On Sept. 11, 2001, I was a college student in Illinois. Like most Americans, I was stunned to witness the 9/11 attacks on television. Like many individuals with relatives who had survived atrocities, the images of destruction evoked for me connections to faraway places.
When I was a child, my father told me stories of his experience of resettlement as an 11-year-old refugee in India’s 1947 war of partition, recounting the loss of his home as he was driven out of the new land of Pakistan. The most vivid memory from these stories was the moment he traced a coin-sized circle on the palm of his hand to indicate the size of his daily ration of rice in the refugee camp.
Today, as refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan and elsewhere journey toward northwestern Europe, the knowledge that thousands are dying along the way provokes anger and frustration. “No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark,” writes poet Warsan Shire. And yet knowledge of the world’s shared exposure to violence revealed in the ruins of 9/11 or war-torn Syria might also be a resource for building a future in which one’s identity or birthplace will no longer mandate unequal vulnerability to premature death.
As this year’s anniversary of 9/11 approached, I had just convened my fall classes at UNC-Chapel Hill. I was teaching a course I designed called “Literature of 9/11,” which explores poetry, novels, films, comics, essays, journalism and documentary materials related to the public memory and legacies of the 9/11 attacks.
The course quickly became a topic of public debate. A first-year student who was not enrolled in my course declared that “Literature of 9/11” did not adequately represent victims. Based on a list of the assigned texts published by the campus bookstore, the student wrote on a national website that “the readings mostly focus on justifying the actions of terrorists – painting them as fighting against an American regime, or mistaken idealists, or good people.” The story went viral and was aired on one national cable news channel, reaching an audience of millions. A deluge of hateful email swamped my inbox; meanwhile, the university was flooded with calls to fire me and cut humanities funding.
There have been heated debates over how to ethically represent 9/11. Theodor Adorno famously wrote, “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” After 9/11, the sentiment was instead to publish photographs after 9/11 is barbaric.
On Aug. 26, my students read Tom Junod’s article on the famous “Falling Man” image depicting a man in mid-air as he jumped from the burning towers. We explored the controversies over this image and similar ones, like sculptor Eric Fischl’s Tumbling Woman, which was removed from Rockefeller Center after complaints about its graphic content. As we examined laments from relatives of the dead, we also viewed Alejandro Gonzales Iñarritu’s film about the victims who jumped from the towers.
The director blacks out the spectacle of the burning buildings and forces the viewer to zoom in on each falling individual, to hear the last phone calls of the victims on the planes and finally to listen to the sound of these human beings hitting the pavement at the moment of death. Disturbing as these scenes are, they attempt to individualize the dead, helping the filmmaker ask a question that on first glance seems to denounce religious extremism and on second seems more critical of the media’s obsessive repetition of the images of the falling towers: “Does God’s light guide us or blind us?”
Two days later, the story about our course began circulating online. It was disorienting to spend our class discussing the ethics of mourning and the application of Holocaust, postcolonial and trauma theories to 9/11, only to return to my office to find dozens of emails accusing me of sympathizing with terrorists, calling for the deportation or extermination of all Muslims or telling me to “go back where I came from.” (I was born in Nashville and grew up in Topeka, Kansas.)
One reason critics attacked me is that I teach three texts – “Poems from Guantánamo” and the novels “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid and “The Sirens of Baghdad” by Yasmina Khadra – that are easy to caricature as representing the viewpoints of terrorists. None of these texts is actually so one-dimensional. Khadra, for example, was an Algerian army officer who fought in that country’s civil war against Islamists, and his publisher brags that his books have been taught at West Point. Yet the book titles and authors’ names – along with the assumptions readers made about my own identity – left my course an easy target.
The student who criticized my course later admitted that he had never read any of the assigned texts. He just lifted impressions from Amazon.com reviews. Had, for him, reading itself become barbaric after 9/11?
This was a cynical attack on learning and an attempt to censor writing exploring the fraught histories of U.S. overseas military interventions. Yet reflecting on such topics is exactly the task that the memory of 9/11 and all other mass atrocities urgently requires of us.
Admirably, students at UNC have consistently opposed attempts to stifle public education and critical thought. This includes strong resistance to smear campaigns against UNC orchestrated by the John William Pope Center that aim to justify university budget cuts in order to advance the program of tax cuts being pushed by North Carolina’s state legislature.
It is time to end the hijacking of the public trauma of 9/11 for the service of such narrow political agendas. To ask critical questions about the legacies of mass atrocity is our collective responsibility. If we don’t answer that call, there will be no possibility of moving beyond the acts of retribution, hatred and fear that continue to remake today’s world in the image of Manhattan’s rubble.
Neel Ahuja is associate professor of English, comparative literature and geography at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is the author of “Bioinsecurities: Disease Interventions, Empire, and the Government of Species,” forthcoming from Duke University Press. He teaches the courses “Literature of 9/11” and “The New Wars” at UNC.