Can we learn from history?

By Robert Jensen

Published in Common Dreams; Counterpunch · September, 2021

From Our Post-9/11 Archive: ‘Stop the Insanity Here’/ Will the United States ever learn from history?
A Common Dreams editorial note: The following article, first published on September 12, 2001 and part of our “Post-9/11 Archive,” was among the most-read articles featured on Common Dreams in the immediate wake of the attacks that took place in New York City and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001. As the world reflects on those events that took place 20 years ago, we’re re-posting a selection from the archive to acknowledge and celebrate the salient and prescient voices from that time. The author has composed a brief update to the piece to mark the 20th anniversary.

“We told you so” rings hollow.

In the face of tens of thousands of lives lost, trillions of dollars spent, and countless communities destroyed, pointing out that early critics of the U.S. “war on terror” were accurate seems crass and cruel, sanctimonious and self-serving.

But it’s also dangerous to ignore the dissenters. Those of us who were active in the anti-war/anti-empire movement before September 11, 2001, came together almost immediately to organize resistance to what was coming. Anyone aware of basic post-World War II history could see what was coming. And the wars came.

I wrote the article below the evening of 9-11, and it was published the next day on progressive websites and later in the week in the Houston Chronicle. When I wrote it, I thought it was reasonable and relevant, a perspective that should have been a part of the debate. Twenty years later, my assessment hasn’t changed.

But this kind of critique was not only ignored but attacked, not only by conservatives and hawks but by many moderates and fair-weather doves. The reasons aren’t complicated: Empires don’t encourage critical self-reflection about imperial aggression. The reason is captured in first line of the English writer Stephen Spender’s poem “Ultima Ratio Regum” (the Latin phrase translates as “the last argument of kings”): “The guns spell money’s ultimate reason.”

What matters today is not demonstrating that one’s political group had the better analysis, but pleading to learn from history. Sadly, our history suggests we easily ignore history. The U.S. writer Howard Nemerov, who served as a pilot in World War II, explained why in his poem “Ultima Ratio Reagan,” which is more eloquent on this subject than I can be.
The reason we do not learn from history is
Because we are not the people who learned last time.
Because we are not the same people as them
That fed our sons and honor to Vietnam
And dropped the burning money on the trees,
We know that we know better than they knew,
And history will not blame us if once again
The light at the end of the tunnel is the train.

U.S. just as guilty of committing own violent acts
By Robert Jensen
[This article was published as “U.S. just as guilty of committing own violent acts,” Houston Chronicle, September 14, 2001, p. A-33; and posted on several websites, including “Stop the Insanity Here,” Common Dreams, September 12, 2001. Read it online. ]

September 11 was a day of sadness, anger and fear.

Like everyone in the United States and around the world, I shared the deep sadness at the deaths of thousands.

But as I listened to people around me talk, I realized the anger and fear I felt were very different, for my primary anger is directed at the leaders of this country and my fear is not only for the safety of Americans but for innocents civilians in other countries.

It should need not be said, but I will say it: The acts of terrorism that killed civilians in New York and Washington were reprehensible and indefensible; to try to defend them would be to abandon one’s humanity. No matter what the motivation of the attackers, the method is beyond discussion.

But this act was no more despicable as the massive acts of terrorism — the deliberate killing of civilians for political purposes — that the U.S. government has committed during my lifetime. For more than five decades throughout the Third World, the United States has deliberately targeted civilians or engaged in violence so indiscriminate that there is no other way to understand it except as terrorism. And it has supported similar acts of terrorism by client states.

If that statement seems outrageous, ask the people of Vietnam. Or Cambodia and Laos. Or Indonesia and East Timor. Or Chile. Or Central America. Or Iraq, or Palestine. The list of countries and peoples who have felt the violence of this country is long. Vietnamese civilians bombed by the United States. Timorese civilians killed by a U.S. ally with U.S.-supplied weapons. Nicaraguan civilians killed by a U.S. proxy army of terrorists. Iraqi civilians killed by the deliberate bombing of an entire country’s infrastructure.

So, my anger on this day is directed not only at individuals who engineered the Sept. 11 tragedy but at those who have held power in the United States and have engineered attacks on civilians every bit as tragic. That anger is compounded by hypocritical U.S. officials’ talk of their commitment to higher ideals, as President Bush proclaimed “our resolve for justice and peace.”

To the president, I can only say: The stilled voices of the millions killed in Southeast Asia, in Central America, in the Middle East as a direct result of U.S. policy are the evidence of our resolve for justice and peace.

Though that anger stayed with me off and on all day, it quickly gave way to fear, but not the fear of “where will the terrorists strike next,” which I heard voiced all around me. Instead, I almost immediately had to face the question: “When will the United States, without regard for civilian casualties, retaliate?” I wish the question were, “Will the United States retaliate?” But if history is a guide, it is a question only of when and where.

So, the question is which civilians will be unlucky enough to be in the way of the U.S. bombs and missiles that might be unleashed. The last time the U.S. responded to terrorism, the attack on its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, it was innocents in the Sudan and Afghanistan who were in the way. We were told that time around they hit only military targets, though the target in the Sudan turned out to be a pharmaceutical factory.

As I monitored television during the day, the talk of retaliation was in the air; in the voices of some of the national-security “experts” there was a hunger for retaliation. Even the journalists couldn’t resist; speculating on a military strike that might come, Peter Jennings of ABC News said that “the response is going to have to be massive” if it is to be effective.

Let us not forget that a “massive response” will kill people, and if the pattern of past U.S. actions holds, it will kill innocents. Innocent people, just like the ones in the towers in New York and the ones on the airplanes that were hijacked. To borrow from President Bush, “mother and fathers, friends and neighbors” will surely die in a massive response.

If we are truly going to claim to be decent people, our tears must flow not only for those of our own country. People are people, and grief that is limited to those within a specific political boundary denies the humanity of others.

And if we are to be decent people, we all must demand of our government — the government that a great man of peace, Martin Luther King Jr., once described as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” — that the insanity stop here.


Robert Jensen, Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability (University Press of Kansas, 2021). His other books include The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men (2017); Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (2015); Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue (2013); All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (2001).

Jensen is host of “Podcast from the Prairie” with Wes Jackson and associate producer of the forthcoming documentary film Prairie Prophecy: The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson.

Jensen can be reached at [email protected]. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to Follow him on Twitter: @jensenrobertw