Professor Barry O’Connell on Remembering, Discussing, Teaching and (Not) Understanding 9/11

Interview by Katherine Duke '05

Barry O'Connell

In the months after 9/11, Barry O’Connell, the James E. Ostendarp Professor of English—along with Martha Saxton, professor of history and women’s and gender studies and Elizabeth W. Bruss Reader—established a student discussion group about questions raised by the War on Terror. “It was in the period when Bush and his administration were beating the drums to go to war with Iraq,” said Saxton, “and we just felt that a discussion and reading group thinking about this and other [issues]”— including civil disobedience and the USA PATRIOT Act —“would be useful, and it would clarify students’ thinking about it, but also our own.” O’Connell has also taught, with Professor Lisa Henderson from the University of Massachusetts, a course titled “Media, Culture and Citizenship Since 9/11.” He sat down with Katherine Duke ’05 to talk about September 11, the discussion group and the course, as well as broader issues of grief, memory, teaching and historical understanding.

Listen to the extended audio version:

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Interview (abridged version)

KD:  Begin by describing your own memories of September 11, 2001.

BO:  My memory is vivid and still shockingly easy to recall. I had an appointment that morning at nine. So I was not present to any of the media that would have presented [the attacks] to me. It was one of those beautiful days that you should always remember—so clear; the sky was completely blue. It’s as though time should stand still. I felt this enormous sense of well-being and contentment.

I came to my car, and I turned on the radio and caught the tail end of somebody saying what had happened. I thought this was a kind of joke news report. But I kept listening, and it became clear that it wasn’t. I felt this incredible need to see it, because I couldn’t quite believe it, still.

I think the plane that was headed toward the Pentagon happened in that same day, of course, but later. So there was this sense that this could just keep going, this horror. It had a feeling of [being] potentially a set of attacks without end, and that was part of the trauma.

I think there was a gathering of the whole student body in the chapel.

KD:     I think it was LeFrak Gymnasium.

BC:      Yes. I remember students being very, very upset with one of the speakers, Barbara…

KD:     Ehrenreich [a writer and political activist who happened to be on campus to speak to the first-year class on a different topic that day].

BC:      Right—who immediately created a context that she believed this belonged in, about things that we [as a nation] had done that in some ways brought it on. A number of students were intensely hostile to this. I remember thinking that this was not the moment for any kind of academic explanation or description, which is what [certain professors] did.

That large meeting simply fell so far short of what people wanted and needed. That’s partly what started me thinking about: How does one take something as unprecedented as this, in a college, and help people productively struggle with what they think this all means?

KD:     So you and Professor Martha Saxton decided to begin running a discussion group about 9/11 and related topics.

BO:     That fall, she and I began to talk about the need for such a group. We wanted a setting where people could express uncertain feelings as well as feelings of uncertainty. That is: “I’m not sure how to put words to what I’m feeling or thinking,” or “This event scares me, but I don’t know why.” We wanted to encourage people to affirm, in the face of enormity, that inarticulateness may be inescapable; [to] speak searchingly and take the risk of saying things that might be unpopular or surprising or unappealing. Voices were never to be raised; people were not to take attitudes towards each other.

KD:     Were there any particular points raised, moments or conflicts that stick out in your mind?

BO:     There were a couple of people who had a settled, liberal, ideological understanding of the events of 9/11, which, a couple of times, they tried to insist upon to the group: that this was the right way to understand or respond. Martha and I actually intervened and said, “This is just not acceptable. What you’re saying is too easy to say, and it’s self-aggrandizing. It may be, in some sense, right, but it’s not right as a dogma. We want people to keep their minds and their feelings as open as possible here.”

Then there was my student who talked about how he could not go home to [his] family and even tell them about this group, because the very idea that there would be a group in which people were encouraged to be uncertain about what had happened would be unacceptable. He described what position he was supposed to take: A patriot believes that the people who did this must be punished; there’s no explanation or cause that the United States is responsible for, for their doing it; and we had to use all of our military strength in as many was as was necessary to respond.

