Louise Richardson, the incoming vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, has attracted controversy for suggesting the US overreacted to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
Richardson is a well-respected expert on terrorism studies and made her comments in the context of a nuanced argument about how nations should best respond to terrorism in the contemporary era.
It is however inevitable, given both Richardson’s new status as the head of a prestigious institution and the politically charged nature of anything to do with 9/11, that her views have attracted some angry responses in the US. But is she right?
The emotional response
Much of the hostile media reaction to Richardson’s comments drew on contributions from the relatives of people killed during the terrorist attacks. Clearly, no one would wish to tell bereaved family members of those killed on 9/11 that their grief and anger in response to those events were an overreaction.
But when talking of an overreaction to 9/11, Richardson clearly has in mind the broader collective response of the nation to the events, rather than the personal responses of individuals directly affected.
In this broader sense it seems self-evident that the US did overreact in various ways to 9/11. In the weeks and months following the terrorist attacks of 2001, fear about the country’s newly realised vulnerability combined with an invigorated sense of patriotism throughout the country.
George W Bush’s narrative that the terrorist attacks represented an assault on the country’s most precious values of freedom and democracy resonated with Americans. So too did the stated intention to go to any lengths to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice.
In many respects this outpouring of patriotic defiance stemmed from what is best about America – a strong sense of collective identity based on shared values, a commitment to seeing justice done and an optimistic belief that the wrongs of the world can be made right.
But it subsequently manifested in some ugly ways. Patriotism based on an assertion of common values can easily morph into an intolerance of dissent. This clearly materialised in the post-9/11 US. Voices which questioned the dominant narrative were denounced as treacherous.