Patrick Regan, professor of political science, had taught Introduction to World Politics for only a week before terrorists turned planes into missiles and killed nearly 3,000 people in two hours on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.
Classes were canceled at 11 a.m., then resumed the next day — too soon, for some.
“I went to class and said, ‘I’m compelled to be here, and I don’t want to be,’” Regan remembers. So he gave students a choice: “We can leave now. We can do what we normally do in week 2. Or we can skip to week 13, and we can talk about how to address terrorism. We took a vote, and overwhelmingly they wanted to talk about terrorism. So on Sept. 13, I gave a lecture to 250 students about how you have to negotiate with terrorists. And it was heart wrenching. It was horrible. They were angry, but it was a really interactive hour, so in that respect it was good.”
Ten years later, Messages to the World, a collection of Osama bin Laden’s writings and speeches, is the core textbook in Regan’s Issues in World Politics class.
This year is the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks we shorthand as 9/11, and because of that it will be subject to the scrutiny reserved for such milestones. An anniversary jogs our historical memory; it’s a reason to hold an event up to the light, examine it from different angles and see if it looks the same as we remember it from last time.
There’s evidence, already, that 9/11 looks different from the distance of a decade.
“Right after the fact, a lot of people, particularly journalists and some historians, talked about it as a moment of historical rupture. There was pre-9/11 and post-9/11,” says Wendy Wall, associate professor of history. “I think most historians have pulled back from that assessment.”
The reasons, she says, have a lot to do with the way people have rethought U.S. history since 9/11.
The attacks made many people rethink the assumption that America is exceptional, that it rises above other countries because of its unique creation and ideology. “There’s this history that goes back to Puritan John Winthrop talking about America as the shining city on a hill,” Wall says. Because of this, historians have often viewed American history in isolation from the rest of the world.
Among historians, the attacks emphasized the need to teach American history in a broader, global context, she says. Historians have increasingly explored connections between developments at home and abroad, and examined the sources of anti-Americanism around the globe.
“During WWII and the Cold War, fascism and communism made Americans think about who they were as a nation, what made them unique and what role they had to play in the world,” Wall says. “I think 9/11 has had some of the same effect.”
“I was in disbelief,” Ricardo Laremont says when remembering the first images of 9/11. “About an hour after it transpired, I guessed it was Osama bin Laden, given what I had been studying.”
Laremont, professor of political science and sociology, is a scholar of political Islam. A few months after the attacks, he was asked to speak to local community leaders on the topic of “Why They Hate Us So Much.”
“I was trying to explain why many people in the Muslim world were rather angry toward the United States and why they had complaints about foreign policy,” he says.
Laremont says bin Laden was very clear about why he wanted to attack the United States, and it boils down to two essential arguments:
First, as long as the United States continues to sustain authoritarian governments in the Middle East and in the Muslim world, it will continue to be an enemy of Islam.
Second, the United States has not been an honest broker in trying to reach a comprehensive political settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians.
“He’d been saying that for a good three to four years before the attack,” Laremont says. A decade after making good on his threat, and up to the time of his death in May, bin Laden was still saying it. Most Americans, Laremont says, stopped paying attention years ago.
“I don’t think academicians and the media do a very good job of explaining what the complaint is,” he says.
It is not about our values, both political science professors say.
“I think we’ve lost sight of why folks are fighting us in these nonconventional ways,” Regan says. They’re not just killers and thugs who want to kill us for what we believe in, he says. “That’s rubbish. They’re against us because of our policies.”
Unlike WWII, when America reacted to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 by sending 16 million soldiers to war and imposing blackouts and rationing on the citizenry, the post-9/11 “war on terror” has little impact on the average American, outside of a few hassles at the airport.
Pearl Harbor and 9/11 have much in common:
Both were surprise attacks. Before each, American intelligence had a sense that something was going to happen, but no identifying facts. There were similar issues of poor communication among federal agencies. And, Wall emphasizes, we underestimated the enemy.
In the aftermath of both attacks, though, life couldn’t be more different. WWII required mass mobilization and a country always on alert. In 2011, we’re fighting in two countries. But, Regan says, “For most students, unless they go into the military, life is exactly the same.
“We don’t have a draft. We borrow money to fight the war, and we send off the poor, just like we did in Vietnam.”
“One of the benefits of an all-volunteer army,” Laremont says, “is that you have less dissent … people want to be there. The downside is that, for the most part, the electorate is completely disengaged from the war.” Without a draft, war can be waged without most people sensing the personal costs of going to war, he says. “That’s someone else’s child, that’s not my child.”
The financial costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and America’s myriad domestic fiscal calamities, are among the reasons we’re no longer the economic, political and diplomatic power we once were. That makes us more vulnerable to our enemies, and that troubles Laremont.
“I wish all people in political leadership would recognize the situation is urgent but solvable as long as we return to sound accounting principles. With the restoration of American fiscal order, there’s the possibility of the restoration of American political influence.”
In the classroom, Regan, Wall and Laremont have a chance to put one day they each remember so vividly into context for students who were children in 2001.
The lessons aren’t about “good guys vs. bad,” they’re about why people — and governments and leaders and terrorists — do what they do.
The killing of bin Laden and the absence of a successful attack on the United States since 9/11 have dulled our sense of urgency in dealing with al-Qaida, Laremont says. “Just remember that although the CEO is dead, the enterprise lives on,” he says. “Al-Qaida under the same or a different name will live on even if those who advocate political violence are a small minority within the Muslim community.”
That’s one reason it’s important for students to read bin Laden’s writings.
“It gets old; the guy drones on and on about the same thing, over and over, but you certainly get his point,” says Regan.
He has his class read Nelson Mandela’s statement to the white judges at his sentencing for terrorism. Then they hear a tape of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. And then they hear from bin Laden. “Basically they all have a similar message,” Regan says. They want to change a system that benefits some people over others. “We hold two of them up as heroes and one as a villain. It makes for a nice contrast for thinking about why people do what they do.”
“I hope I can get students to understand the roots of terrorism and the solutions to terrorism,” he says.
As a historian, Wall expects that what we think and how we feel about 9/11 will continue to evolve.
“I look back at how our memory of WWII has changed,” she says. In the years immediately after the war, when Americans were confronting disabled veterans and the looming nuclear threat, anxieties and disillusionment were part of its history. “Today, we hail the ‘greatest generation,’ and WWII is often talked about in celebratory terms.”
The death of bin Laden may nudge our memory of 9/11 in the same direction, particularly for the generation who were children at the time, Wall says. “Just look at the celebrations that erupted on campuses when the news broke. Bin Laden’s death doesn’t end the threat from terrorism, and it doesn’t bring back those who were lost, but it does bring some sense of closure to people who grew up with bin Laden as their Voldemort.”