University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

An Intellectual Emergency

In the month following the horror of September 11, and 20 years after her frosh year, writer Margaret Webb returns to U of T, again seeking understanding of the world

September 11. I am standing in front of my former school, University College, staring up at the blue sky. The sun still has warmth in it, although it seems distant, more fall than summer. I am here to discuss a story for this magazine about the petty frustrations of modern life. I cannot remember the point of the story. There seems no point now. There seems no point to anything.

It does not occur to me until later that this is the first week of term, or that frosh will forever mark their first year of university by this event. Or that it was 20 years ago that I started university here.

There is an emptiness and silence on campus, even as students and professors hurry to class. Shock has hollowed us out, shut down time and thought, and even feeling. I am reeling from a first gush of anger directed at the terrorists. Then, as I stand in front of UC, a second surge of anger hits – this at the university.

What is the university doing, going about its business? I want U of T, the leading school in the country, with possibly the most diverse student population in the world, my school, to do something. Organize a blood-donor drive. Shelter stranded travellers. Declare a state of emergency. Declare a state of intellectual emergency. Because the world, complicated and frantic before, makes no sense now. Because coursing through my mind, compressed as it is between sorrow and anger, is one question: Why? Why did this happen, when there is so much knowledge in the world?

Paradoxically, in times of crisis, people seek comfort in their faith, even as they question it.

I believe in education.

And so I turn to U of T, 20 years after my frosh year, again seeking understanding of the world.

Week 1

Before the second World Trade Center tower is hit, U of T public-relations staff alert faculty such as Wesley Wark, a security and intelligence expert. Over the next several weeks, Wark faces a deluge of media calls, and spends five hours a day, seven days a week providing commentary and background.

“It’s a time for realism, not abstract philosophizing,” he says bluntly. “This will go down in the history books as the most difficult war any state or coalition has ever fought. The challenge is not just to destroy terrorism, but to destroy sympathy for terrorism.”

That, he says, will require simultaneous action on many fronts: intelligence, security and military measures and also diplomatic, educational and aid initiatives. “Globalization,” he says, “will have to prove itself to this problem.”

After the second tower collapses, Thomas Homer-Dixon, director of the Centre for the Study of Peace and Conflict, who predicted terrorist strikes on major financial institutions in his recent book, The Ingenuity Gap, rushes the first of a series of articles to the Globe and Mail explaining the attack. His thesis: narrow, short-term interests of the economic elite have provoked economic disparity, social unrest and political instability worldwide. Add to that maelstrom the easy access to technological advances that enables a few people to cause terrorism and great destruction. September 11 woke us up to this exceedingly complex, dramatically unstable world. Homer-Dixon questions whether we’re smart enough to solve the problems we have created.

It is apparent, immediately, why the university carries on with business. Its business is public education. And the whole world, it seems, is going back to school. The insatiable demand for knowledge quickly outstrips the supply of experts. It is part of what happens after a major trauma, says Cheryl Regehr, academic co-ordinator for the Centre for Applied Social Research and also former director of the critical incident stress team at Pearson International Airport. “Something like this strips us down, makes us vulnerable,” she says. While some become hypervigilant, seeking more information, others – overwhelmed – simply shut down.

Some academics avoid commenting publicly in the first days, begging time for analysis or for thinking through their role as a public intellectual. Chemistry professor Ron Kluger worries about discussing theoretical possibilities of chemical terrorism, lest that serve as a kind of “intellectual terrorism.” His job, he says, is not to put ideas into people’s heads or scare them.

Others admit they’re still stumbling. Abbas Azadian, a staff psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, observes trauma professionals exhibiting signs of trauma while working with patients. The deluge of media images, he says, can trigger a second wave of post-traumatic stress in anyone who has experienced past trauma, a death of a loved one. Is that not all of us?

Marginal note: How clearly are world leaders and strategists thinking?

