Remembering September 11 Every Day

JUST LAW AND RELIGION Michael Kessler “9/11 changed everything.” It’s a common trope, but it is not clear that our … Continued


Michael Kessler

“9/11 changed everything.” It’s a common trope, but it is not clear that our personal and social lives were significantly transformed by September 11.

This may be a sign, among other things, of human stubbornness, or indifference, or perhaps our ability to recover.

President Bush took his lumps from all sides for his attempt to urge calm in a shaky public: “When they struck, they wanted to create an atmosphere of fear. And one of the great goals of this nation’s war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry, is to tell the traveling public, ‘Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Go down to Disney World in Florida, take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed.'”

Looking back over the past 8 years, we seem to have taken his advice. The profound hand-in-hand gentleness and solidarity that erupted after the attacks (I thought for a moment we might actually live in the country envisioned in that Coca-Cola commercial “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke“), along with the sheer terror at another imminent attack, embraced our shocked nation (and world!) and gave a sense that we might build a more respectful society. This soon gave way to our general grumblings and annoyance at airport security lines, and frustrations (even rage) with an administration bent on protecting the nation at costs too high (or wreckless) for some to bear. Our old differences over how to protect ourselves, who to fight, and how to pay for it soon renewed the old political divisions and conflicts. We got on board airplanes, (now deprived of our toothpaste and Evian bottles) but while trusting that we might be safer from attacks, we returned to not trusting the customer service and being annoyed with chatty seat mates telling their life stories or the wrong political views.

How much has changed? Orin Kerr, a law professor blogging at The Volokh Conspiracy, recently posed the question of how much readers thought things had changed. The results were fairly evenly split across the ideological spectrum. About an even number of conservatives and liberals each indicated that everything had changed, or that nothing had changed. The one thing we truly can’t seem to agree on is whether anything has changed.

But life has visibly changed in some areas.

Two visible memorials are taking shape. In the coming two years, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum is rising up as a monument to the horrific attacks–and the countless ways we have recovered. Likewise, a brilliant film project, Project Rebirth will be released soon that chronicles the physical rebuilding of the site and the resilience of ten people directly affected by the attacks, struggling to rebuild their lives and find hope in the past 8 years.

At a personal level, Americans trust the Muslim doctors, shopkeepers, lawyers, taxi drivers, and engineers who are their neighbors somewhat less and discriminate against them a bit more. The most recent national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that “Nearly six-in-ten adults (58%) say that Muslims are subject to a lot of discrimination, far more than say the same about Jews, evangelical Christians, atheists or Mormons.”

That same poll shows a split, however, in whether Americans think Muslims as a group encourage violence: “a plurality of the public (45%) says Islam is no more likely than other faiths to encourage violence among its believers; 38% take the opposite view, saying that Islam does encourage violence more than other faiths do.” The trend for the view that Islam encourages violence was around 25% in 2002 and peaked in 2004 and again in 2007 at 45%.

Some of the more interesting changes can be seen in universities. Students are flocking to study Arabic language and literature. Courses exploring regions in the Middle East and Asia are booming. Students are invigorated to understand the way religious culture and practice–particularly Islam–intersects with geo-politics and social behavior around the globe.

Scholars, too, are expanding their focus to include a more sophisticated assessment of religious culture and communal life as a core component of assessing a group’s economic, political, and social behavior and institutions. Assessment of geo-politics now includes sophisticated study of religious culture and institutions as forces that shape behavior and political action for good and ill.

At the same time, universities are spearheading collaborative partnerships with foreign governments in the Middle East to provide top-flight education in the region. The biggest example is Education City in Doha, Qatar.

I’ve had the pleasure as a scholar at Georgetown to work on some of these issues in ways that I never expected. Georgetown has built a collaboration with the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Through public programs and educational endeavors, we seek the best way to portray the complex forces surrounding the perpetrators of the 9/11 Plot, particularly the various geo-political, cultural, and religious factors that contributed to the 9/11 attacks.

Likewise, I am part of a team at Georgetown working with Project Rebirth to think through the myriad intellectual issues raised by the film, including how to best use the footage for future learning, and how film in general can help promote intercultural and interreligious understanding. In particular, Georgetown and Columbia University are collaborating with Project Rebirth to develop a powerful teaching tool that uses the thousand hours of footage of persons recovering from mass trauma to help future physicians, chaplains, mental health professionals, and disaster recovery leaders respond with more effective care in the immediate aftermath of disasters.

Where our collective remembering and recovery leads us–as individuals, communities, and as nations around the globe–remains to be seen. In the here and now, there are many opportunities to learn about the many people working on creative solutions to global problems.

On Thursday September 24, Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the National September 11 Memorial & Museum will sponsor a faculty panel called “After September 11th: Change in the Academy?” in the Bunn Intercultural Center ICC Auditorium that explores how scholars and disciplines have adapted or changed their approaches and topics, if at all, in the post-9/11 world. Details can be found at the Berkley Center website.

Dr. Michael Kessler is Assistant Director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and Visiting Assistant Professor of Government at Georgetown University.

By Michael Kessler | 
September 24, 2009; 11:08 AM ET

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Just Law and Religion

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