9/11 has for many Americans become a major, if not the major, date in history. I suppose in a sense it is, but not in the way the Bush administration wanted and still – in spite of all evidence to the contrary – wants us to believe. It is an important date because it allowed a sub-set of ideologues to talk an uninformed populous into believing a handful of terrorists with box-cutters represented a major threat to America. Later on those same ideologues convinced that same populous that we needed to go to war against the nation from which the box-cutters did not come.
So now, five years later, having spent more time “at war” in Iraq than we spent in World War II, the USA has squandered the respect of the world and contributed substantially to the chaos in Iraq and the turbulence in the Middle East. So yes, 9/11 was in a paradoxical, ironic and ultimately tragic way an important date.
But let me suggest that there are other important dates we should not forget and whose significance we should ponder, re-evaluate, discuss and attempt to fathom their meaning.
For example, let us not forget January 30, 1933 when Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and September 1, 1939 when, in effect, World War II began with the German invasion of Poland. That invasion set into motion the most extraordinary, systematic genocide in history. The effects of that period in history are with us today. Against September 1, 1939 our own 9/11 date pales.
Or in our own history we may wish to recall May 17, 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation in our schools is inherently unequal. Today, 53 years later, we have more children attending segregated schools than before the court ruling and, given the recent Supreme Court decision apparently compromising the Brown decision, we need to ask ourselves what we are intending to do about this furtherance of justice delayed and justice denied through ongoing segregation.
Or what about the date April 21, 1975 – a date most Americans prefer to ignore. For on this day marine helicopters airlifted American officials and a few Vietnamese friends from the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Nine days later Communist tanks entered the city. Not only was this the most humiliating military defeat in American history, it was a defeat from which, seemingly, we learned nothing.
By ignoring the history of the so-called Vietnam War (I am told that many Vietnamese call this period the American War), by ignoring its lessons, we doomed ourselves to the Iraq morass.
Yes, dates are not only useful in cultural literacy tests or trivial pursuit games, but they are important springboards into discussion, analysis and policy formation. For example, what is the ultimate significance of August 6 and 9, 1945? Some would say that the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki helped end the war, and consequently saved lives. But I would argue that the true lessons of August 6 and 9 were that we saw these weapons must be abolished from the earth so they could never be used again. Once more, we see a date and its concomitant lessons not yet learned, not yet implemented, and with the consequent possibility that we humans will ignore the obvious and exterminate ourselves.
September 1, 1939
August 6 & 9, 1945
May 17, 1954
April 21, 1975
The tragic deaths of the 100 million people who died after 1939, the six million from the Holocaust, the 200,000 at Hiroshima and the 100,000-plus at Nagasaki, the three million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans, the thousands of American citizens suffering from post-1954 social, cultural, medical injustice – all these victims of human folly call upon us to re-think why we are here on earth and to re-dedicate ourselves to the few absolute principles which should by now be unassailable: peace, justice, health, education and freedom. Huge abstractions but values which the events symbolized by the dates above degraded. We can and must do better.