Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Other 9/11's

1297? 1549? 1683? 1777? . . .

Take any given date, and lots of important things are bound to have happened on it since we began recording history.

For most of us in this time and place, September 11 has become synonymous with the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks in the United States.

Fairly or not, it crowds out all the other September 11ths, some of which were quite important in their day and perhaps even remain so in ours.  Among those others, I naturally gravitate to the events that helped to shape European and US history, e.g. (culled from WIkipedia's convenient listing for the date):

• 1297: the victory of the Scots, under William Wallace and Andrew Moray, over the English at the  Battle of Stirling Bridge

• 1549: Ottoman forces occupy Buda, following their defeat of the Hungarians and the death of the Hungarian king at the Battle of Mohács

• 1649: the still-controversial bloody end of the Siege of Drogheda, in which Cromwell and the Parliamentarian forces capture the Irish town and execute the defenders

• 1683: beginning of the Battle of Vienna, in which the Turks for the last time threaten the heart of Christian Central Europe. A Polish relief army under Jan Sobieski turns the tide of battle on the 12th

• 1609: Henry Hudson reaches Manhattan Island

• 1777: Battle of Brandywine in the American Revolution. A large and influential battle of the Revolutionary war: a defeat that leads to the loss of Philadelphia, but the persistence of the Americans in its aftermath boosted their morale and helped to secure vital French support for the rebellion.

• 1989: Hungary allows East Germans who had taken temporary refuge there to leave for West Germany: one of the key practical steps that leads to the Fall of the Wall. It subsequently became clear that the Hungarian politicians were indeed aware of the possible consequences.

1941-2001; 1978

There are some ironies associated with the historical date, in the context of the 2001 attacks. Although it is not often noted, it was on September 11, 1941 that the US government broke ground for the construction of the Pentagon, exactly 60 years before American Airlines Flight 77 hit the building.

On September 12, 2001, recovery workers hung a huge garrison flag from the façade of the Pentagon on the occasion of the visit by President Bush. From September 2002 to September 2006, it was on exhibit in the National Museum of American History, in the same space where the "Star-Spangled Banner" used to be displayed. In September 2006, when the Museum was undergoing renovations, the Pentagon flag was returned to its regular home at the U.S Army Center of Military History.

the Pentagon flag in the National Museum of American History, 2006
And on September 11, 1978, Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin agreed on the basic framework for the Camp David peace Accords, which they announced a week later, raising unprecedented hopes of regional peace.

1973 and 1814

I'll close with just two more.

On September 11, 1973, elements of the Chilean military, led by General Augusto Pinochet, staged a coup against socialist Salvador Allende, ushering in nearly two decades of brutal right-wing dictatorship. Although the United States government certainly tried to prevent an Allende regime and then to destabilize it, it did not (contrary to some widely held beliefs) stage or actively participate in the coup.

In Latin American studies, events organized around this so-called "Other 9/11" have become almost de rigueur as a means of focusing attention on their region and the complex legacy of US involvement there, as well as recruiting new students at the start of the fall term. (And at least some faculty, one suspects, appreciate the opportunity to offer critical perspectives about the United States on a date normally devoted to the portrayal of the country as pure and innocent victim.)

Hampshire College faculty have for some years held what they call an "alternative 9/11" event. From the description of this year's program, which included a film and a discussion of political music:
The Other Sept. 11th Remembrance: CHILE 1973
On Sept. 11, 1973 the United States government participated in the overthrow of a democratically elected Chilean government and this coup led to a lengthy dictatorship that committed innumerable human rights abuses. As we mark another anniversary of the Sept. 11th tragedy on U.S. soil, we invite you to consider the significance of this date from a Latin American perspective . . . You will have an opportunity meet students and faculty who have an interest in Latin American studies, Latin@ studies, and Las Américas.
The other "other 9/11" that I have come to think about ever more in recent years dates from the obscure War of 1812, whose bicentennial we now mark (sort of): the unjustly neglected Battle of Plattsburgh, New York, on September 11, 1814.

Having just defeated Napoleon, the British were free to deploy additional forces to the New World. In an attempt to improve their bargaining position in the peace talks at Ghent, they launched new campaigns in New York and the Chesapeake. The naval victory of the outnumbered Americans at Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain, coupled with the successful defense of Baltimore on September 13-14 (made famous by "The Star-Spangled Banner") foiled that plan. They solidified wavering support for the war.  Above all, by repelling the British invasions, they guaranteed United States territorial integrity—keeping the northern states and former Northwest Territory (now Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota) under American control—and thus success in the treaty negotiations.

Those two dates—1814 and 1973—in some ways seem to represent polar opposites: a new democracy heroically defends itself against an imperial power interfering in the affairs of another region, only to commit the same sin itself once it has become a power to be reckoned with.

Yet, even in that first case, things prove to be more complicated. Upon closer examination, the War of 1812 starts to look messier, and, well, more "modern" and familiar. To begin with, it is worth remembering that it was long unpopular (Amherst, along with much of the Federalist northeast, opposed it, for example). That was in part because it was as much about domestic as foreign politics; not everyone perceived a mortal threat to the national interest. And even though it originated as a response to British aggression, it began with an ill-considered and bungled invasion of Canada. The Canadians, as we discovered to our surprise, were not particularly keen on being "liberated" by us. In fact, one of the consequences of the war was arguably to solidify a sense of a distinct Canadian identity. And, speaking of Canada, it was the American sack of the capital of York (Toronto)—including the burning of the legislature and the plundering of the town—that prompted the British to attack Washington, burning the Capitol, White House, and other public buildings (unlike the Americans, they left the private ones untouched). Nowadays, we'd call that "blowback."

None of this is to say that the war was entirely unjustified. Yet to say that it could be  justified is not to say that it was unavoidable or could not have been conducted in another way. The past isn't always "a foreign country."

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