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Conference Addresses Moral Tensions of 9/11 and its Aftermath


Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, welcomes attendees to the conference.
Photo by Chris Taggart

Powerful emotions came to the fore at a Fordham conference that gathered scholars, religious leaders and survivors to reflect on the legacy of Sept. 11, 2001.

“I came here today to have an intellectual experience of post-9/11. Here I am, reduced to tears—tears which I thought had all but dried up because I had healed and could now focus on how to prevent such a thing,” said a member of the audience at “Moral Outrage and Moral Repair: Reflections on 9/11 and Its Afterlife.”

“I was one of the escapees from one of the towers… My travail was terrible on that day, but I was spared death,” the attendee continued. “I have come full circle and still try to understand terrorism or who is accountable. Therefore, whom do I forgive? Is forgiveness a value in a vacuum?”

These words captured the quest for moral understanding that underpinned the daylong interdisciplinary conference on April 12, which was sponsored by the Center for Ethics Education and the Center on Religion and Culture.

Panels helped “shed light on the psychology of terrorism; why terrorist acts can erode political tolerance for diversity; how religious beliefs can lead us to act with compassion, reason, and justice; and how we, especially us New Yorkers, grapple with our moral outrage against the perpetrators of 9/11 and our personal and community quest for moral repair,” said Celia Fisher, director of the Center for Ethics Education and the Marie Ward Doty University Chair.

The conference also engaged the audience in one of the most vexing challenges facing Americans: how to respect human rights while staying vigilant about homeland security.

The United States is wrong to sacrifice its commitment to human rights for increased security, according to Michael Perry, the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law at Emory University, who took to task those who would embrace measures that keep the United States safe but trample fundamental rights.

“We must not succumb to the delusion that we are immune to becoming moral monsters,” said Perry, who is also the University Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law and Peace Studies at the University of San Diego.

Human rights mean nothing if we only support them when it’s convenient, Perry said.

“It is our human capacity to inflict horrors upon one another—and even to imagine that we have a transcendent warrant for inflicting horrors upon one another—that constitutes the most compelling reason for us to take human rights so seriously, to the point of risking occasional failure to prevent future harms,” he said.

Fellow panelist M.A. Muqtedar Khan, Ph.D., associate professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware, said that a perceived clash of values between the West and the Middle East does not exist.

“We are not dealing with a clash of values, or even a clash for values,” Khan said. “What we have really witnessed in the last 10 years is a clash against values. It seems that both sides are competing in downsizing their moral stature.”

Khan, a native of India and the author of Debating Moderate Islam: The Geopolitics of Islam and the West (University of Utah Press, 2007), said the actions taken by radical Islam and the United States have only served to drive the two sides further apart. Osama Bin Laden started the downward spiral by misappropriating Islam for an act of evil, but the United States has contributed to that spiral through its actions in Iraq, he said.

Moreover, there is an existential crisis in the Muslim world, as people try to decide whether Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran or Indonesia provides the best model for the future, Khan said. This insecurity makes introspection extremely difficult, which is why there is widespread denial of any culpability for 9/11.

“They deny it not because of conspiracy theories, but rather they cannot morally accept it because they are not ready to accept it,” he said.

Khan also said there is a crisis of morality among Muslims.

“Muslim scholars are afraid to talk about the profound principals of forgiveness that are in the Islamic scriptures because they don’t want preachers applying them to Israel,” he said. “We don’t want people to start forgiving Israel before we have created a Palestinian state. You know, let the political goal be achieved, and then we will worry about morality.”

In his opening remarks, Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, emphasized the University’s role in promoting healing after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“It is all too easy for us to dwell on the past, and all too easy for us to tap into the moral outrage that we all felt on Sept. 11 and in the months that succeeded it,” Father McShane said. “But as men and women of great faith, it is our very important duty to move beyond moral outrage to conversion of heart and mind.”

He then asked attendees to pause for a moment of silent prayer for those who were lost that day.


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