With the 9/11 Anniversary, Political Correctness Comes Full Circle

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In The Weekly Standard, writer Charlotte Allen skewers American universities for failing to commemorate the terrorist attacks with sufficient moralizing and self-righteousness

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Essayist Charlotte Allen is sharp writer whose best pieces adeptly skewer the left's politically correct excesses. But her latest piece, a critical look at the 9/11 commemorations American universities are planning, sure reads as though she's the one trying to enforce politically correct orthodoxies of thought. Take her criticism of the lectures and non-credit courses offered this year at the University of Denver, including Retrospective Reflections on the Crisis of Religion and Politics in the Muslim World, Islam and Muslims in the U.S. Media, and The Future of Islam: Beyond Fear and Fundamentalism. "Where were the firefighters?" Allen asks. "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?"

Her complaint, put more broadly, is that unlike commemorations in the rest of America, "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." But surely America's universities, being institutions of higher learning, properly take an approach to marking the terrorist attacks that is in keeping with their distinct mission, just as in lower Manhattan, the city government, the Catholic parish, and the local newspapers will all commemorate the 10 year anniversary in their own ways.

Surely, there are appropriate responses to the anniversary of the attacks beyond mourning its victims and reflecting on the fact that they were unjustly murdered by immoral terrorists. What is the purpose of the university if not to increase understanding by digging into complex events? And what would possibly be gained if the University of Denver held a seminar titled, The Heroism of the Flight 93 Passengers. What would it mean to think about their acts in terms of morality? The fact is that, divided as Americans are about our response to 9/11, one thing we can all agree upon is that the passengers of Flight 93 were heroes for fighting back, that their killers perpetrated a moral wrong, and that hastening one's own death to save other innocents is a noble act.

Angrily insisting that those truths remain at the center of every 9/11 commemoration is a bit like demanding that every college course on the Jim Crow-era focus on the moral superiority of Civil Rights protestors to Southern whites, or asserting that it is inappropriate, when marking Pearl Harbor, to seek out understanding of why the Japanese launched their attacks, because the only important thing is that an enemy wronged us and we were justified in fighting back. The Charlotte Allen approach to commemorating historical events, if consistently applied, would force universities into the very politically correct, careful-not-to-offend quagmire she so often laments.

There is, finally, her line that "retribution was fully in order," which only serves to demonstrate the usefulness of introducing complexity into the conversation. After all, the immediate perpetrators in the attacks were all killed along with the victims. That left masterminds like Osama bin Laden and his underlings. I certainly concur that America was justified in killing them. But were we justified in ousting the Taliban? In drone strikes on terrorist safe houses that also kill women and children? In the invasion of Iraq? In sweeping arrests abroad that resulted in innocent people being locked up at Guantanamo Bay for years on end? In a fake program of vaccinations in rural Pakistan meant to help us get bin Laden's DNA? It is difficult to imagine that Allen regards the answers to all these questions as beyond dispute. Yet she writes as if it's perfectly obvious that universities should assert, for all to hear, that "retribution was fully in order."

Universities serve us better when they avoid vague statements of ideologically-driven jingoism and help people to better think through actual, specific questions that confront us. In carrying out that mission, the academy is sometimes stymied by its impulse to be politically correct. The last thing its critics should be doing is insisting that it pay more attention to moralizing and self-righteous statements about justice from a right-leaning rather than a left-leaning perspective.

As a direct response to 9/11, the U.S has undertaken morally questionable actions -- inadvertently but predictably killing innocents, deliberately torturing terror suspects, launching wars, and impinging on civil liberties, for starters. I share the desire to mourn the 9/11 dead, to celebrate the heroes of that day, and to curse the evil murderers who perpetrated the attacks. There is, in fact, little chance that any American will escape commemorations of that kind. But they're inadequate to the occasion. Especially if you're an institution whose mission is to increase the frontiers of human understanding, rather than to parrot what everyone agrees to be true.


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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