9/11 attacks changed much, but not everything

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Had the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, never occurred, the United States would be a very different nation — but still economically troubled and bitterly divided, panelists seemed to agree last night in a discussion at the First Amendment Center.

The program brought together three Vanderbilt professors from different academic disciplines to trade views among themselves and with the audience on 9/11’s lingering effects on First Amendment freedoms and American society.

Sept. 11 “exposed an enormous vulnerability” in the American way of life, said Thomas Schwartz, professor of history, political science and European studies. “It was a humbling event for the United States.”

Dana Nelson, Gertrude Conaway Professor of English and American studies, saw 9/11 as “something utterly arresting in the American psyche” — our first experience with horrific foreign-bred terrorism.

The most dangerous legacy of the attack, she said, was an “embrace of the imperial presidency,” an “arrogant assertion of executive supremacy” by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Exemplifying this presidential attitude, Nelson said, was the policy of remote-controlled drone attacks to kill terrorist leaders overseas. Some of those targeted are American citizens who are receiving “a death sentence without trial.”

“I thought we had a revolution to repudiate kingly powers,” Nelson said. “Nobody seems to care.” She said the nation had fallen into a “politics of fear … a level of demonology and panic” that is “directly threatening our values.”

Americans would not have been “so eager to trade our freedom for authoritarian practices of security,” Nelson added. Among examples of such a tradeoff she listed “the Department of Justice’s escalating war on free speech,” citing the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, in which the justices upheld a federal law that criminalizes “material support,” including training and expert advice, to U.S.-designated terrorist groups.

To Nelson’s assertion that civil liberties had been drastically curtailed by 9/11 with virtually no public opposition, Schwartz countered that civil liberties had been eroding since the 1950s, could have eroded much worse after 2001, and that of late “there has been resistance to overreach” of government power.

Richard McGregor, associate professor in Vanderbilt’s Department of Religious Studies, noted the heavy scrutiny that American Muslims have faced since 2001. As a result, the development of Muslims as a minority community in America has been a “living-in-a-fishbowl experience,” he said.

Many Muslims responded to intense social pressure by opening up to other Americans, inviting them into mosques, McGregor said. He criticized an “Islamophobia industry” that he said had arisen in opposition to Muslims’ freedom of religion.

Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, moderated the discussion. He noted that the center’s annual State of the First Amendment survey had found, seven months after 9/11, that 49% of Americans polled thought the First Amendment “goes too far” in the freedoms it guarantees. That high percentage has come down considerably since then.

“The bottom line,” Schwartz said, was that “it was an attack on innocent people, and that’s worth saying.”

In other reflections on a United States not attacked in 2001, Schwartz and Nelson agreed that economic recession would have hit the country anyway because the cost of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were dwarfed by entitlement programs. Schwartz said 2004 probably would have ushered in a Democratic president, “though not necessarily John Kerry,” and that Obama probably would not have risen to such prominence as to have won the presidency in 2008.

Would we have less bitter partisanship and divisiveness? The professors appeared to view that phenomenon as agelessly American, stretching from Colonial times.

“The 10-Year Shadow of 9/11” was the inaugural event of a new academic program series and partnership between Vanderbilt University’s Office of Active Citizenship & Service and the First Amendment Center.

The Interdisciplinary Roundtable Series is a critical-inquiry series exploring issues of topical concern to the Vanderbilt community from perspectives across the academic disciplines, convening once each semester.

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