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OPINION: The post-9/11 world through the prism of politics

Bruce G. Peabody is an associate professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J.

Once again, we face the test of making sense of Sept. 11, 2001, and its aftermath. Educators confront this problem with some immediacy, even nine years later. The memorials, television coverage and public remorse make ignoring the anniversary impossible. But, more important, teachers have a professional responsibility to offer students tools for ordering and understanding the world.

For some teachers, one of the rude reminders of 9/11 is that academia is ill-equipped for real-world problems of the most pressing, wrenching sort. The ivory tower provides little protection, little insight into the strange new world we now inhabit.

But I've come to the opposite conclusion, just as I did when I faced my disoriented, shocked students in the days after the World Trade Center attacks. On Sept. 12, 2001, I asked a deceptively naive question of my students: "What is politics?" Over the course of an hour together, we considered whether three classical accounts of political life still provided leverage on the problems of the 21st century.

First, we examined the perspective that politics is fundamentally about identifying friends and foes of the state. To my students, many of whom could see smoke from Ground Zero from their classrooms, the power of this view was raw and accessible, even if it came too late.

Today, of course, the "friend-foe" question remains central. American troops across the globe continue to make strategic and tactical decisions, sometimes erroneously, about which targets and citizens represent threats to their safety and military objectives. President Barack Obama's decisions to withdraw from Iraq and to increase our presence in Afghanistan were both premised on assessments about national security threats.

Or, we asked, is politics instead about "who gets what, when and how" - a viewpoint famously proposed by political scientist Harold Laswell? Some of my students resisted the idea that distributing "goodies" was linked with our national security and battlefield decisions. But nine years ago, even while emotions remained jagged, public officials quickly and ceaselessly raised these issues. Who would fund the recovery and cleanup in lower Manhattan? What institutions should guide the nation's anti-terrorism efforts, and how much authority would they have? How should we alter our foreign aid and military policies in light of the "new" threat of terror?

Many of these questions remain vivid today, reminding us that a vital feature of politics is its capacity to distribute our abundant, but finite, national resources.

Finally, we turned to an understanding of politics from ancient Greece. By looking to the distant past, we can reacquaint ourselves with a vital - if somewhat unfamiliar - conception of public affairs, based on promoting a particular vision of what is good for citizens.

We worry today about threats to soldiers and civilians and the costs of war. But as we scan the horizons of the future, it is this last image of politics that may become the most important. Ongoing discontent with U.S. policies in the Arab world suggests that the nation has considerable work to do in articulating, and rendering attractive, its conception of justice across the globe.

Students of politics and government leaders face similar questions in the years ahead. Who are our enemies and how can they be overcome, with force as well as with knowledge? With the continuing threat of terrorism, how do we distribute our bountiful but still limited resources to promote the interests of our nation and allies? And, finally, is our understanding of living well on a collision course with the values of other nations, and if so, how can we avert a wreck?

The questions are complex and unavoidable - and as old as the study of politics.

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