We need a place to put our grief. On Friday afternoon, September 14, students, staff and faculty gather for memorial services on all three campuses, organized by, among others, the president’s office, the Muslim Students’ Association and the Campus Chaplains’ Association.

More than 1,000 people gather at the Great Hall in Hart House and present a tangible reminder of the university’s diversity: 50 per cent of all students self-identify as “visible minorities;” a little over 40 per cent were born outside Canada; 45 per cent speak a non-English language as their first tongue. That diversity, President Robert Birgeneau tells the mourners, not only defines U of T, but is its strength. Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Wiccan – the campus grieves together.

Later, addressing a group of undergraduates, the president finds himself talking about September 11. With so many communities represented at U of T, he says, “we have a tremendous opportunity to contribute to an understanding of how this happened, how we can make changes and what we should do in the future.

“At times like this, leadership matters,” he tells the students. “It sets the tone, guides the response.. Leadership will be even more critical as we move forward, because whatever happens, it will be controversial. We don’t want our community to break into groups. We want reasoned debate.”

Week 2
The Arts and Science Students’ Union hosts a forum at Convocation Hall. Called “A Campus Discussion on Peace and Tolerance, Responding to the Events of September 11,” it is more a lecture on tolerance than a discussion of issues, and a call to spread that message to the city beyond.

One student, questioning the participants on how we should respond to Islamic fundamentalism, is criticized for muddying Islam with terrorism. He rushes from the forum, furious.

Janice Gross Stein, Harrowston Professor of Conflict Management and Negotiation, director of the Munk Centre for International Studies and due to appear on national television as CBC’s Middle East expert, catches up with the student in the foyer.

She insists that when he describes the terrorists, at the very least he modify the term “Islam,” with the word “militant” or “extremist.”

Students crowd around. Voices ratchet up. Somewhere in the middle of the fray, Stein insists on careful language as a starting point to reasoned analysis. Finally, one student suggests that calling the terrorists Islamic fundamentalists would be like calling the Nazis Christian fundamentalists.

“Okay, I get it,” says the irate student. “So what do we call them, then?”

“I don’t know,” says Stein, challenging him. “I don’t have all the answers. What do you think?”

The group falls silent. Stein turns, addressing the students directly. “You have to think,” she says. “This is a very complicated problem, and it is going to get more complicated. Your freedom and civil liberties are going to be challenged as we respond to terror. You all have to take time to learn, think and reason very carefully.”
A student rocks back on his heels, as if finally locating his responsibility in the disorienting days after the crisis, and his sense of purpose as a student.

Marginal note: Think!

Rick Halpern, Bissell-Heyd-Associates Professor of American Studies, leaves the same forum feeling depressed. He despairs at the shortage of critical, informed thinking, especially in the mainstream media, the impulse to set up simplistic oppositions: good/evil, civilization/terror, East/West.

“To understand why this happened,” he says, “we have to think critically about American foreign policy since the Second World War and the Cold War. The U.S. supported authoritarian regimes that were open to the U.S. and hostile to the U.S.S.R. Popular democratic movements in the Middle East and the Third World were stifled. It’s important to understand these issues historically. We must struggle against societal, media and political pressure to label terrorists as evil or irrational, as if their actions took place in a historical vacuum. Warlords and extreme fundamentalists believe Islamic society is already under attack.”

Halpern also exhorts the university and his colleagues to snap out of their collective shock, to get thinking. “It is important in this eerie period to begin debate and to air as many views as possible. Once shooting begins, the ground we have for exchange may narrow.”

Week 3

Debate begins, on eggshells. It is marked not by tolerance, but by hypertolerance. With the wound of September 11 still open, whole conversations lurk in the shadows: rampant anti-Americanism in the Middle East, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, American military presence in Saudi Arabia, oil. And there is anxiety in the air that this time for intellectual analysis will not last.

