Knowing that the 20th anniversary of 9/11 was fast approaching, I knew I needed to address it. I struggle writing about 9/11 because in many ways it still brings on strong raw emotions and I want to do it justice. For my own history, it is the foremost event and has done more to change this nation during my lifetime than anything else.
While it is a unique event for me, it is not unique historically. I can make many comparisons to other events in our history – JFK’s assassination, Pearl Harbor, the sinking of the Maine, John Brown’s attack at Harper’s Ferry, the attack on Gen. Zachery Taylor at Brownsville, or the first shot fired at Lexington. Historically speaking, each of these events shook the people then as much as 9/11 has shaken me and has affected the population in different ways. As I consider the major life-changing events in our history, it is interesting that most led to war but yet not all united us the way 9/11 did.
We often think that in times of great crisis the nation comes together, yet history has shown in its biggest moments that that is not true. In 1775, colonial militias in Massachusetts gathered on Lexington green with the idea of stopping the British Army from marching to Concord and seize weapons stored there. Their bravery did not last long as the Redcoats pointed their muskets at the colonials and ordered them to abandon the green. Just as the colonists were about to leave, a shot was fired from the woods that set off a chain reaction of the British soldiers firing on the militia and starting the American Revolution. We may think this rallied the colonists to the cause of liberty, but in fact, only about a 1/3 of the colonists ever really supported the revolution. It would even take Congress another year to agree to issue the Declaration of Independence. What actually happened in many parts of the colonies was civil war between the loyalists and the patriots who used the war as justification to kill each other.
In 1846, President James K. Polk, wanting to pull the Mexicans into a fight, sent Gen. Zachery Taylor to Brownsville, Texas, knowing Mexico did not consider the region south of the Nueces River as part of Texas. Taylor got what he wanted, and the Mexican army attacked, giving him the evidence needed to ask Congress for a declaration of war. The Mexican-American War was probably the most controversial and divisive war before Vietnam, with many in the north believing the war was solely for the purpose of expanding slavery. Henry David Thoreau famously went to jail rather than pay taxes to a government engaged in what he considered an immoral war.
A few years later in 1859, radical abolitionist John Brown and several of his followers attacked the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. His plan was to arm the slaves in the region and begin an all-out war for slaves’ emancipation. His plan completely failed yet his attempt closely resembles the 9/11 attack for the south. A religious radical wanted to start a campaign of violence against the south to hurt the south’s way of life. When Brown was hanged for his crimes, people in the north celebrated him as a martyr, further angering the south. How could the man who wanted to kill them be hailed as a hero? Obviously, the Civil War led to America’s greatest division.
In 1898, the USS Maine was attacked while docked in Havana. The American public had been supporting the independence movement of the Cubans against the Spanish and the sinking of the Maine was seen as an attack by Spain. The attack forced President McKinney to ask for a declaration of war. This has been a forgotten but significant war. It was the war that pushed America into an imperial power as it colonized many of the Spanish islands that it just liberated. Though most Americans supported some sort of retaliation for the Maine, the nation became completely divided over a war that gave America colonies.
Then came the 20th Century. Though Americans were not united over every conflict, especially Vietnam, they seemed to come together for the major events. The attack on Pearl Harbor united the nation possibly more than we had ever been before. It was not hard to see the threat from Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan and we needed to come together to defeat an evil threat. Then with the assassination of JFK, we all mourned together. Both Democrats and Republicans, whites and blacks, rich and poor, and north and south shed tears as they watched a young charismatic family man get struck down. Some good came from this. As a nation we came together and passed Kennedy’s bill that became the 1963 Civil Rights Bill. I personally am not sure it would have passed without JFK’s death. We were divided on civil rights, but his death brought us together.
Finally, there was 9/11. As with Pearl Harbor and JFK’s assassination, Americans mourned together as a nation. There will be a lot of discussion on the events of 9/11, as there should be, but what I remember just as much and want to focus on was 9/12. We live in a nation where today some claim the American Flag represents hatred. One leader has claimed she fears people who fly the flag. Yet I still remember twenty years ago when everyone from every walk of life and background flew that flag with pride. There was hardly a home or car without a flag of some sort. At sporting events across the nation, whether it was President Bush throwing out the first pitch at a Yankees game, Mark Messier wearing the FDNY helmet on the ice, or NFL players running out of the tunnel with flags waving, no matter the sport, the crowds chanted “USA-USA-USA.” In 2001, the Women’s National Soccer team represented America at every game the rest of that year, draping themselves with American flags, where now the majority of the team takes a knee when the flag is waved.
9/11 was a tragic day, but it also brought out the best in America. We were as unified as we have ever been as a nation. Personally, I think only Pearl Harbor looms as greater. I still mourn those who died on that day, especially heroes who rushed into the towers, but I also mourn 9/12 just as much. I blame radical Islamists for the death of Americans, but I blame us and our elected leaders for the death of the America that was also born the day after. May we never forget 9/11 and may we ever strive to return to 9/12.
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.