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Responding to Terrorism Symposium

September 13, 2001

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Robert Vitalis is Associate Professor in the Political Science Department and Director of the Middle East Center. He joined Penn'sfaculty in 1999 and has become a popular teacher of courses on modern Middle East politics and American foreign affairs.

Professor Vitalis' research interests lie in political economic developments in the Middle East and the impact of race relations on the formulation of foreign policy.

Analytical Distance

This University is a great place. It allows me to do this thing. I'm having a disconnect in all the conversations about America and its greatness. I believe and feel the things that you feel today. The disconnect is this: that this University allows me to tell you something that most Saudis don't know about their own history that I want to tell you about and that most Americans won't recognize about their own history. This is why I'm kind of dismayed sometimes by what I've been hearing in the past few days in discussions about Osama bin Laden. I'm writing a book about it that I call America's Kingdom, about the early days of the United States and Saudi Arabia and it was in those moments when Osama bin Laden's father was first coming up out of an impoverished existence that I'm interested in. It's at those moments when America ruled a place called Saudi Arabia, more or less. It was the days when the first King of Saudi Arabia told the Americans, your people treat my people worse than we treat dogs in this country. That was the same year that the American ambassador to Saudi Arabia wrote in his last dispatch back to Washington about how he couldn't decide whether to consider Saudis dogs or children. This was a tricky one in terms of their psyches. But it was also about a king that Harry Truman said "with a few million dollars we can do whatever we want with."

It's that moment long ago in Saudi Arabia in a place where Americans would not let Saudis sit on their own soil, where Americans were living and told them they had to use bathrooms that were for Saudis alone, could not use water fountains that Americans drank from and would not have the same rights, would not get the same benefits. It's that moment that I'm writing about and those are the distant origins of this place, I guess, the United States; and it's place in the world, that we forget when we talk about how great it is at any moment or what its values are or how it's constantly climbing up the ladder to greater and greater equality and freedom, etc., or those values that are most important. Because many, many other people know a different story about this state. And the University lets me say, lets me think about that. There are very few other spaces where I could think about that. The Saudis won't allow me to say it. The oil from the Saudis keeps me out of the country because I'm saying it. Why? Because that's a kingdom today to quote the Washington Post "that runs a medieval torture regime shrouded in feudal secrecy." And yet it is our closest ally in the region besides Israel and we've been very close to for forty years.

I love this country. In the past few days we've all been defining ourselves as part of a country. I feel connected to you guys in a way that I hadn't been before. But then a week ago I was telling at least some of you, you and I are a community here at the University. There are these two communities that I'm kind of in love with right now--the country and the University--and there's a tension between those two communities, in some sense. It seems to me the University requires us, forces us, obliges us, to step back from the discussions that go on as a nation, the patriotism, the revenge, the hatred, the passions, and try to get some analytical distance to think this through. And the University requires us to do that and it tries to make it safe to do so. It's important to make it safe to do so, particularly at moments like this, because it's at moments like this these things that I'm saying now could prove costly. And other moments when there are possibilities for war--or possibilities of violence or of the intervention--that people saying that I'm talking about today would get them into trouble. So I respect that about the University. Use this argument that I'm making about requiring you to get some analytical distance on the past few days to embrace what the University is, that would do that because it's also a coping strategy. It's been a coping strategy for me for the last few days to just step back and think about it or to say I'm going to think analytically for a second, not like a pundit, not like someone calling for I'm ready to decide who gets to die tomorrow and we'll figure out later what country it's going to be.