Discussions, panels and lectures occur across campus, organized by departments, peace groups, student associations. The president calls for an ongoing seminar series. The Munk Centre for International Studies brings together “instant” panels of experts from a variety of disciplines.

As part of one panel, Stein says our great challenge is to balance ethical conversation, to analyse and critique “the other” while also analysing and critiquing “the self.” She urges us to keep all sides of the conversation simultaneously aloft, yet somehow resist paralysis and act to protect what is right and good: the diverse, pluralistic, democratic communities we have created.

David Welch, who will hold the George Ignatieff Chair in Peace and Conflict Studies starting in July, states the same challenge in other words: “One of my main interests is why smart people make mistakes. A common cause is that they are incapable of understanding how others see the world. We’re prisoners of our own world view.”
Welch is clearly the optimist here. He rates the risk of repeat terrorist attacks in the United States fairly low. He is encouraged that the U.S. is planning its response carefully, with “political effectiveness in the forefront, not military showmanship.”

Others are less optimistic. Ron Pruessen, professor of history with a focus on U.S. foreign policy and international relations, sets the crisis in the context of a global management issue. The United Nations – as an organization to vent and respond to international complaints such as the struggle to resurrect a Palestinian homeland – is not just weak, but dominated by the U.S. “The U.S. consciously sets an international manager role for itself – politically, economically and culturally – but it takes too much authority onto itself,” he says. “It talks about multilateral decision-making, but when push comes to shove, it acts unilaterally.” Consequently, when the Middle East’s frustration with oppression and deeply rooted conflicts erupt, the U.S. becomes a target. Pruessen doubts that the U.S. will change its style, present coalition-building notwithstanding: “Self-reflection happened post-Vietnam, but that did not produce dramatic changes.”

Paul Kingston, associate professor in political science specializing in the Middle East, could not be bleaker. The Middle East, he says, is in a state of crisis, suffering the effects of authoritarian regimes: political stasis, an absence of socio-economic reforms. He believes the intent of the terrorist attack was to produce a unity of identity and purpose in the Middle East and to provoke US military reaction, both of which could set in motion a series of events leading to major upheaval and revolution in the region.

Will it be a revolution toward freedom and democracy? Or toward more repression and authoritarianism? Or continued, painful stasis? Along with the security and civil liberties of Western democracies, at stake in this crisis is the very future of the Middle East.

Marginal note: So what do we do?

I call Aurel Braun, specialist in international security, law and terrorism. He has no time for discussing root causes for the attack, calling it intellectual laziness that confuses the issue at hand: terrorism. Indeed, he believes such debate psychologically disarms us and concedes the moral high ground required to respond. “Terrorism has occurred throughout history. One man’s terrorist is not another man’s freedom fighter. Stalin and Lenin were terrorists. The members of Hamas, Islamic jihad and Hizbullah are terrorists. Terrorists make a deliberate decision to kill innocent men, women and children to achieve their goal,” he says.

“Gandhi and Mandela were freedom fighters. Freedom fighters may or may not condone violence as an act of resistance, when directed against military or police forces that use violent means of suppression,” he says, “but a freedom fighter avoids deliberately targeting innocent individuals. Don’t dignify terrorism with some cause that seeks to better the lives of people, because terrorist action sets back that cause.

“We have to think of terrorism as the worst kind of disease. You do not make excuses for it. You give it no harbour. You have no dialogue with it. You seek to eliminate it.. They want us to cease to exist. That is why we have no choice but to prevail.” To prevail, he says, we must use all the tools at hand: politics, diplomacy, intelligence gathering, with military action being “a tool of last resort.”

Marginal note: What exactly are those tools? Who should apply them? And how? And how do we know when we have exhausted alternatives? When do we reach for that “tool of last resort?”

Discussion is just beginning.

Week 4
Still no military action. There is an odd excitement building on campus. In these three weeks, we have schooled ourselves in languages, histories, cultures, religions, politics and geography. The air fairly snaps with intellectual energy to think. I, however, feel a spiritual crisis coming on. Maybe I went to one too many panel discussions. The one on Afghanistan.

