Thinker's roundtable: What did America learn in 2001?

The Monitor recently posed questions about the impact of Sept. 11 to 14 prominent thinkers. Below are their answers, or at least best guesses, edited for brevity and clarity.

Kevin Starr, California state librarian

2001 will be remembered with the intensity with which we remember certain key dates in the development of the republic - 1776, independence; 1789, the Constitution; 1861-65, Civil War; 1863, Emancipation; 1917, World War I; 1941, Pearl Harbor; 1945, the atom bomb. The day bonded us inextricably to the world order, challenging the deep American sense of ourselves as a continental nation, almost like an island.

Father Richard John Neuhaus, a Roman Catholic priest in New York and editor-in-chief of First Things

The raison d'ĂȘtre of American influence - political, diplomatic, military - is now redefined in terms of the contest with terrorism, which, willy nilly, is a conflict of civilizations. The implications of this are as major as the reconfigurations of world politics around the two World Wars and the cold war of the 20th century.

One of the least-remarked, and probably most important, things that happened is that the yellow ribbons disappeared and were replaced by flags. Nobody declared that you were supposed to get rid of your yellow ribbons, or not bring them out. Since the Iran hostage crisis under Jimmy Carter, that has been the automatic, reflexive action of millions of Americans at any time of national catastrophe. This time they didn't.

Where did they go? I think the yellow ribbons were at least somewhat associated with victimization, the victimhood mind-set, self-pity, sort of a sentimental response. And the flag obviously represents something like national unity and resolve. And people just intuitively knew that the nation was under attack, and this was no time for getting all weepy with yellow ribbons.

My hunch is most Americans are going to go on living their lives as they always have, and that is: riddled with deep ambiguity. There's going to be a lot of vice and greed and selfishness and all the other things that we know about the sinful human condition - that's not going to change. But as a generalization, has Sept. 11 and its aftermath been indicative of a revival of public virtue and the very idea of virtue itself? Yes, I think one would have to say that has been the case, and it's a very encouraging development.

Dick Cavett, comedian and talk-show host.

This is the year I wondered where dandruff went. I don't see dandruff any more, not on myself or on others.

More seriously, maybe there should be an abbreviation like B.C. - how about B.T., before the trade towers? The nation's history was sort of stopped at that point and started up again in a whole other way.

A few days after the attacks, Mr. Cavett faced the awkward challenge of talking to a Broadway audience as 'The Rocky Horror Show' reopened.

I started off with no reference to it as I'm doing this monologue, and then I said, 'Well, we've all been through a lot' - and I've never heard such a silence. It sucked the room downward. First of all, there's nobody talking. But below that silence is a deeper level, almost like a vacuum. And I thought, 'What have I done?' And I edged myself back to talk a little more about it and then said, 'We need a couple of hours of fun.' The applause nearly knocked me over. The show went on and did OK. There was that feeling, 'I can't laugh, it's in bad taste; I wish someone would make me laugh.'

Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton University in New Jersey and genome-mapping molecular biologist

Sept. 11 should alert us to what globalization really means. It means Coca-Cola in every refrigerator. But it also means that we have to be sensitive to what is going on in the rest of the world - in a way that we can sometimes, in our power and arrogance, not be paying attention to.

Ronald Steel, international relations expert at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, Paris

Only in the South had Americans been defeated in war, occupied, their crops and cities razed. The South has a tragic sense of history which the rest of the country has always denied and replaced with ideas of infinite hope, opportunity, wealth, that there's nowhere we can't go, nothing we can't do, and nobody can stop us.

Before Sept. 11, US had arrived at a pinnacle of power so great that it was really not challenged seriously by any other state. The September events dramatized the fact that danger to a state can come from individuals. What was even perhaps more psychologically threatening was that these attacks were carried out with our own instruments.

We have no sure defense now. In the cold war, the whole deterrence theory offered a sense of security, where you assume that states are rational and you can threaten them with destruction if they hurt you. It was a gamble, but it proved to be true for 50 years. But when you have people willing to commit suicide to cause damage, and who are inspired by a profound hate, it leads to a sense of disarray.

The whole thing about America's approach to the world is a search for invulnerability. We're seeking to keep the world on the outside. The proposed missile-defense shield is a perfect expression of the American approach. It goes back to isolationism. What the US wants is not to run the world - and this is where we're so often misunderstood - but to keep the world so orderly that it won't bother the United States.

Russia, to my mind, is the most interesting diplomatic aspect of this whole event. It's the coming in of Russia from the cold. Russia has become a kind of unofficial partner of the United States. And they took the first step.

Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago

It really moved me that a huge number of Germans turned out in Berlin to display solidarity with Americans. I don't think Americans have ever felt that way about problems going on someplace else. Nothing that happened outside America has ever moved us as much as that. The fact that we're big and we're powerful has meant that we can isolate ourselves. So it's hard to know whether we'll just sink back to the normal isolationism, or move forward into a world community.

