This semester I'm honored to be teaching in a pilot program that introduces first-year students to the academic rigor and habits of mind of college, while also helping them to become more digitally sophisticated. All of the students receive iPad2s for participating in the program, which they then must use to complete many of the course assignments.
I'm teaching a course titled "9/11 and the 'New Normal' Decade" with Spencer Bakich, a professor of international relations. He's a political scientist by training and I'm trained as a fiction writer, though my first book (and second, which I'm finishing up now) are both nonfiction.
Needless to say, we both bring very different approaches to the table. The readings he has selected for the syllabus are empirical in their method and focus on the evolution of U.S. foreign policy toward Iraq from the George H.W. Bush administration, through the Clinton, and up to George W’s.
I’ve selected readings like Susan Sontag’s shrill essay “Regarding the Torture of Others,” long-form investigative reporting by Seymour Hersh, as well as short fiction and essays set after 9/11.
So the students, all of whom were not even ten in September of 2001, are learning the definition and history of words and concepts that most of us take for granted, like Neo-con, Realist, Cosmopolitan, Enemy Combatant, Geneva Convention, Gitmo, and Abu Ghraib.
My colleague and I tag-team back and forth. I teach a few class sessions in a row, then he jumps in—back and forth, back and forth, what an offensive coordinator might call a good mix of run and pass. His stuff is the hard-nosed between the tackles running, and my stuff is the risky, long-bomb passing. At least that’s how it feels to me.
This isn’t to say that the foreign policy reading we’ve been doing is dull or uncreative. It’s just that the ethic of such thinkers is to take the long-view; to assess the strategic efficacy and prudency of events in light of the intricate, often unknowable (because secret) conversations and negotiations being had in times of crisis. To extend the football metaphor, as any coach will tell you, you have to run the ball to win.
By comparison, the work of Sontag and Hersh is clearly begins from a premise that the American War on Terror is wrong-headed and dangerous, if not morally bankrupt. Despite the palpable bias of such work, I’m attracted to it because of its great energy and urgency.
Let’s face it, unless you were a political scientist, or worked in the defense industry, your understanding of post-9/11 decision making is bound to be shaped by the immediate and stylistically excitable work of newspaper columnists, cultural critics, and journalists who were scrambling to try to make sense of the unsavory, and, in the case of Abu Ghraib, outright grotesque events.
It's been almost six years since I published my book on Abu Ghraib, but time has not diminished my strong feelings towards the event. Re-watching Errol Morris' documentary Standard Operating Procedure with the class, I felt a familiar outrage creeping in, a feeling that is very difficult to control.
So, even while I see my job in this class as making sure that the students (again, who were barely ten years old in 2001) see the events of Abu Ghraib and other allegations of abuse and torture, in the context of a much larger conversation about keeping Americans safe from further terrorist attacks, I feel like I can make no promises.
In fact, it's even clearer to me now, eight years after the incidents at the prison took place, that the abuses inflicted by military police and interrogators were not the work of a "few bad apples," but driven by policy authorized by the highest levels of government.
It seems even clearer to me now that the hundreds of photographs which fueled the scandal are, as Susan Sontag wrote in her essay "Regarding the Torture of Others," a reflection of American cultural values that exist just beneath our otherwise benevolent surface.
I believe this, and yet I have no empirical proof, no smoking gun, no paper trail from Rumsfeld to senior military officials authorizing stripping detainees naked, making them wear underwear on their head, etc.
Instead I am basing this judgment on my knowledge of human beings, which I have culled not from studying psychology or political theory, but from my experience of being human.
Right now in the class we’re in the midst of reading a forensic psychiatrist’s study of why and how young Muslim men become militant Islamic fundamentalists. His conclusions are based on close study of five hundred Islamic militants who had carried out terrorist attacks against the West.
It is an utterly fascinating study in that he makes it very clear that we must avoid falling into the trap of thinking that terrorists are merely evil or triggered by abnormal psychology.
His study shows that we must let go of the idea that Islam is a violent religion, as the vast majority of the terrorists had either very little or superficial religious training, or came from no religious background at all. In fact, some of the people he studied came from explicitly secular families and only later became what, in a Christian context, we might call “born again.”
This is not to cast asperity on religious conversion, but it is to point out that the religious zeal of the terrorists studied was activated and motivated by radical politics more so than scriptural “truth.”
At the risk of stating the absolutely obvious, Americans are familiar, and many are scarily comfortable, with this admixture of religion and politics. It is a mixture that leads many to declare America a Christian nation, a nation mandated to beat back the forces of evil. It is a mixture that authorizes Christians to commit blatantly un-Christian acts.
Perhaps we should call this the New Normal Christianity?