Marginal essay: Why can’t I really be back in school? I need beer. I need pizza. I need to stay up until 4 a.m. to talk all this out. It’s hard to find anyone who cares what’s going on under the bullshit of mainstream media propaganda. How could the West have once supported the woman-hating Taliban? How could we have abandoned Afghanistan after the Cold War, leaving it too weak to resist terrorists? What if we had invested in schools and hospitals there rather than the terrorists setting up training camps? I am so sick of this phrase: “It was in our best interests at the time.” Is it not time for a new diplomacy, one that serves the interests of the other, not just of the West? Is that not the responsibility of a stronger power, a moral power? Are we really protecting freedom and democracy, or hoarding it for ourselves?

I wait until morning, and then I call a philosopher.

On September 11, Brian Pronger, assistant professor of philosophy in the Faculty of Physical Education and Health, was introducing his fourth-year seminar students to postmodernism. For him, the philosophy acts as a lens for focusing the events of that day: modernism’s master narrative of progress and control is struck a massive blow by those resisting globalization. Now, in place of the West’s nice, neat version of civilization, we have this mess of postmodernism: multiple voices and cultures competing for audience and power.

So then, academia saw this attack coming years ago, I say. They’ve even been studying it. Isn’t it what could be called post-colonialism?

Marginal note: Did no one think to tell the Pentagon? Where did they go to school?

Postmodernism and post-colonialism are still theory, Pronger suggests. Materially, globalization is still a modernist project. It is a Euro-American program of development and control, which dominates and seeks to overwhelm competing voices.

To enter a true post-colonial era, with a harmony of cultures, will require a vast intellectual rethinking about how we share wealth and power. Pronger believes there’s little will for such change, although it possibly could happen among future generations. “That’s why the university has a critical role to play in these world events,” he says. “There has been a real denigration of the power of reflection. To be a wise person has come to mean you know how to make a smart investment. It’s about being shrewd, not about having an advanced capacity to think about the meaning of life or the human condition. The university should be trying to resurrect this mission of reflection.”

Marginal note: What is the cost of real security in the West? What meaning does September 11 have? Will its meaning depend on how we react?

I can no longer put off talking to representatives of the Muslim and Arab communities. In the early days of the crisis, they were called on to defend their faith and culture, to differentiate themselves from the terrorists. I wanted the air to cool so that we might have a meaningful conversation – to simultaneously analyse self and other. The air has cooled – to a chill. One professor tells me that one of her students involved in human rights groups was approached by CSIS (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service) for an interview.

It is difficult to critique a problem when one faces racial profiling and diminishing civil liberties. It’s even more difficult when the community lacks experienced and tenured academics from an array of cultures and races. It is a weakness of the university that the diversity of its student population is not adequately reflected in its faculty, a shortcoming the president acknowledges and has vowed to redress.

Amir Hussain (BSc 1987 UC, MA 1990, PhD 2001) studied comparative religion at U of T and is now teaching Islamic thought and religion at California State University’s Northridge campus. He is the only Muslim in his department. “I’m new to this professorial thing, but there are so few of us who study Islam it’s not like I can slough off media calls to six other faculty members,” he says.

And so when Politically Incorrect sends a limo to pick him up, he appears on the TV talk show to chat about the crisis with host Bill Maher, Will & Grace star Eric McCormack, author Robert Young Pelton and actor Lynn Redgrave. What ensues is at best a superficial discussion, but Hussain credits the show for trying. “People don’t know the basics of Islam, even though there are seven or eight million Muslims in North America. Immigrants came here for a better life, and now they’re being attacked as being representatives of the governments they fled.”

