David R. Henderson  

Do George Mason Students Forget 9/11?

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"Americans Swore They Would 'Never Forget 9-11.' But College Students Asked Why It Happened Have No Idea."

So reads the caption on a YouTube video put out by the Young America's Foundation. The interviewer questioned students on the campus of George Mason University.

This is strange on two levels.

First, notice that there is no good reason for the "But" in the headline. Americans swore they would never forget 9-11. That doesn't mean they know why it happened. My father's and mother's generation didn't have to swear they would never forget Pearl Harbor. But I'm positive that they never forgot it. That doesn't mean they know why Pearl Harbor happened either. Growing up and hearing about Pearl Harbor, I don't ever remember anyone around me ever saying why it happened. It took a lot of reading of history in my late teens for me to know about FDR's embargo on steel and oil and his freezing of Japanese assets. I bet my mother and father, who were not dumb people and were not particularly ignorant, went to their graves not knowing FDR's role.

Back to 9/11. The questions (1) do you remember 9/11? and (2) do you know why 9/11 happened? are two different questions. The interviewer in the 1.5 minute video doesn't ask if people remembered 9/11. She asks if they know why it happened. If they had forgotten 9/11, you would expect that some of them, when asked, would say something like "Huh? What was 9/11?" None of the students answered that way. All seemed to remember 9/11.

That's the first way in which the caption is strange.

The second strange thing about the caption is that although some of the students didn't seem to understand why 9/11 happened, three had some understanding. That's not many, but the video shows interviews with only 10 students. So three out of 10 did understand. Is that a lower percent than the percent of Americans in general? I don't know.

Fortunately, and I admit to a pleasant surprise here, the YAF write-up that goes with the video explains why the terrorists attacked. The write-up says:

The terrorist group al-Qaeda, a Sunni Muslim fundamentalist organization led from Afghanistan by the now-deceased Osama bin Laden, coordinated by later Guantanamo Bay detainee Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, carried out the 9-11 attack in 'retribution' for U.S. foreign involvement in the Middle East.

That's a lot better than George W. Bush's explanation they attacked our freedom.


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COMMENTS (14 to date)
Tom West writes:

Thank you for this. I felt exactly the same way. What answer was expected?

What is remarkable was that I distinctly remember that asking that same question at the time was considered unpatriotic. Somehow, knowing what motivated them to this monstrous act was tantamount to justifying it. Madness.

Anyway, I'd be surprised if a year after 9/11, 3/10 Americans knew that that according to Al Qaeda, it was in reprisal for the Americans stationing soldiers in Saudi Arabia.

shecky writes:

9/11 seems to be a defining moment for a certain class of American. Not remembering it would be close to treason.

Current college students are not likely to remember much about 9/11, since they were pretty young at the time.

I don't think many people could have explained why 9/11 happened. Thetre were a few brave enough to explain the answer given in the IJ article. Curiously, that explanation was considered virtually treasonous for a pretty long span of time following the attack. A whole lotta folks simply thought they hate us for our freedom. Can't imagine where they got that idea.

Nathan W writes:

Because they "hate us for our freedoms". - GWB

Really, does ANYONE know why they did it?

I recall a popular theory back in the day was that the attacks were motivated by a belief that it would undermine the American economy.

Another popular belief (generally ridiculed today) is that GWB, or perhaps some evil CIA agenda, WANTED it to happen so that the could use fear to control the political agenda. Or perhaps that they orchestrated the attack as an excuse to invade Afghanistan, and later Iraq. Perhaps there were a couple insiders, but I highly, highly doubt this story.

Some people theorize that in perpetrating such a large terrorist attack, Americans would realize how evil they are (perhaps because they are infidels, perhaps because they are neo-colonialists, perhaps because they were too controlling/demanding when interfering in the domestic politics of other countries, in particular political/military interference in several Muslim countries).

Whatever the motivations, it is clear that the 9-11 terrorist attacks had the effect of severely watering down American's preference for strong privacy rights. First, the "Patriot Act", and now after Snowden the revelation that the NSA basically spies on EVERYONE at will basically in the absence of any judicial process whatsoever - people know this, but if you complain, easily get shouted down by those who fear terrorists more than the slippery slope of the police state.

I personally theorize that perhaps they were Armagedonnists, trying to self-fulfill end times prophecy, first by stimulating a draconian response that would turn Americans against their own leadership.

I think a related question is whether we suppose they were rational actors (were they specifically trying to create some strategic counter-response, which they could use for their own strategic ends?), or were they simply hate-filled quasi-brainwashed suiciders who were intent on creating maximum damage for its own sake?

