Fall 2006 Edition
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From the Heart

Reflections on September 11


In the months leading up to the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, The Scene asked readers to share their thoughts on the events of the day and how they reshaped our individual lives, molded our collective conscience, and changed the world as we know it.

More than 100 of you responded, many anxious to read the opinions of your fellow alumni. Excerpts from those letters filled the print edition of The Scene, and you can read all letters in their entirety exclusively in The Scene online. (See "Sections in this Article", below.)

Submissions ran the gamut from support for American troops to indictment of the current administration, calls to arms and calls to peace, spiritual awakening and emotional apathy, friends lost and babies born, close calls and what ifs, fear and anger, thanksgiving and hope.

It was with hope in mind that The Scene asked Lane McGaughy, Atkinson Professor of Religious and Ethical Studies, to reflect on what the events of that day bode for the future of community, culture and civilization. An excerpt from his interview appeared in the print edition of The Scene; you can access his full reflection from the menu below.

Sections in this article...

Lane McGaughy

Online Exclusive

You are reading Lane McGaughy’s reflection in full

The sense of disillusionment we've been feeling since Sept. 11, 2001, stems from the concept of America as the new Eden. Ever since the Puritans landed on the shores of the new world, we felt like we were the new chosen people and that everything was going to work out for our benefit in the long run. The sense of disillusionment with the Puritan dream really began with the Vietnam War, when we started to feel uneasy with the possibility that history doesn't always have a happy ending. In some sense it has deflated American arrogance and made us more realistic about the tragic nature of history, and I think that's not altogether bad. We were living in the context of a Hollywood myth. The Vietnam War can be viewed as the beginning of the loss of Edenic innocence. When that loss became fully apparent, as it did after Sept. 11, we had to step back and ask ourselves how we can move forward in a situation of uncertainty, where there are no guarantees about the future. That's what we're facing now.

It's interesting to reflect on our political process in light of the various responses to Sept. 11, 2001. What Jimmy Carter's presidency represented was a sober response to the Vietnam War in which he called the country to a national confession, much the way Abraham Lincoln did during the Civil War, to an acknowledgment of our arrogance and misdeeds in the world that had contributed in some way to the tragedies of the war in Vietnam. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, argued that we were starting anew after the Vietnam era, and he presented himself as the founder of the "New Republic" as it were and saw us simply continuing with the old Myth of Innocence. So we've struggled with the conflict over whether we can still embrace the old notion that everything will work out all right or whether we have to take a more realistic approach to what it means to live with the uncertainties and vulnerabilities of history.

So how do you move ahead? Moving into an uncertain future requires a kind of "second innocence." We have to move beyond the pessimism and acknowledge that life is uncertain, while clinging to those things that are wholesome and good in our culture, and developing those as a basis for a new kind of optimism. That's the function of culture — to provide us with the resources to move forward despite the obstacles and setbacks of an uncertain world. This is another argument for why higher education and the arts are so important as an antidote to popular culture, which often glorifies catastrophes and doesn't necessarily provide the resources for a renewed future. As the alumni reflections demonstrate, there were a wide variety of responses to the events of Sept. 11. One reaction was that of Samuel P. Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations, who argues that we are engaged in an all-out war with Islamic civilization and paints the current conflict in the Middle East in apocalyptic terms. I didn't agree with Huntington's assessment. I think we made a mistake when President Bush treated the tragic events of Sept. 11 as acts of terrorism, which evokes a kind of global showdown. I think we would have been a lot better served if he had portrayed Sept. 11 as a heinous criminal action rather than a terrorist attack. If we had treated the events of Sept. 11 as criminal actions in which those responsible needed to be apprehended and brought to trial rather than as terrorist attacks, our subsequent responses would have been very different. It would not necessarily have led to the war in Iraq; it could have led to bringing those responsible to justice without invoking an apocalyptic scenario. But by treating Sept. 11 as a terrorist act, the responses were framed by the Crusades and invoked the fear that somehow the West is out to destroy Islam, as was the case during the Crusades in the Middle Ages. That's the embodiment of the notion of Holy War, and so we are now faced with the prospects of a global showdown that I think we could have avoided after Sept. 11 if we had framed it as a series of actions by criminals — much as if the Mafia or a gang of drug lords bombed some major centers and needed to be brought to justice, but you don't then attack a whole civilization. We didn't respond very well to Sept. 11 and, in my view, didn't frame it in the right context.

