Sunday, September 11
The Long and Short of It
As a historian, one of the things I teach my students is how we periodize history. Division of history into various "ages" and "periods" is, of course, a product of the human mind's need to impose order on chaos, to organize information into easily comprehensible form. It is always retrospective, an attempt to understand the past, to establish periods that have some common theme that set them apart from what went before and what came afterward. Although my own specialty of study is the so-called "Middle Ages" or "Dark Ages," of necessity since I have at times had to teach much wider spans of time, basically from the beginning to the present day, I have given some thought to the matter of periodizing modern history. As of yet I have remained uncertain exactly what is the significance of 9/11 in that context.
Commonly, "Modern History" is considered (or at least I consider it) to be the period from 1789, the French Revolution, to the present. Before that, basically back to ca. 1650, is "the Early Modern Period." (You can use "history," "period," and "age" somewhat interchangeably in these terminologies; e.g. "the Middle Ages" vs. "Medieval History" vs. "the medieval period.") Of course, you can always subdivide periods. A common division of the Modern Age is to count 1789 to 1914 as "the Long 19th Century," because the French Revolutionary Period and the Napoleonic Wars that followed finally reached an equilibrium ca. 1815 that established a balance that would endure more or less until it shattered in the beginning of World War I. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914 sparked a conflagration that through not one but two World Wars would quickly destroy that world of the 19th century with its great European Empires essentially dominating the globe and by 1945 leave the United States and Russia in the form of the Soviet Union as opposing forces for most of the next half century -- the "Cold War." But, of course, between 1989, the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and 1991, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that new balance that waxed and waned in favor of one or the other side finally was itself ended. Usually, on the big "Periodization of History" sheet that I give my students even in the Early World Civ survey as a tool of orientation, I count 1914 to 1989 as "the (Short) 20th Century," followed by 1989 to ? as "the 21st Century." I first concocted that term in the 1990s at the beginning of my teaching career, informing my students for the first few years that they were already living in a very different world from that of their parents. What exactly would be the nature of that world, I said, remained to be seen. Since 11 September 2001, however, I have added a parenthetical note to that "21st Century": "The Significance of 9/11?"
Basically, the question would be, was 9/11 itself a demarcation point in history that is of such significance that it literally brought a changing of the ages, or was it "simply" the defining moment in a new age that was already in progress? My money would be on the latter. I think it was at that moment that the nature of the new post-Cold War world became clear. Islamic terrorism was already rising in the 1990s in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union as well as the first US action in Iraq, the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991, in a somewhat under-recognized crescendo that would culminate in the attacks of 9/11. It was, in my opinion, only then that some recognized that the United States was already in a war that had been raging for a decade or more. Many, however, to this day refuse to recognize that fact.
I have some profound differences in political ideology from President George W. Bush, but one thing I give him credit for is that, however imperfectly he might have framed and prosecuted the subsequent "War on Terror," President Bush more than just about any other leader of the day -- indeed almost alone among them -- recognized that reality and took action whatever the consequences to his own political fortunes. Because the reality is that there are people out there who want to kill us. Whether we want to admit it or not. And furthermore, whether we would prefer to frame it in such terms or not, from their perspective the conflict is at least framed as a religious war. I personally believe they are largely sincere in that conviction. Sure there are cynics among their ranks willing to use believers' faith as a tool for their own ambitions, but there are a lot of those believers who become willing tools. That fact gives our enemy a clarity of purpose that is unfortunately lacking in our own resistance. A few years ago, in an article that appeared in our local newspaper (The Natchitoches Times, 28 January 2005) about the recent publication of a couple of my scholarly publications (to be found here and here if you're interested in a peek at my professional life), I said this:
"Both of the just-published articles focus on the 10th century, the period in which notions of Christian service and sacrifice crystalized in a desperate defense of Christian Anglo-Saxon civilization against pagan Viking invaders. Similar ideas, a century and more later, would motivate the first crusaders in their efforts to retake the Holy Land from the Muslims.
"Faith has always been a powerful motivating force. Throughout history, religion has always provided one of the essential foundations for societies and states, and conflict against other societies and states has often been framed in religious terms when religion was not the outright cause for such conflict. In the modern context, we need look only at the clarity of purpose displayed by Islamic terrorists who conceive theirs as a conflict against a western society that they identify as Christian.
"To draw a parallel, the 10th-century Anglo-Saxons knew against whom they were fighting, and why; Osama bin Laden knows against whom he is fighting, and why; in the war against terror, do we know against whom we are fighting, and why?"
To this day, I'm still not sure if as a nation we really know. And if we don't figure it out, this may be the last days of Western Civilization regardless of whether they began in 1989 or 2001. For my part, I believe that our hope, perhaps our only hope, is in recognizing, embracing, and defending our civilization's traditional self-identification as a Christian civilization.
Thanks for reading.