9/11 panelists offered academic analysis five days after tragedy
A mere five days after the 9/11 attacks — on Sept. 16, 2001 — Centre College convened a public forum to try to make some sense of the national tragedy. And ten years later, the panelists agree, several take-home points remain pertinent.
Discussion panelists included faculty members Bill Garriott, representing the government program; Lori Hartmann-Mahmud and Nayef Samhat, representing the international relations program; and Phyllis Passariello, representing the anthropology and sociology program. Panelists drew from their areas of study to bring clarity to a very emotional topic in front of an audience that included students, other faculty members and members of the Centre community.
Hartmann-Mahmud, who now chairs the international studies program, recalled that immediately prior to 9/11, she had spoken with her Government 110 class about the Taliban — a government most Americans at the time did not know existed.
“We were talking about theocracies a day or two before. And I talked about the Taliban as an example in Afghanistan,” she said. “So I was totally aware, especially of the gender implications of the Taliban and the fact that the U.S. government had not recognized them as a government.”
Hartmann-Mahmud said that introducing an academic perspective to explain why these events may have taken place — especially so soon after 9/11 — was difficult.
“We were trying to offer an academic analysis,” she said. “But people were not ready for an academic analysis. There were some pretty angry faculty and students there who said ‘Are you trying to give the terrorists some kind of credibility?’ That may be where we were misinterpreted. Everyone was reeling and wanted some forum for discussion, but they weren’t really ready to talk in an academic way. Those of us who have been studying these issues are very attuned to how the rest of the world sees us. We were surprised by the magnitude, but not that it happened.”
Garriott, who retired in 2010, echoed this sentiment. He said he was apprehensive about participating in the panel.
“I recall my reaction as being, first, ‘why me?’ since I’m no expert on terrorism or the Middle East,” he said. “Then I began worrying about what to say and how to say it, given the very emotional climate.”
Hartmann-Mahmud said that immediately post-9/11, she continued to approach the topic with caution in her classes. “If you’re a government professor, you always have to be careful — try to be unbiased, try to be evenhanded,” she said.
“The Patriot Act, the War on Terror — as those things unfolded, it gave us the chance to talk about the balance between liberty and security,” she continues. “It’s the quintessential political science question — how much liberty can you allow before you undermine security? And when does too much security jeopardize the freedoms we have? One event can change our whole perspective.”
Passariello said she introduced 9/11 discussions in her courses as well.
“As an anthropologist, I felt the responsibility to educate the students about Islam and the various cultures practicing Islam, as well as the limits of cultural relativity,” she said. “I probably mentioned 9/11 every day in class, discussing the anthropologically relevant issues involved.”
A decade after the national tragedy, these issues are still relevant.
“I think that students — and frankly, all of us — have to be reminded, or even convinced, that it was a radical fringe that orchestrated the attacks,” Passariello said. “We must keep informed and open minds about Islam.”
“I believe there is still a lack of understanding of the forces that produced al-Qaeda, and ultimately, the 9/11 attacks,” Garriott said. “Without that understanding, we can’t respond appropriately — as individuals, or as a nation.”