Shahrzad Mojab escaped from Iran in 1983, a political refugee, and is now an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of U of T. She is a staunch critic of political Islam and also of U.S. involvement in the Middle East. “Islam is fine as a personal choice, but if a political system is based on religion, it automatically excludes people and makes it impossible to create universal citizenship rights,” she says. “In the Cold War, the U.S. had a policy of supporting the fundamentalist groups, as opposed to more liberal and secular groups. I have a friend who refuses to speak about Afghanistan. She says the country she knew was ruined, that this is not her country. She says you [Western powers] created this country and this regime, this misery and this displacement.”

As a peace activist and feminist, Mojab says her position in the current crisis is awkward: “When I look at it on the surface, my choices are war or this repressive regime of the Taliban,” she says. “I have to work very hard to put myself in a place where I can think of more than those two choices.

“As citizens of the world, we ultimately have to take governments to task and put international mechanisms in place to discuss and remedy the situation, use international tribunals to bring people to justice and create a unified economic and social justice policy toward these countries.”

MuchMusic came to campus this week to do a story on Prof. Ron Deibert’s Networks, Nations and Global Politics class. Last year, Deibert secured funding from the Canadian government, chose six students from the first-year international relations class and gave them an assignment: change the world. The students formed a coalition to bring neglected diseases to the attention of world leaders at a G-8 summit. The assignment was taped for a reality-based TV series that aired on TVO last fall, called Activist TV. It’s like Survivor, only with brains. And heart. Oh, and a point.

“I have been arguing that material forces are pushing us toward a single global polity,” says Deibert. “We live on a planet that has a kind of loosely organized, top-down, top-heavy governance regime run by the U.S. and the other G-8 countries. I have been exploring ways of making global governance more democratic. I have been trying to make students more active, to feel that they have a say. Anti-globalization activists or, a better term, activists for a global civil society, have been energized by this crisis. We are going to see very large social movements in the areas of peace and global security.”

Serendipitously, this year’s Activist TV assignment is peace and security. And the scope is broader, to include six teams of six students, chosen from schools around the world.

Thanksgiving weekend. I leave campus for the break, hopeful. It may take time. And it may take a whole university. But the scope and dimensions of the problem are finally coming into focus, so that we can begin to think of solutions. I can’t wait to get back to school to hear what Deibert’s students come up with.

October 7
The US and Britain start bombing Afghanistan. The next day, Canada commits to sending military support.

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  1. 2 Responses to “ An Intellectual Emergency ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    As an American I have regretted my country’s arrogance down through the years and have opposed many of its foreign policies. And as a Canadian (I now have dual citizenship), I am bothered by the way Canada is falling in step with the U.S. and by how transnational corporations are calling the shots for both governments. I am still bothered by the self-righteous reaction of the U.S. – as if such attacks came out of a vacuum, and as if the U.S. has not been guilty of terrorism, too. After being deluged by the American-dominated media, I was pleased to see such a reasoned response by the president of the university, by faculty members, by students and in U of T Magazine.

    Larry Carney
    BA 1956 St. Mike’s
    Windsor, Ontario

  3. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    I was struck by the passage that quoted Shahrzad Mojab: “If a political system is based on religion, it automatically excludes people and makes it impossible to create universal citizenship rights.”

    The emotion is understandable. Even so, I feel some comment is needed. The commandment at Christianity’s centre ends as follows: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” In my own experience Christians do, in fact, try to live by this principle. And while I can only speak for Christianity, my understanding is that comparable injunctions are found at the heart of all the world’s major faiths, and their adherents aspire to live up to them.

    In the global village we are all neighbours. Religious people fail at times like anyone else, and the belief/politics relationship is fraught by its nature, anyway. Even so, “automatically” and “impossible” sound somewhat dogmatic, and uncompromising. Mojab’s laudable zeal for citizens’ rights presumably includes the right to justice, including factual truth about the citizens themselves. A university of all places will want that to happen.

    John Powell Ward
    BA 1959 UC
    Dartford, England