The same thing is true in the Middle East as is true in America. There are both extremists and progressives, so I would prefer to frame Sept. 11 in terms of competing approaches to culture. If we had framed Sept. 11 differently, then we could have sided with the reform-minded progressives in the Islamic countries to assist them in marginalizing the appeal of extremists in the Middle East. But by invading a whole country, like Iraq, we've ended up destroying the reformers as well as the extremists, and one can see that just now in Lebanon. We should have been supporting the reform-minded folks in Lebanon instead of supporting the invasion of the country as a whole. We're attacking our friends along with our enemies in the Middle East and that makes it difficult to solve the problem. We exacerbate the situation by alienating our friends by not distinguishing them from those who regard us as their enemy.

So where do we go from here? I don't know if it's too late, but there are a lot of reform-minded Muslims who are as unhappy with the extremists as we are, and we need to identify them and support them as they deal with the extremists in their own countries instead of us trying to control them from a distance. I'm not an expert on Middle Eastern politics, but having traveled in the Middle East and talked to folks there, my impression is that we could make common cause with a lot of progressive and open-minded people in the Middle East, but we're alienating them. How can we treat Muslims as if they are all the same when not all religious people in America are the same? There are various groups here and there. That's where realism and discrimination come in. The Hollywood Myth of Innocence says we're all the good guys in the white hats and they're all the bad guys in the black hats. By discriminating among Muslims, however, we're moving beyond that kind of na-vet to a much more realistic appraisal of the way the world actually is. We're discriminating between reform-minded, peaceful Muslims and violent extremists. This is where person-to-person diplomacy is so crucial. This is what has saved us from a totally tribal response to Sept. 11 — the fact that we've had so many international students in this country and so many Americans going abroad that some people here and in other parts of the world are able to discern the difference between political ideologies and the humanity we all share. Study abroad and travel is such an important element of a liberal education. I'm not thinking here of the tourist who goes abroad for a quick two-week vacation, but of those who go abroad for an extended stay and live like students, getting acquainted with local people and cultures, perhaps living with home-stay families, becoming guests in that culture, not simply tourists seeing the sights. If only we could send everyone to live and study abroad for a short period. When you think back a generation about the difference the Peace Corps made in our attitudes toward other cultures and their attitudes towards Americans, the lesson is clear. I mention students studying abroad but the main point, as with the Peace Corps, is people-to-people contact, and it was extremely important in defusing the image of "the ugly American" and helping us to see that all peoples are human.

That's why we taught the World Views course all those years, to help students discover that every culture is the product of a particular tradition — or to put it the other way around, world views are culture-specific, meaning that the way a culture views the world is not necessarily the way the world really is in some objective sense. That's the mistake that leads to war, assuming that my world view is the only correct world view and that everyone else should view the world the way I do. Education helps young people discover that their world view is not the only way to organize culture and, at the same time, that each culture offers resources for surmounting the challenges and setbacks of history. We must discover the authentic resources our culture offers in this time of disillusionment. I think most of our students are pretty sensitive to multicultural issues, and I think it's been because the faculty has intentionally worked on that over the years, so our students would become more aware of what's going on outside of North America. Because our students had engaged Middle Eastern culture as the World Views theme for four years before Sept. 11, their responses were thoughtful and carefully nuanced.

In my view, a university is not just a random collection of warm bodies. There has to be a sense of shared purpose or vision that transforms a group of individuals into a community. It's one thing to talk about the benefits of a liberal education, it's another thing to implement those virtues in our lives so that students become aware of what our values are. I recall a campus visitor saying to the faculty that students probably won't remember much of what we said in our lectures ten years after they graduate, but they will remember the influence we had on their lives. That is, faculty are role models for students, and though we like to think that what they remember is the content of our courses — and it's certainly true that we have high academic expectations here — what they come away with more than anything is the influence of who we are as role models. As faculty, we try to model what it means to cultivate the life of the mind and how that shared purpose both creates community and affects the way we treat others and how we order our daily lives. That's the heart of a liberal arts education, and it shapes our response to the uncertainties of the world around us. So I've never doubted for a minute that who I am as a role model for my students is probably as important as anything I say to them in class. And I would wager that my colleagues share this view. We're not merely conveying information, but offering students ways to live meaningful and constructive lives. I think that's a very intentional goal of this faculty.

My hope is that people would not just become more devout in the wake of Sept. 11, but more discerning. We have people on both sides that view Sept. 11 in the context of an apocalyptic battle between good and evil. In my view, this response only adds fuel to the current conflict in the Middle East. Spirituality means being more discerning in terms of how one responds to life, including to Sept. 11.