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The passage of time, and the frustrations from Iraq have blurred memories of September 11th, six years ago, when the World Trade Center crumpled in an apocalyptic cloud of dust, ash, and fire. Many assumed "our world would never be the same." Yet, Osama Bin Laden's Islamicist terrorists failed to derail Western society. Life for most of us in the West continued with little interruption.
Of course, for the victims' families, for the soldiers subsequently deployed, life changed dramatically. But for most Canadians and Americans—especially on campus—9/11 was not the turning point many assumed it would be. Increasingly, our campuses are filled with 9/11 babies, students whose first major news story was 9/11; today's 22-year-old seniors were 16. These students appear far more influenced by the iPod and YouTube than by al Qaeda and Bin Laden.
Similarly, judging by the down-is-up tendency among many colleagues to blame the United States for being attacked, few academics changed their worldviews, let alone their lifestyles.
This imperviousness to what so many labelled this era's defining event reflects great strength—and weakness. Bin Laden's fatwas, with their grand if perverted ambitions, show how dramatically he and his henchmen failed. Bin Laden expected the West, not just the US, to collapse as quickly as the Twin Towers did. Claiming credit for bringing down the Soviet Union via the Afghan war, thinking in sweeping historical terms about the Crusaders' fall, Bin Laden hoped to destroy Western civilization. His unholy war continues. Still, for all the troubles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan since, despite periodic lethal terrorist bombings, Western society continues to thrive, as do the individual countries the Islamicists hate, which, contrary to much conventional wisdom here, includes Canada.
Despite the anguish terrorism causes and the attention terrorists attract, terrorism overall has been militarily insignificant. Cars and cancer kill many more people; even tiny Israel has over 100,000 births a year, dwarfing the number of terror victims. Moreover, modern democratic capitalist consumer societies like the United States and Canada are incredibly stable. Consider, as only one of many indicators, the multi-decade mortgages unsentimental bankers offer. This phenomenon, which we take for granted, reflects our world's blessed steadfastness.
Stability is addictive. Constancy can easily lead to complacency. Our growing immunity to 9/11 as a warning signal, especially in Canada, is doubly problematic. For starters, in a world with chemical and nuclear weapons, complacency could be lethal. The failure during the 1990s to take Osama Bin Laden's words seriously resulted in the 9/11 tragedy. The Islamicist movement's volatile mixture of religious millenarianism, political fantasy, and ever-escalating violence demands vigilance. Just because Iraq has been mishandled does not mean the West can ignore the problem of Islamicist extremism. The recent arrests in Germany and the United Kingdom Britain suggest how widespread, central and broadly threatening Islamicism is—despite the amoral, intellectually reprehensible and politically dangerous trend to equate Islamicism with Jewish and Christian fundamentalism.
Complacency can also be enervating, individually and communally. President George W. Bush failed by not channelling the surge of public concern after 9/11 into a broader redefinition of the American—and Western—mission in the twenty-first century. The ease with which partisans from all sides resumed their usual stances, the growing individuation and selfishness of our wireless worlds, reflect disturbing tendencies toward political polarization, intellectual sclerosis, and moral disengagement that are inimical to democracy—and to a vital university life.
Here, then, is probably our great failure as academics over the last six years—and longer. Six years ago history disrupted our reverie. Rushing to return to normal, we, like George W. Bush, missed a great opportunity. We need to make our campuses centres of political creativity, intellectual daring, and moral grandeur. We need to think more broadly and more deeply about our role and our students' role in the world. We need to do this to help face the terrorist threat to the West more seriously and effectively; but we also must do this to make sure that our universities are not merely credentialing factories mass producing the complacent careerists of tomorrow, but are cutting edge centres of active and engaged learning, nurturing the leading problem-solving citizens of today—and tomorrow.
Gil Troy is Professor of History and on leave this year finishing his next book Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, to be published by Basic Books in April.