members of our nation’s military. It would be indecent not to recognize that event, but it is less obvious how one goes about it than if one were a firefighter, a member of the armed forces, or a government worker. They lower the flag, while newspapers editorialize, politicians grandstand, professors pontificate, survivors grieve, and soldiers, sailors, and marines steel their resolve for a fight that they remain entrenched in. Schools, however, typically do little more than provide a moment of silence if they happen to be in session that day. Given that it is through education that we preserve our national history and culture, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that those who were born too late to remember that horrific day are able to comprehend how and why it transformed our nation.

It is estimated that taxpayers have spent approximately $1,147,000,000,000 fighting the war on terror since it ‘officially’ began on October 7, 2001. While wars are not only about the financial damage they bring, the expense of this war has been almost unprecedented. The Revolutionary War, when dollars are adjusted for 2011 levels, cost around $2.4 billion, and the Civil War cost nearly $80 billion when Union and Confederate expenses are combined. World War I cost $334 billion; WWII, $4.1 trillion; Korea, $341 billion; and Vietnam, some $738 billion according to the Congressional Research Service. In other words, only the Second World War, which was fought against two industrialized world powers, has cost our nation more than the current engagement with militant Islam. We remain in an unenviable situation as a country that can boast some of the finest warriors anywhere on earth, but who are led by some of the most unscrupulous political leaders.

As a result, our students, few of whom will have even a vague, first-hand recollection of September 11, 2001, will be the inheritors of a society and a country we were told would not be changed by terror. It would have taken quite the naïf to believe that, but as a nation we had not listened to the growing alarm prior to that awful morning. We could not have expected that we would soon rearrange and reorder our lives, and desperately trade away yet further of our liberties in exchange for ill-conceived securities. If the purpose of terror had been to change our lives, it was a stunning success. The price, however, to be paid for bringing terror to America would be steep for both us and our enemies.

It was not until after the attacks that Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes, Melanie Phillips, and many others began to see much publishing success in detailing what militant Islam was or what it would mean for the West. Only slowly, did people begin to piece together the scope or cause of the conflict. Prior to this, we ignored very direct warnings because of what would be described afterwards as a “failure of imagination.” We had failed to imagine that the intelligence was correct, that such an attack was conceivable, or that such a threat was actionable. In 1999, British intelligence had informed Americans that it was likely that commercial aircraft would be used against domestic targets. In 2001, German intelligence reported that those targets would be “American symbols,” and later in 2001, Egyptian intelligence informed Americans that twenty members of al-Qaeda had slipped into the US and were attending flight schools. Still later in 2001, Jordanian intelligence conveyed to their US counterparts that the code name of the operation was Big Wedding, and Russian intelligence noted afterwards of their conversations with US officials that “we had clearly warned them.” We did not have only reports to give some indication of what was coming. We had events. In 1990, El Sayid Nosair assassinated an influential rabbi named Meir Kahane. In 1993, Mir Kazi killed two and injured three people outside of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia before escaping to Pakistan. Later in 1993, Ramzi Yousef failed to blow up the World Trade Center but killed six people and injured more than 1,000. In 1997, Palestinian Ali Hassan Abu Kamal opened fire on tourists from the observation deck of the Empire State Building killing one person and injuring six others. In 2000, three men of Arab descent threw Molotov cocktails at a synagogue in the Bronx in hopes of igniting a war between Israel and Palestine, and the USS Cole was attacked while in Yemen killing seventeen sailors and injuring thirty-nine. What should our students learn from all of this? If you want to learn something from history, listen.

That day took us to war, and that war has gone from Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan (OEF-A), to OEF-Philippines, OEF-Horn of Africa, OEF-Pankisi Gorge, OEF-Trans Sahara, OEF-Caribbean and Central America, OEF-Kyrgyzstan, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, Operation Inherent Resolve, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation New Dawn. We have lost 6,852 of our nation’s bravest fighting everyone from the Taliban, to al-Qaeda, to Jemaah Islamiyah, al Shabaab, and ISIS. We have fought the Taliban for so long that our fifteen-year war against terror is beginning to resemble the perpetual war described by George Orwell in 1984 in that we are now debating alliances with the Taliban and paying billions to the largest state sponsor of terrorism – Iran. That our politicians are heavily complicit in this war being dragged on indefinitely is evident by reading the first-hand accounts of those who have fought that war in the field. From bombing runs that are approved by lawyers, and in some cases by the enemy themselves, to politicians running social experiments with our military forces rather than setting clear objectives for our generals and allowing them to push the fight, to ignoring gross human rights abuses against children when reported by our own soldiers, and even attempting to court martial them for it, we have done precisely the opposite of what Francis Lieber apprised President Lincoln of during the Civil War when he advised him that “sharp wars are brief.”

A school like Ridgeview should mean something when it claims to remember 9-11. What is it that is remembered by those too young to have lived consciously aware of what was happening that day? The pictures of those leaping from the towers to their deaths? The makeshift memorials erected by those searching for their loved ones? The New York Times intentionally altering a photograph of firefighters to fit their race-based national narrative? Mayor Giuliani addressing New Yorkers from Ground Zero? President Bush sitting stunned amidst a group of grade-schoolers after Andrew Card delivered the news? The tens of thousands of Americans who voluntarily rushed to enlist afterwards? The cheering of America’s enemies not just in the Middle East, but in posh European capitals? What does it mean to remember? For adults, we will always remember where we were and how we felt in that moment, but for a generation that came too late to remember, what should their schools teach them about a conflict that has taken on Cold War dimensions? How do we protect them from the propaganda and agitprop of the political and media elite, honor the heroes who have fought in defense of good and noble ideals, and have them learn enough from history that they stand some chance of not repeating it? This is not a challenge for Ridgeview alone, but for all those who come after. It is our job, our duty, not simply to memorialize the fallen, but to uphold the dignity and integrity of history.

Principal D. Anderson

Mr. Anderson