THE BLOG
01/28/2006 11:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ranking 9/11: An Existential Event?

Historian Joseph Ellis, writing in Saturday's New York Times op-ed page, crystalizes a question that's been rattling around my head as the Bush administration has defended its domestic wiretaps by citing the president's inherent powers at a time of war.

Are all wars the same? Is this war against a radical, transnational Islamists on a par with, say, the Civil War, or World War Two?

Ellis:

[W]here does Sept. 11 rank in the grand sweep of American history as a threat to national security? By my calculations it does not make the top tier of the list, which requires the threat to pose a serious challenge to the survival of the American republic.

Here is my version of the top tier: the War for Independence, where defeat meant no United States of America; the War of 1812, when the national capital was burned to the ground; the Civil War, which threatened the survival of the Union; World War II, which represented a totalitarian threat to democracy and capitalism; the cold war, most specifically the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which made nuclear annihilation a distinct possibility.

Sept. 11 does not rise to that level of threat because, while it places lives and lifestyles at risk, it does not threaten the survival of the American republic, even though the terrorists would like us to believe so.

To put it another way: Even the worst-case scenario -- a mushroom cloud -- contemplates millions killed, but not the end of the United States.

Ellis then looks back in history at our actions during the truly existential threats to the country -- the Alien and Sedition Acts, suspension of habeus corpus, detention of American citizens of Japanese descent, etc.

In retrospect, none of these domestic responses to perceived national security threats looks justifiable. Every history textbook I know describes them as lamentable, excessive, even embarrassing. Some very distinguished American presidents, including John Adams, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, succumbed to quite genuine and widespread popular fears. No historian or biographer has argued that these were their finest hours.

There is of course a strong counter-argument. The September 11 attacks brought into sharp relief the fact that we have entered a world where individuals can wield destructive power that was once reserved for nation-states.

Or to put it another way: While the worst-case scenario does not contemplate the end of the United States, it does contemplate millions killed.

While I obviously have my inclinations, I am not entirely comfortable with either side. But it's still a debate worth having.