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Making of Increasingly Defiant National Identity

Book shows why attitudes, policies have gotten darker as 9/11 threats recede

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May 30, 2013 | by Hilary Hurd Anyaso

CHICAGO --- Conventional wisdom suggested that America would get back to normal as heightened concerns about safety and negative perceptions about Islam subsided following 9/11. 

To the contrary, according to “What Changed When Everything Changed: 9/11 and the Making of National Identity” (Yale University Press, May 2013), a new book by Northwestern University School of Law’s Joseph Margulies.

In the book, Margulies describes how soon, but not immediately, after 9/11 cultural elites began to evoke an elastic language of shared values -- with words like liberty, equality, freedom and the rule of law -- to craft a national identity that justified increasingly tough political hostilities and policies.

“Everybody said we are most apt to overreact immediately after the emergency starts, and that with time and as the threat recedes, we would gradually get back to normal,” Margulies said.

“But I was seeing something very different,” he said. “Attitudes toward Islam were growing more hostile, not less. Support for torture was getting stronger, not weaker, and counter-terror policies were becoming worse, not better.”

Internationally recognized for his civil liberties work, Margulies stressed in the book that the increasingly hostile attitudes that have been altering America’s identity didn’t take hold immediately after 9/11.

“These attitudes took hold only much later, in response to concrete arguments about national identity that were advanced by very specific groups for very specific reasons,” he said.

A main focus of the book is how we “make” our national identity, particularly since 9/11.

“I describe how cultural elites invoke and manipulate language to craft narratives about the way the country ought to be,” Margulies said. “When a narrative comes to dominate in the public square, as when Jim Crow attitudes could no longer be squared with a commitment to equality, national identity is remade, if only for a time.”

Changes in national identity do not just happen, as if by some cosmic passive voice, he stressed, “National identity is made.” 

Margulies, clinical professor of law and assistant director of the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern, was the counsel of record in 2004 for the first Supreme Court case regarding detentions at Guantanamo Bay. Later, he was the counsel for the first and only Supreme Court cases involving overseas detention of U.S. citizens in the war on terror.

He received the Silver Gavel Award, one of the American Bar Association's most prestigious awards, for his book “Guantánamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power” (Simon and Schuster, 2006). “Guantánamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power” is the “best account yet” of the detention policy, according to The New York Times’ Adam Liptak.