Finding the Past in the Present

A new course taught by Shahnaz Rouse (sociology) explores America’s growing security state.

Shahnaz Rouse (sociology)

For many Americans, September 11 represents a sharp delineation between two eras: one in which we were safe from the threat of international terrorism and free to carry on our lives without fear, and another in which that sense of safety was wrested away and the freedom we’d taken for granted suddenly looked like the vestige of a more innocent past. For Shahnaz Rouse, our recent history is not that simple.

As a historical sociologist, Shahnaz labors, she says, “to see what traces the past leaves in the present.” And when it comes to what’s been called America’s growing security state—marked by heightened surveillance, an expansion of executive powers, and the curtailment of individual freedom in the name of public safety—she sees many such traces. Her sense that “the past is never completely over and done with” was an inspiration for a new course she created for the 2015-16 academic year, “The (In)Security State: A Long History?”

“[These issues] are not going to go away any time soon—and depending on the outcome of this year’s elections, they might become even more relevant.”

By nature, Rouse is an asker of questions: Born overseas, she moved here in the late 1960s “to understand the US better, firsthand.” The course, too, was born of questions that had long intrigued her, and not just about our expanding concern with domestic security and the concomitant constraining of civil liberties. Rouse also wanted to explore the growing view of dissent as dangerous, even “unpatriotic,” an increasing reliance on military solutions to address political problems, and the demonization of certain marginalized communities, including African Americans, Muslims, and Latino/as. These issues, Rouse says, “are not going to go away any time soon—and depending on the outcome of this year’s elections, they might become even more relevant.”

They are inarguably timely. But are they truly new? Did September 11 really, as so many believe, change everything? Part of Rouse’s motivation in creating the course was to have students tease out the answers to these questions. In fact, she says, “you can go back to the very beginning of the US” to see similar forces at work: the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, for example, which targeted “foreigners” and nationals for deportation if deemed “dangerous,” and laws passed after the Civil War restricting the movement and labor of emancipated blacks. Similarly, Rouse suggests that while the trope of American exceptionalism—the US is inherently greater than other nations—goes back centuries, it has been deployed in recent years to justify, for example, the invasion of Iraq in the name of democracy.

Like Rouse’s thinking, the course, which she plans to reprieve sometime in the near future, was nuanced and intellectually rigorous. And like the colloquium she cosponsored earlier this year, “Being Muslim/Muslim Being,” and the 2014 conference “Re-Envisioning Pakistan,” which she organized with economics faculty member Jamee Moudud, Rouse’s class encouraged diverse points of view. What she wasn’t looking for was certainty. “People tend to leap to find answers before they even know what the questions are,” she says. To help determine those questions, she recommends a historical perspective. “History gets us to recognize things that appear new,” Rouse notes, “but have their roots in earlier iterations of ‘self’ and ‘other,’ ’citizen’ versus ‘alien,’ and attendant modes of framing ‘reality.’”