Issue Briefs

When Describing Historic Events Clarity Is Essential

When Describing Historic Events Clarity Is Essential

Paolo von Schirach

May 15, 202

WASHINGTON — There is a memorial plaque at a major institution in Washington, DC. It was created and placed in a very visible place to honor members of the organization who were killed on September 11, 2001. Nothing strange about this. Except that the al Qaeda plotted and executed terror attack that resulted in the killing of thousands of Americans in New York, at the Pentagon, and in an airplane that crashed in Pennsylvania before reaching its target in Washington, DC, including some members of the organization, is not even mentioned.

The plaque says that the institution remembers those who perished in “the tragic events” of September 11, 2001. Of course we can all agree that the 9/11 attacks were tragic events. But what kind of tragedy? Why the deliberate vagueness, without any reference whatsoever as to what happened on that day? I am sure that many young people passing by this plaque and reading the text who were born after 9/11, or who were too young at the time to have an accurate memory of what happened would not have a clue as to what “the tragic events” might have been. What was it? A major accident? An earthquake? An airplane that crashed?

Again, why the deliberate vagueness? Why was it decided not to describe 9/11 accurately? We all know that this was a major terror attack on US soil plotted and executed by fanatic Islamists devoted to Osama bin Laden. The unwillingness to use straightforward language to describe what happened on September 11, 2001 may be motivated by a desire not to stoke strong emotions such as hatred against all Muslims or thoughts of revenge. To a degree, this is understandable.

However, a memorial plaque placed in a public space becomes part of the historic record. Acts of terror perpetrated by religious fanatics or other extremists who believe that indiscriminate violence is an appropriate tool to advance a cause were and are a reality. We should call a major terror attack by its real name. Calling it an undefined tragic event betrays an effort to obfuscate and avoid deeper reflections on the threats we are facing as a society. And this is not good.

Paolo von Schirach is the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC. He is also the Editor of the Schirach Report.