The Magazine

The Universities’ 9/11

Prepare for a season of intellectual posturing and Islamic outreach.

Sep 12, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 48 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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America’s colleges and universities, like most of the rest of the country, will soon be commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11, that preternaturally sunny day in early September a decade ago when 19 al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists commandeered four U.S. commercial air-liners and crashed them deliberately, killing nearly 3,000 people at the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon outside Washington, and a field in southwestern Pennsylvania that was believed to lie along an intended flight path for hijackers who targeted the U.S. Capitol or the White House.

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Unlike the commemorations in most of the rest of America, however, the academic commemorations for the most part won’t focus on, say, the 403 New York firefighters, paramedics, and police officers who died in rescue efforts at the World Trade Center towers hit by hijacked planes. Nor upon the numerous acts of courage and selflessness that marked that day, not least those of the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania, whose rallying cry “Let’s roll!” led by 32-year-old passenger Todd Beamer accompanied an effort to fight back against the terrorists. Nor upon the approximately 3,000 children who lost parents in the massacre, including dozens of babies born after their fathers perished. Least of all will there be much emphasis on what America did or should have done by way of reprisal for a brazen act of war that killed more people in the collapse of the World Trade towers alone (2,753) than perished in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 (2,402).

Instead, the campus commemorations, many of which will be spaced out for days and even weeks this fall, will focus on, well, understanding it all, in the ponderous, ambiguity-laden, complexity-generating way that seems to be the hallmark of college professors faced with grim events about which they would rather not think in terms of morality: “Historical and political representations,” whatever those are (Harvard), “How do we determine truth and reality?” (more Harvard), and “Imaging Atrocity: The Function of Pictures in Literary Narratives about 9/11” (St. John’s University in New York).

And the topic that seems to demand the most understanding, at least in terms of the obsessive amounts of time and resources that college professors and administrators will be devoting to it, is Islam. There will be so many campus lectures, panel discussions, teach-ins, and photo exhibits devoted to the Muslim faith, Muslim communities in America, and the real or imagined violent acts against Muslims in the wake of 9/11 (there has actually been only one revenge-slaying since that date—of a man who turned out not to be a Muslim—and the perpetrator was convicted and executed) that if you had just rocketed in from Venus, you might think that Muslims had been the chief victims, not the sole perpetrators, of the massacre that day—as well as an estimated 67 alleged terrorism incidents or attempts in the United States during the decade that followed.

For example, the University of Denver started its 9/11 commemoration activities early, in January, with lectures and noncredit courses in a series titled “9/11: Ten Years After.” The offerings in the series were titled as follows: “Retrospective Reflections on the Crisis of Religion and Politics in the Muslim World,” “Islam and Muslims in the U.S. Media,” “Lessons of Peace and Tolerance,” “The Future of Islam: Beyond Fear and Fundamentalism,” “Islam and Muslims in the News: U.S. Media Coverage Ten Years After 9/11,” and “Leadership for Peace and Tolerance: Gandhi, King, Mandela, and the Dalai Lama.” Fine, but where were the firefighters? Where was Flight 93? Where was the sense that 9/11 was an atrocity of such monstrous proportions that retribution—not to mention military action that could deter similar attacks in the future—was fully in order? Yet the University of Denver’s apparent blinders-on focus on Muslims and “tolerance” to the exclusion of issues of national security and militant Islamic jihadism proved to be a template for the way many campuses are handling their 9/11 commemorations this fall.

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