In an effort to prevent another event like the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and to mitigate widespread destruction, professors nationwide are combining their expertise in everything from medieval Italian literature to building infrastructure.
The connections between fields of study might sometimes seem hazy, but the effort to combine resources is all part of a piecemeal understanding being assembled to show the larger context of 9/11, beginning centuries ago and projecting into the future.
Many professors are bridging disciplines to provide insight without formal collaboration. Other researchers at Northwestern have tried to formally join together under the auspices of a new research center devoted to the various aspects of terrorism.
“(Terrorism) is such an enormously broad topic,” said Andrew Wachtel, dean of the Graduate School. “No university made it a focus before 9/11. There was no strategy with it as something we should all be studying.”
The Department of Homeland Security, created in 2002, has been central in shaping post-9/11 America and influencing much of the research done, Wachtel said. The department has funded several multimillion-dollar centers at universities to study terrorist threats.
NU applied for a grant last year to establish one of these centers to study the social and behavioral aspects of terrorism, but lost out to the University of Maryland. Several professors are awaiting a response to their proposal for a center focused on emergency preparedness.
Industrial engineering Prof. Wally Hopp said the collaborative, multidisciplinary work done under the proposed center could create a shift in the way engineers think.
“It could encourage students to think big because engineering often asks you to think on a small scale,” Hopp said.
If NU’s plan is chosen, the center would pool resources and expertise from NU’s Transportation Center, the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems and researchers at other universities.
While engineers look at the practical implications of a terrorist attack, humanities professors are scouring the cultural and political framework of the Middle East for clues to help prevent another 9/11. Karla Mallette, a visiting Italian professor, said her study of Arabic influences on medieval Italian literature allows her to see the history of Islam in a continuum.
“We can look back to how Islam was dominant and how it slowly lost power over the centuries,” said Mallette, who usually teaches at the American University of Beirut. “We can look at the period in the medieval Mediterranean, when Muslims and Christians lived in relative peace.”
Mats Fridlund, a visiting history professor from Sweden, said he incorporated written music responding to 9/11 in his Winter Quarter class on terrorism. Most people don’t have firsthand experience with terrorism, he said, so the only way most experience it is through popular and high culture.
Prior to 2001, Fridlund was studying the evolution of science and technology, but after the terrorist attacks he shifted his focus to how terrorists innovate and use new technology.
In the past few years, the trend among academics has not been to change fields, but to alter the focus of their research if they are studying a subject related to terrorism.
“To retool and relearn everything to take advantage of (research money) is a really difficult thing,” Wachtel said. “People build careers over long periods of time.”
Although student demand is high for courses related to the Middle East and terrorism, Wachtel said he is wary of diverting too many resources to the subject. He explained that interest could suddenly fall off, similar to what happened with Russian classes after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
At the undergraduate level, Arabic classes that received a boost in enrollment after Sept. 11 remain popular. Lynn Whitcomb, a lecturer in the African and Asian languages program, said the sustained popularity of Arabic has led to talk about turning fourth-year independent study into a regular class.
Students’ interest in the Middle East is also reflected in jumps in participation in the political science department.
Although the political science department has no terrorist specialist, the number of students majoring in the major has doubled in the past few years, said senior lecturer Yael Wolinsky. Wolinsky, the political science curriculum coordinator, said she is hesitant to link the spike solely to Sept. 11 because it was just one event in many that demonstrate the changing security environment for the United States and the need to focus on the Middle East.
Whitcomb had the same reservations in reference to the rise in Arabic enrollment.
“Sept. 11 is partially related but ongoing interest has to also do with the continued importance of the Middle East in current affairs,” she said. “It reinforced the perception that these are things to pay attention to.”
Reach Amy Hamblin at [email protected]
BOOKS FOR A POST 9/11 WORLD:? Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage by Maria Rosa Menocal? The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization by Richard W. Bulliet? A Faceless Enemy: The Origins of Modern Terrorism by Glenn E. Schweitzer and Carole Dorsch Schweitzer? The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States by National Commission on Terrorist Attacks? Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society, 13) by Mark Juergensmeyer? Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11 by Thomas L. Friedman? Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by Maria Rosa Menocal ? Understanding Terrorism: Psychosocial Roots, Consequences, and Interventions by Fathali M. Moghaddam (Editor), Anthony J. Marsella (Editor)