He was really speaking about the country we lived in: a country where people had many different understandings of things, and you couldn’t simply adopt one as the right one. You had to listen to them all. He’d heard that there was a range of ways to think about it, and that he was troubled deeply that he could not take that range home.

I think the change that he felt was that he could no longer be a reflexive patriot—that he was a patriot, still, but now that was itself complicated. What did caring about the welfare of this country mean? I think he really learned that, with much of human affairs, and especially one so complex as that event, you can’t readily discover what’s right.

KD:     For several years, you also taught, with Professor Lisa Henderson at UMass, a course called “Media, Culture and Citizenship Since 9/11.”

BO:     The course began sometime before 9/11. Obviously, we retitled it after 9/11. [It was] a course about contemporary culture and politics that would ask students to encounter major problems not simply within the United States but across national boundaries. [The course] was not meant to be didactic, ever, but to be controversial, always.

It might have been the first incarnation of the course after 9/11 [that] we had a month unit on torture. Some people would hear this as didactic, [but] I can’t bear what I call “falsifying language,” so the rhetoric of justification used, especially by American officials, I ridiculed savagely. I would describe in elaborate length what these tortures were, and I made them watch a film in which waterboarding was central. But then I tried to step back and say, “Is there a place in your minds where torture might be justified as a way of protecting a nation? Or as revenge?” There were raging debates in the class.

I was able to do a census of all the people we were holding as terrorists, and to review details of their cases. An old student of mine was one of the major defense lawyers at Guantánamo and wrote an important book about it: Jon Hafetz [’90]. So I used the work Jon had done to say to the students, “Well, who are terrorists?” [and helped] them to see how tenuous were the charges against a substantial number.

We initially thought to rename the course after 9/11 because we believed—and I still believe—that it was a significant divide in the history of our culture.

KD:     For the past few years, it’s simply gone back to being called “Media, Culture and Global Citizenship.”

BO:     9/11 got taken out of the title because, in our reading, it was no longer in students’ consciousness as large an event as we continue to believe it is. Every fall, it’s important to remind yourself how old your students were when X happened. We want to get students thinking hard about things that they either feel strongly about or can come to it very quickly. And 9/11 is past in the minds of undergraduates now.

KD:     Do you think 9/11 and the War on Terror have contributed to any generational differences between the students you taught more than a decade ago and the students you teach today?

BO:     Yes. I don’t think many undergraduates are very dependably self-conscious about that change. It may be wrong to associate it entirely to 9/11, though I do. Students today see themselves as living in a world in which their country is in decline. That would have been impossible before 9/11, frankly. For Americans, for the first time in their history, really, to experience military vulnerability on a continental country—I don’t know how you could ever measure the shock of that. It was followed by other things that have further reinforced that since. Students are very conscious of living in an American world of diminished possibility, whether we’re talking about material things or vocational possibilities or jobs. I think that was true before the recession.

What events and what perception move through people’s minds and influence how they act, or fail to act, are most often, I think, not tangible and visible to them. That’s why I would argue nobody really dependably ever understands a cultural moment—because it involves large numbers of people [and] the way people come to see or resist seeing certain things. It’s very easy to be either self-righteous or arrogant and confident that [you understand] that. [But] being able to articulate explicitly what you see, what you think is going on, how it affects you, or how you see others being affected—it’s a very, very difficult thing to do. It poses a problem, when you make statements about a cultural moment.

As human beings, each of us carries in us fragments of truths. You could argue that even the best work is fragments of fragments. We are, I think, or should be, always stretching toward understanding, and that to do that, we need to understand that we don’t understand.

I could say, “This is what 9/11 really means in my life, really means to others, really means in the nation’s life.” It’s absurd to talk that way. But if I say, “I can be sure that this means something of great importance,” then I can keep searching.

KD:     Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

BO:     One might feel it’s shocking that something like 9/11 could fade in people’s consciousness. And I’m intrigued by that. The fading—part of that is a very intelligent human way of surviving. Because living with pain endlessly is truly unbearable and keeps you in the present moment insistently. [But] if you forget completely, you’re at risk of wandering the world not just naively but helplessly. This is a real problem: How much and what should we struggle to remember of a historical event? And what is the cost of letting it go, in what measure?