Where are we now?

Greenfield Recorder 09/10/2011, Page A01

Where are we now?
Gauging national conscience 10 years after terrorist attacks

By RICHIE DAVIS
Recorder Staff

A decade later, it’s back to Ground Zero.

As the dust has settled from the tragedy of that Tuesday morning, what has taken hold is a culture that many see as fearful and a society that’s moved away from guarding its civil liberties toward protecting itself from a nebulous enemy, say several area observers.

“It’s raised up an age-old tension between security and freedom,” said Abbie Jenks, who directs the Peace, Justice and Environmental Studies Program at Greenfield Community College. “It’s become a little difficult for people to determine how we’re really at risk in terms of another attack like the one 10 years ago, and how much of it’s just the media playing it up or people wanting us to accept some dismantlement of our civil liberties.”

Even amid reports by federal authorities about the threat of a terrorist attack timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Jenks and several other area residents pointed to an underlying fear that’s gripped the nation over the past decade.

“It’s part of our makeup right now,” Jenks said. “And it’s complicated by other issues, like the economy. People don’t know if they’re going to have a job, or with budget debate, if they’ll have Social Security, or if they can retire when they want to or get a job if they’re out of work.”

What’s gone unrecognized, she said, is the collective trauma that our society has gone through in multiple ways, including the two wars that have been ongoing and the mortgage investment debacle which has led to many people losing their homes.

With unemployment stuck above 9 percent nationally and continued high unemployment feeding anti-immigration sentiment in many parts of the country, she said, “I don’t think there’s a sense of pulling together around it. We’re a very divided country right now.”

“I think that coming together initially is what people do in a crisis, in natural disasters,” added Jenks. “That’s the part of human nature I’d like to see flourish instead of the self-protective, go your own way and make it on your own kind of thinking that leads to divisiveness.”

The Rev. Kate Stevens, pastor of First Congregational Church of Ashfield, agreed, and pointed to the recent flooding and the threat of this summer’s tornado as ways in which people feel more vulnerable today — much of which she believes was triggered by the 2001 attacks and the Bush administration’s response to them.

Unlike most of the world, Stevens said, “We’re a little immune to what happens, so all of sudden when the U.S. is attacked, we act like we’re the only ones who’ve ever suffered. We’re still involved in two wars because people play on people’s fears.”

Stevens pointed to the fight last year over whether to allow an Islamic community center to be built two blocks from the World Trade Center site as illustrative of what she fears most: the prejudices that have been incited by some voices in

the media and in politics.

“It’s fear, but really it’s prejudice and it’s racism and fearing ‘the other’ that made a lot of people in the country feel they have to stick together, that it’s us against them, whoever the ‘us’ is.”

‘Outpouring of emotion’

Because the attacks fell in the gray zone between an organized criminal act and a military exercise by a declared enemy state, the response can be viewed — and has been 
viewed in different ways.

Linda Tropp, director of the Psychology of Peace and Violence Program at UMass, said, “There was a moment where many people in the U.S. and around the world felt an incredible outpouring of emotion about what happened and were on the side of the United States, saying, ‘We’re so sorry for your loss.’ Instead of capitalizing on that and investigating in a meaningful way the question, ‘Why do they hate us so much?’, we as a nation instead sought to reassert our dominance as a world power.”

As a result, she said, “We‘ve become so focused on reaffirming our world view, and debating about who’s really an American,” that we’ve tended to glorify our country, “and not question or look critically at our own decisions or actions. In terms of curbing future conflict, that’s problematic.”

Desensitization

“What really frustrates me is the political maneuvering and nobody focuses on how to stop things without alarming everybody,” said Greenfield Police Chief David Guilbault. “There was that little colorcode event thing. We never knew what that meant, and after a while, nobody paid attention to that. There was no coordinated thought behind that.”

Guilbault said that personally, he’s frustrated by how desensitized people become.

“We reset ourselves so mu ch,” he said. “When something bad happens, everybody’s all amped up about it and scared, and they say how come we didn’t catch that.

But then we get back to normal and we have to take our shoes off and have to get padded down. If you have to ensure my safety by checking me at an airport, I don’t take issue with that.”

