9/11 anti-war protest just days after the attacks.

Candlelight vigil for peace and remembrance at Union Square in New York City, following the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks. 9/14/2001. Photo: Evan Agostini/ImageDirect

From Our Post-9/11 Archive: 'Stop the Insanity Here'

Will the United States ever learn from history?

A CD 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 and anti-imperial 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 below article on the evening of 9/11 in 2001, 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.

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