9/11 tragedy continues to evoke strong emotions, says Vanderbilt professor

Listen to an audio interview with James Booth.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Feelings of grief, anger and vulnerability over the 9/11 terrorist attacks five years ago remain strong for most Americans, according to James Booth, a Vanderbilt University professor of political science and philosophy.

Booth, whose research includes the remembrance of national events, said that the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001, has not diminished substantially in the minds of many citizens, especially those who lost family members and friends. “One might have thought that the passage of five years might have healed some of the ‘visceral open wounds’ that Americans experienced from the tragedy, but the feelings are still intense,” he said.

Booth points to the tremendous controversy when United 93 was first released, especially in New York City, since many thought it was too soon to watch the film. He disagrees. “Films, novels, academic studies and other projects about 9/11 are going to appear, and there will be discussion and debate about how best to remember the day,” he said. “While the controversy can be painful, it’s an unavoidable part of what we do in a democratic society when we remember significant historical events.”

Booth is not surprised about the intense disagreements among various groups about how best to design some of the memorials to the 9/11 victims. “Some people feel that the memory should be specifically American while others prefer a more global theme. Some want a memorial that is viewed in the context of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the need for increased national security,” he said. “It is a fact of life in a democracy that these memorials will be contested and interpreted in different ways.”

Booth remembers that there was much controversy about the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., when it opened in 1984. It consists of two giant walls of polished black granite inscribed with the names of men and women killed or missing in the Vietnam War.

More recently, Booth said, there was debate about the design of a Holocaust memorial in Berlin. The Vanderbilt professor recently spent time in Europe researching how the Holocaust victims and World War II soldiers have been remembered there for his recently published book Communities of Memory (Cornell University Press).

“I was especially interested in seeing how the European nations that fought with the United States have handled the issue of German dead on their soil,” he said. He explained that it was intensely political since the Germans during World War II were associated with Nazism and mass crime.

Booth said that at one German war cemetery in France, a plaque says that visitors should not be quick to judge individuals because they could have been pressed into service by the Nazis, but they should still be quick to judge what the Nazi regime did. “This is a memory balancing act. The French do not want to be entirely judgmental, but they cannot pretend these are just innocent individuals buried there,” he said.

Just as there are continuing efforts to educate young people about the atrocities of the Holocaust so that it never happens again, Booth said it is important for Americans not to let 9/11 slip into oblivion. “The same destructive forces that were active that day are still active today and clearly intend for the United States and other democracies to be harmed,” he said. He noted that the recent discovery of a plot to use liquid explosive to blow up planes is a reminder that 9/11 wasn’t one isolated incident, but part of a broader event in world politics. “The act of remembering the 3,000 innocent human beings who died that day is a deep moral obligation for all of us.”

Booth will present a videoconference on Sept. 11 through the Vanderbilt Virtual School. Read more about the videoconference.

Media contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, (615) 322-NEWS

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