If September 11 is a Defining Moment for America, Past Offers Clues to Future

Harry W. Fritz

[Reprinted with permission of the author from The Missoulian, 23 November 2001.]

Things have changed in America since Sept. 11--at least, we're told they have. It's a different country. Or is it? Sept. 11 might prove to be one of the most important dates in American history. The occurrences of Sept. 11--the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and on the Pentagon in Washington--might prove to be among the most important events, or set of events, in all of American history.

I say "might," because we don't know, nobody knows, what the consequences of Sept. 11 will be. Everybody and anybody is predicting what the future America will look like, but no one knows what he's talking about. It is impossible to predict the future. All predictions about the future, however, are based on the past. Therefore, the only people who can predict the future are historians. But history is the study of unintended consequences. Nothing ever turns out the way we expect it to. Therefore, all predictions about the future will be wrong. It's a conundrum. It is impossible to predict the future. Only historians can predict the future. And all of their predictions will be wrong. Let us suppose, however, that Sept. 11 turns out to be one of the small handful of galvanizing dates or events that have transformed America, and the world. Can we learn something from these turning points? First, we must identify them. Here are my choices.

That's it. Only five. The five most important, dramatic, transformational events in American history. (Events, not developments, not immigration, industrialization, technology, etc.) What can we say about them? First, the Top Five are all associated with war. All are connected to an attack on America. Not all wars--not the War of 1812, not the Mexican-American, not the Korean War or the Vietnam War or the Persian Gulf War. But so far, so good. What happens after these dramatic attacks? War happens. Each of these assaults triggered war, and war produced dramatic changes, at home and around the world. The society mobilizes all of its resources--agricultural, industrial, technological, political, economic, military--and focuses them on the enemy at hand. America does not fight the wars it believes in with one hand tied behind its back. America devotes all its available energy to the task. Dramatic, far-reaching, even revolutionary changes occur, almost overnight. Consider:

Each of our five wake-up calls produced an almost instantaneous total response, with profound consequences for America, and for the world. Profound and unintended, for no one could foresee at the moment the ultimate outcome of these events. The question before us is: Will the events of Sept. 11 similarly energize society with far-reaching, fundamental transformations in store? In other words, what will the consequences of Sept. 11 be? No one knows, but I must admit, I do not see parallels. We are told to get on with our lives, not to confront the enemy, as if America is a California fern-bar. We are not asking people to sacrifice, as we have in every previous crisis. Self-sacrifice, not self-indulgence, is the essence of patriotism.

We will increase security, but we'll do no more than most nations, more wary than we, are already doing. Increased security will enhance freedom, not curtail it. We'll improve intelligence, maybe to Cold War levels. Far from increasing taxes to pay for the war against terrorism, it looks like we will reduce them, yet again. Everybody knows that somehow America's over-consumption of oil, and exploitation of oil-producing nations, is at the heart of the problem. But are we reducing consumption? Increasing fleet mileage targets? Curbing our use of gas-guzzling SUVs? Hardly. We're doing the opposite. We're poised to destroy pristine, irreplaceable arctic environments for short-term gain. We have zero-point-zero financing available for your next car purchase. We're exacerbating the problem, not resolving it. What do these non-parallels bode for the future? No one knows, but as the future happens, it is not reassuring.

So I guess I'll just join the crowd, and urge people to get on with their lives.

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