There's another important thing about this moment. See how you felt for the past few days? Now it's hit you. How you've seen everyone just going crazy. I've been sitting crying listening to the stories about a son calling up their mother at the last minute on a plane and sort of saying I love you very much. You know how bad you felt at that moment? You know how angry you feel now? There is the beginning of wisdom. Take that understanding that you yourselves are experiencing now because you get the chance, it seems to me for the first time in a long time, if you care to use it, to think about how other people are feeling about this country in the course of a long war it has waged with many, many people. Reasonably or not, their conceptions of that is right or not--it's direct rule or not, whatever stereotypes they also exercise--they feel that anger and rage because they know people who have died. They have relatives who have died, people who know people or imagine they do or construct stories about the wars waged upon them by the state that we celebrate, sometimes as the single remaining super-power, the beacon of light--those are the stories they construct about us and its that rage that they feel that lead to events like this at least in part.

I'm agreeing with all my colleagues, but it's worth repeating, these are not crazy people. They are people like me and you. Here's why, and this is true, and I've got a dumb way of thinking about it. I don't know what you guys have been doing, the new Buffy's not on yet, at any rate, right? The Sopranos are not on, I don't know if you have HBO in your dorms yet, but HBO just started running a new series Band of Brothers, a ten part series about WWII. If you don't get HBO, run with this example: Saving Private Ryan. Here's the point about Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan: in some sense they tried to de-romanticize the process of warfare. If you remember Saving Private Ryan, all these guys that you were starting to love really early in the movie, what happens? First invasion a lot of people get killed really quickly. The HBO series, during the first two hours, about one hour forty-five minutes is showing you these eight or ten guys going through seven or nine months of basic training in order to be able to make them do the things that they were about to do. It's to go fight in the war, part of the invasion of Normandy. They had to be turned into machines to carry out this process because they are ordinary people and they had to be convinced in order to do this thing.

Now we call one set of folks suicide bombers, crazies and terrorists. These folks understood, as they were about to parachute down into Normandy, that there was a very, very good chance that they were going to die as a part of this process. And we don't call them crazy, understanding that they are probably going to die in defense of some project or other--we call them heroes, or patriots and I don't think there's any difference in the sense of the psyches of the folks who are doing the acts that we witnessed in the past few days. They have a project; they've been trained to do it; there might be a hope against hope of surviving but they understand that they are doing it for some other greater good.

I'll finally give you one more point and maybe this is going to be the hardest one because I thought of it this morning as I was walked in on the campus and I saw the editorial in the Daily Pennsylvanian, that led me to make the following call: that we exercise a little humility right now at this key moment. Just be a little quiet and think through what we're claiming. Take that analytical distance again. Do we really believe that this is the worst tragedy in the nation's history? By rewriting the past that way, you do some great injustices I think. I want people to think hard about that instead of reaching for what seems the fastest thing that they can think of. Do we really think that the rest of the world is suffering like the Penn campus from the terrible calamity? I don't know what it means to claim the rest of the world is doing something else. But if we had to be a little analytical about it, I would guess that that is not a true statement. That is very, very far from true about the world at-large. So again, the analytical distance, the humility, the stopping and thinking and we'll do the right thing at this moment.

Back to SAS Symposium on Terrorism Introduction

Terrorism Symposium Addresses:
(click on names below)

Brendan O'Leary
Arthur Waldron
Seth Kreimer
Ian Lustick
Robert Vitalis

Almanac, Vol. 48, No. 4, September 18, 2001


September 18, 2001
Volume 48 Number 4

A $10 million gift to the Wharton School from alumnus Al West Jr. creates a Learning Lab.
The Penn community gathers to remember the thousands of victims of the terrorist attacks.
The Penn community reaches out to help the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund and the Blood Drives.
Penn Police take extra precautions to secure the campus.
Counseling services for Penn faculty, staff and their families as well as group counseling through the EAP are provided free of charge.
Recovering from trauma, loss and disasters is complex, as explained in a booklet from CAPS. Emergency consultations are available.
The SAS Symposium on Responding to Terrorism includes the views of five Penn faculty members who discuss the various considerations of responding to the recent attacks.
A Penn student who expressed her views on WXPN shares them.
The 9th Annual Penn Family Day is set for October 20 with food, football, face painting and fun at the University Museum.