Professors examine post-9/11 America
Amanda Gray | Monday, September 12, 2011
On a sunny September morning 10 years ago, Law School Professor Jimmy Gurulé was sitting in his office in Washington, D.C. when a plane piloted by terrorists struck the nearby Pentagon.
Gurulé, then undersecretary for enforcement for the Department of Treasury, was among the government officials who immediately began working to respond to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that shook the nation.
“The impact of 9/11 has been sweeping,” Gurulé said. “It has impacted national security, security at airports, new regulations on banks — and it has also resulted in certain infringements on civil liberties.”
In the days following Sept. 11, 2001, Gurulé played a central role in developing a plan to seize terrorist funds so the attacks could never be repeated. He served in the Department of Treasury until 2003.
Ten years later, Gurulé said Americans should not forget the attacks or their consequences.
“We also need to be sensitive to the intrusion of government,” Gurulé said. “It’s a very fine balance. The goal and object of securing the home lands needs to be done in a way not intrusive to civil liberties.”
However, Gurulé said he believes the United States is safer now than it was 10 years ago.
“I do think we are a more secure country,” he said. “I don’t think it’s an accident that there hasn’t been another attack. We’re much more vigilant, but it’s come at a very high price.”
Political science Professor Michael Desch said a response immediately after the attacks was necessary. However, he said some decisions made after the attacks do deserve criticism.
“The lesson of 9/11 is that terrorism is a real threat,” Desch said. “The lesson from our reaction to 9/11 is the danger of overreaction is great, if not greater than that of under-reaction.”
The United States’ involvement in Iraq is an example of overreaction, he said. Another is the highly invasive airport security checkpoint.
“[Going through invasive security] is more than a matter of personal inconvenience,” Desch said. “In a sense Al Qaeda has achieved some victories because we live in fear … In some small amount, Al Qaeda has succeeded in disrupting our lives.
“Terrorism is one of those things [we overestimate]. It is so spectacular and out of the blue, but you’re more likely to die from complications in a hernia surgery than in a terrorist attack. We now have a tendency to be afraid of the real thing in disproportional ways.”
The current challenge for the United States is continued weakness in the country’s economy, Desch said.
“[The economy] affects our foreign policy in a number of ways,” Desch said. “With our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, that has to change. The Department of Defense is one of the biggest chunks of discretionary spending. We’re looking at a period of retrenchment [composed of] part budget debacle, part weariness of American people.”
Anthropology Professor Cynthia Mahmood said her travels abroad showed her the international effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the strained relations between the U.S. and the Middle East.
“[The 9/11 terrorist attacks] had their biggest impact on the Muslim world,” Mahmood said. “Of course, [the U.S.] has been severely traumatized. We can’t diminish that the U.S. has been transformed.”
Like Gurulé, Mahmood said she is worried Americans gave up their freedoms for a false sense of security.
“I was afraid that the U.S. population would be too ready to relinquish their civil liberties,” Mahmood said. “[These events] have also made Americans even prouder of ourselves and increased American exceptionalism. It has made others dislike us.”
This attitude sparked controversial debates over the past 10 years, Mahmood said.
“Think of last summer’s debate over the mosque construction near Ground Zero,” she said. “The fact that Americans would even doubt the constitutional right for them to build is completely appalling. The way the U.S. responded [to 9/11] really put us on a wartime footing. The way that ‘War on Terror’ was defined makes it impossible to see how we could step back from the posture we’re assuming.”
Mahmood, who often works with refugees, said America lost its “outstretched hand” of sympathy after the 2001 attacks.
“We’re living with a basic backdrop of fear,” she said. “Our first response is to be suspicious now.”
Mahmood said she believes no amount of technology and military strength will keep the U.S. safe.
“The only thing that can is sustainable coexistence with other cultures,” Mahmood said. “We need to have sustainable dialogue, making sure we protect their rights. If we would’ve taken the last 10 years teaching Americans this lesson, it would’ve been time better spent.”
Law Professor Mary Ellen O’Connell said she hopes the United States will one day grow weary of military efforts as a solution to terrorists.
“The decision to fight a major war in Afghanistan in response to 9/11 instead of carrying out a focused counter-terrorism effort has been extremely costly for the U.S,” she said.
O’Connell, who was in Manhattan when the World Trade Centers fell in 2001, said the attacks moved her to work and pray harder for an end to violence.
“Because of the economic situation the United States finds itself in after 10 years of fighting, the next 10 years should see us pursue a more modest military policy abroad,” she said.
“The lessons learned from 9/11 and the decade after are to focus more effectively and with the most appropriate tools to the real challenges we face — to preserve peace, to rebuild our economy [and] to protect the environment and the needs of the poor throughout the world.”