This is also the year when the problems of women in other parts of the world became very vivid to us: how their rights have been abridged on grounds of sex, how their basic right to education, to political participation, is abridged.

Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim museum, which is constructing a new building in New York City

Maybe it should not be a Guggenheim Museum. Maybe it should now be something like a World Cultural Center.

There have been dire times in the history of the world that we've emerged from in better shape than before, and I think this will be another one. Sensitivity will be increased. The world's problems will have a wider forum now. Whether we can sustain that will depend on how we build our environment and how we build our mechanisms of social interaction.

Richard Kohn, chairman of the 'Peace, War, and Defense' curriculum at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill

We've been so self-critical in this country in the last generation that we, to a degree, lost our perspective about the nature of our people and our society. This reminded us that we are, in fact, much greater than we realize.

It also reminded us that this out-of-control worship of the 'greatest generation' is really misplaced - that those people did wonderful things during World War II, but were by no means the 'greatest' generation. There is no such thing. Place them back with the Founders of the country, or people who saw the Civil War through to its ugly conclusion, or people who survived the Great Depression. It's American history by sound bite, and it speaks ill of us.

Alan Lightman, physicist, novelist, and professor of humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

From the '60s on, there has been a great mistrust of government. Americans decided that if their government could send them into a war in Vietnam that many considered unethical, and then lie to them about it, the government wasn't trustworthy anymore. Since the '60s, a lot of Americans felt there was some kind of separation between them and their government. That relationship has shifted enormously since Sept. 11.

The speed of life has increased to the point that we don't have time to think or reflect about who we are or where we're going. The national soul, if there is such a thing, has not been examined. Sept. 11 will force us to be more introspective.

Michael Berenbaum, Holocaust scholar and theologian in Los Angeles

What do you do in the aftermath of a rupture? You mend. And what is the strongest part of a garment? Where mending has taken place. So we are strongest precisely where we have changed. And we are weakest precisely where we have not changed or will not change.

Americans must ask, how do you have the fervor and the certitude that comes with profound faith - the sense of meaning, depth, passion, and certitude of position in the world - while still being able to affirm that there are other views and that those views have integrity? That's one of the issues we have to wrestle with. Otherwise, we're going to have a world in which individualized truths become weapons of destruction. We have to take seriously that these guys acted in the name of what they perceived to be the divine.

Anne Soukhanov, editor of the Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary. She works from her home in Bedford, Va.

It's unusual for a numeronym - a number-based word like 9/11 - to make its way instantly into the language. It just shows how important events can change our language and our world forever.

'Ground zero' has traditionally meant the impact area of a nuclear warhead. It goes all the way back to the Manhattan Project in the '40s. Then it developed another sense, I would say 20 years ago, which means the center or focus of a very important event. After 9/11, Ground Zero took on a new meaning, with a cap G and Z in our dictionary: 'the site of the World Trade Center attacks after the twin towers collapsed.'

AKIL AMAR, constitutional scholar at Yale University

The Constitution gives us nice guideposts, such as that seizures have to be reasonable. But what that means is, when you have real threats, that may justify more governmental intrusion. If the threats are real and bigger, then we're all willing to put up with an extra two minutes of questions at the airport. We might very well create a system with individual fingerprints on every mailed item. When you go to the post office, just as with an ATM, they'll make a photographic record of you making that transaction, so they can trace that package.

Harvey Cox, theologian at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.

We showed that we are not a society that can be panicked into a kind of ethnic xenophobia. We could have been easily stampeded into a kind of anti-Arab hysteria. It was a test of the cultural pluralism of the US, and I think we came through that pretty well.

I think when people are hit as hard as we all were, we tend to return to something that may be deeper buried in our marrow or national memory. But religion can cut both ways. There can be destructive as well as salutary interpretations. The moment now has come when we have to be a little more candid about how we cope with those destructive elements in each of our traditions and see how they can be read in other ways.

It may seem odd that the favorite text of Gandhi, apostle of nonviolence, was the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita, which deals with war and divine justification for killing. But Gandhi read it as an evocation of the need of everyone to engage in a kind of spiritual battle against the false and dangerous elements within oneself. He spiritualized the passage.

Shelby Steele, race-relations expert at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif.

One result of 9/11 is that some of the views that have undergirded American liberalism since the '60s won't be able to stand much longer. We will have to be judgmental as well as tolerant. We will have to understand that on the other side of 'different' is not necessarily 'equality.' That other cultures may not be equal to ours. That the problems people have that are keeping them in a state of inequality may not entirely come from the old enemies of racism and sexism and so forth, but may have to do with problems within those cultures and groups. My sense is that the old answers just won't satisfy any longer.

Reported by Mary Wiltenburg, Daniel B. Wood, Patrik Jonsson, Craig Savoye, and Roderick Nordell.

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