Harold Cockerill writes:

Mr. Henderson,

I believe it is equally possible that your parents knew of Roosevelt's actions whether or not they agreed they were appropriate. Japan had been at war in Asia for years prior to attacking the US and this would have been well covered. Japan's atrocities in China and its war with Russia weren't secrets. While there was a desire for American neutrality there was also the realization for many Americans that war was coming regardless of how we acted. Human nature after the war would have been to put memories of those years away. My father never talked of his time as an artilleryman in Europe during the war.

J Hanley writes:

So YAF is apologizing for terrorism? Never expected that! ;)

ThomasH writes:

I hope in your "deep reading" of history you ran across things like the invasion of Manchuria that might have has something to do with Roosevelt's actions.

And I think that there is a kernel of truth to "they hate us for our freedoms." If the terrorists had all been liberals democrats they probably would have chosen other ways to protest US foreign policy.

Brad writes:

I suspect that the actual attackers - the hijacking pilots, don't really know why they did it. I suspect their worldview was tainted and influenced by a general hatred, rather than specific hatred (US involvement in the middle east) of America. I imagine they were taught from a very young age that Israel and U.S. worked for the demise of Arabs, and this probably paved the way for them to accept this mission.

David R. Henderson writes:

@ThomasH,
I hope in your "deep reading" of history you ran across things like the invasion of Manchuria that might have has something to do with Roosevelt's actions.
Yes. Actually, I knew that even as an early teen. As you might have noticed, though, ThomasH, since you’re generally a careful reader, the issue was about why the Japanese government attacked Pearl Harbor.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Harold Cockerill,
I believe it is equally possible that your parents knew of Roosevelt's actions whether or not they agreed they were appropriate.
Good point. And my guess is that both of them, but especially my father, given his pro-FDR views, would have favored FDR’s actions. One of my biggest disappointments, when I learned about the Canadian government’s incarceration of Japanese people over 2 years after Canada had entered the war, was my father’s defense of Prime Minister King’s actions. I remember his saying, “Well, I thought that the government wouldn’t have done it if they didn’t have a good reason.”
My father never talked of his time as an artilleryman in Europe during the war.
That was my experience with my father’s generation. I was a curious kid who loved asking adults questions about their lives, but the one area where they shut up was when I asked people who had been troops on the ground about their experiences in WWII.

Hazel Meade writes:

When you ask why it happens, you're bound to get all sorts of different answers, with different definitions of causation behind them.

Some people will say things like: "Because the Bush administration ignored warnings from intelligence services" or "because intelligence services failed to communicate information between each other".

If you attribute it to foreign agents, you can get answers ranging from "Because the US stationed troops in Saudi Arabia" to "Because the Saudi government finances a far-right version of Islam."

There's always a long chain of causes for any event you can't ever really pin down just one as being the "why".

ThomasH writes:

Professor Henderson:

My ironic remark about your "knowing" about Manchuria was to bring out what I think is the reason behind the Japanese attack. It was not in retaliation for the US embargo but a strategic decision that the only chance they had of continuing their military expansion into SE Asia (that would embargo or no embargo) lead to confrontation with the US was to take out the Pacific Fleet -- code name CINCUS -- :). If the aircraft carriers had not been out and better luck at Midway it might have worked.

As with 9/11 it is a mistake to overlook the ideological reason behind any tactical reasons.

David R. Henderson writes:

@ThomasH,
Right. I agree with your analysis. But the embargoes signaled that there would be a confrontation if they continued expanding. Had FDR conducted my preferred policy, non-intervention, the Japanese government would have surmised that there would be confrontation with the U.S. government and, therefore, no reason to attack Pearl Harbor. Do you agree?

ThomasH writes:

Professor Henderson,

I agree that if the US had not opposed Japanese expansion the attack might not have happened, but that is what I am arguing, that it is the ideological clash that is behind the "provocative" act -- embargo of Japan/US "involvement" in the Mid East. And in neither case do I completely discount the overt act. I just think that to focus on the acts to the exclusion of ideology is a mistake.

In the Mid-East case, I think much of the provocation was unnecessary, but I do not rule out that even much better US policy would have provoked anger -- perhaps even more if effective in promoting liberal values -- by those motivated by very illiberal values.

Michael Helm writes:

Hi David,

I'm writing to you because I was one of the students at George Mason University interviewed for YAFTV's video regarding September 11, 2001.

After reading several articles and watching the video, I think it's lamentable YAFTV didn't show the entire question and answer process. YAFTV cut large portions out of the interview to promote a slanted view. It's poor journalism, and it's a real shame on their part.

Thank you for your comments, time and understanding,
Michael Helm

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