Guilbault sees the Sept. 11 attacks as “criminalistic behavior. People are going to do that one way or the other no matter what stand we take with them, so you have to prepare yourself for the criminal element one way or the other … It’s pretty safe in New York City because a very concentrated effort has been made and they’ve put a lot of effort into that, but like any kind of criminal behavior, they evolve. Once the targets are hardened there, they’re going to find somewhere else to do what their thing is. So you have to constantly react and adapt. There’s some kind of tradeoff, but people need to be aware.”
We also need to think more broadly, said UMass Sociology Professor Emeritus N. Jay Demerath III.

“I think Americans have a very difficult time understanding how anybody could dislike this country,” he said. “They see us always in the right, even when we’re manifestly in the wrong, and they have a hard time putting themselves in the shoes of others elsewhere, and that’s too bad, because that’s the world we’re now living in.”

Demerath added, “Instead of reaching for answers of a sophisticated sort, answers that would require a deepening of our knowledge, understanding and appreciation of what was going on in other countries to trigger this thing, we tended to recoil in a kind of patriotic response that was largely military and has gone on 10 years. And the remarkable thing is it HAS been 10 years, and we haven’t really come to terms with the situation successfully.”

‘Psychological damage’

Ted Thornton, a Northfield Mount Hermon School history and social sciences teacher who has taught a course about the Mideast for 34 years, said, “What explains a lot of the psychological damage is that this was the worst attack on the domestic United States since the War of 1812, when Great Britain burned Washington, D.C. Pearl Harbor did provoke a tremendous response, but … here was New York City, the iconic center of American culture and it was attacked. I think we continue to underestimate the psychological damage from that … We’re still very much living in the psychological dust storm created on that terrible day. Much more time has to go by before we’ll completely heal.”

Thornton said he’s been encouraged by the “counterjihad” that’s now taking place in the Mideast, “initiated largely by secularized, young Arabs.” He’s also heartened by the growing interest in learning about the Mideast and Islam — enough so that for the first time this year, NMH had to offer two sections of its course on the Mideast.

Yet Stewart ‘Buz’ Eisenberg, a civil liberties lawyer who teaches criminal justice at GCC and has represented seven men detained at Guantanamo, is concerned about the long-term impact on civil liberties in this country.

“From my perspective, the damage to civil liberties has been terrible over the last decade. That we’ve eroded some of the Constitutional principles we use to define our freedoms is a concern of mine. Throughout our history, our Constitution has suffered its greatest body blows in times of fear … Until we confront our fears with a commitment to preserving our real freedom, we’ll keep bleeding as a result of 9/11. We should not be surveilling our citizens, we should not be punching holes in the notion of probable cause.”

Working together

When the attacks on the World Trade Center took place, Susan Marenec, now executive director of Montague Catholic Social Ministries, was living three to four blocks away on Murray Street. She learned about it at work far uptown when someone entered the drawing class she was teaching to look out the window, across Central Park to see if they could see any sign of what was happening. It took a month before Marenec, escorted, could return home, and she moved in 2009 to Leverett — where she’d had a house dating back more than 35 years.

“It changed our lives forever,” she said — although much more so for people living close by.

As a result of the pulling together by neighbors in lower Manhattan in the weeks and months after 9/11, she said, a community resilience grew that she believes may have had a deeper impact in how many non-profits work.

“People came together, and all the authorities were sequestered awa y,” she said. “A volunteer network developed and continued. And I think that continues to be a force in people’s lives. People found they could work together as equals without a lot of authority and direction, and that’s a kind of interesting energy that may be playing itself out. Now a lot of people are talking about ways in which, in the current economic and social environment, we need to think about new forms of leadership.”

“The power of people after 9/11 to bring people in this country together is maybe what I’d like to remember about it. It really was across class, across race, across political ideology, across religion.” Maranec said. “That’s what I’d like to think of as a legacy: we have a recent reminder of the fact that we can help each other and be better for that and have hope in that, in this day of so little hope.”

You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.c om or 413-772-0261 Ext. 269