About Teofilo Ruiz
Teofilo Ruiz teaches medieval history at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has written a number of books including A Social History of Spain, 1400-1600 (Longman, 2001), From Heaven to Earth: the reordering of Castilian Society in the Late Middle Ages (Princeton University Press, 2004), The Terror of History (Princeton, 2011) and A King Travels (Princeton, 2012). In February 2012, he was awarded the 2011 National Humanities Medal for his erudite studies and inspired teaching and writing.
Articles by Teofilo Ruiz
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Writing under the immediate impression of Tuesday’s events is perhaps not the best way to gauge one’s own feelings or understanding of the meaning of this attack on American life. Like most people in this country and throughout the world, we spent most of Tuesday glued to the television, seeing the images of the second plane hitting one of the World Trade towers, again and again, and then, the horrific images of the two towers collapsing. We also spent the day trying to contact family and friends in New York, most often quite unsuccessfully.
In a few weeks or months, my impressions may be very different from what they are now. New Yorkers, as they have demonstrated over the years, and again Tuesday, are a very resilient lot. The country was stunned, but reacted both in anger and in giving, as lines of blood donors appeared everywhere throughout the nation.
As a historian, however, my first impression was that this attack represented a watershed in our lives. Things, it seems to me, will not, cannot be the same. As a friend from France said in an e-mail, this attack has no purpose or political agenda, except to inflict as much damage on civilian populations and, in this case, on the symbols of this country, financial and military.
In some respects, Tuesday’s events may hurl the world onto a rather difficult and, most certainly, unwelcome course. Clearly, we live in a small world, and the interconnectedness of this world has now become palpably evident. It is not a US problem or a US tragedy, but an event with worldwide repercussions that has deeply affected and touched people beyond New York, Washington, and this country. Beyond the immediate economic downturn (already evident in the worldwide economy) that these acts of violence will undoubtedly unleash, and its harsh impact on precisely the people that the terrorists supposedly represent (third-world economies, oppressed people), we may also face a climate of controls and restrictions that is antithetical to democratic ideals.
This attack does several things: it shows us, once again, the face of a religious fundamentalism that is linked to nationalism, and the excesses that fanatical beliefs and national feelings can generate. This is nothing new: we have many historical examples, old and new, of the dark workings of religion linked to politics. The recent events in Northern Ireland, and now this, are a stark reminder that we are not dealing with miniscule factions but with groups that find support among marginalized and extreme communities all over the world.
Another outcome is the vulnerability of modern political and financial institutions. As the Miami Herald wrote in an editorial on Tuesday, this is a kind of attack that no anti-ballistic missile defense can deal with. We are vulnerable to people who, prompted by exalted religious and political beliefs, are willing to die for what they believe. We can implement security measures that may provide some safety, but we can never fully prevent these types of deeds from happening. And that, in itself, raises many questions as to how a democracy can and should function in a post-World Trade Center world. There will be calls for greater vigilance, for limitations of freedom, for travel restrictions. To embrace such calls in a moment of despair is to commit suicide; to become a terrorist to fight terrorism is to lose the battle even before it begins.
On the other hand, the international community – and Europe has a major role to play in this – can and must make very clear that states harboring terrorists must be dealt with in the firmest manner possible. And this does concern not only countries harboring those who are responsible for this latest outrage, but those that have done so for a while now. One does not need to connect, dot by dot, the points between a host state and terrorists’ acts of violence. Acts of terror must be dealt with swiftly, and terrorists must be denied any safe havens.
openDemocracy and similar networks have an important role to play in fostering the right response to such deeds: responses that while addressing international terrorisms and attacks on civilian populations, also protect basic rights and freedoms. A failure to do so would be to hand a victory to the terrorists.
Those nations and peoples who care about justice and democracy in the world will most certainly prevail against these acts of violence. Other buildings will go up where the World Trade Center once stood. New York, the US and the World will be restored to health. We must and will endure. The terrorists will ultimately fail. Their deeds are, in fact, a recognition of their failure.