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'American Schism' Author Details How 9/11 Divided US

FILE - The Tribute in Light art installation is seen from Empire State Building commemorating the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City, New York, U.S., Sept. 11, 2021.
FILE - The Tribute in Light art installation is seen from Empire State Building commemorating the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City, New York, U.S., Sept. 11, 2021.

As the U.S. commemorates the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, analysts and political thinkers are examining their impacts on American society.

VOA's Jackson Mvunganyi spoke to Seth Radwell, author of "American Schism: How the Two Enlightenments Hold the Secret to Healing our Nation," who says that after brief period of unity following the attacks, America has grown more divided.

The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

VOA: Where do we trace our divisions as we see them currently in America?

Radwell: That was exactly the question that led me to take a three-year hiatus from my business career to write American Schism. And I was not understanding how it could be that the American society that I had grown up in, the American dream which I kind of took part in, how we ended up becoming a society that was so bitterly divisive and that was characterized by rancor and acrimony, completely crowding out respectful political discourse. So that was what led me to this project.

And I was intent on tracing — I was convinced that it wasn't new, that there's always been divisions in America. And so I tried to find out where they came from. And in some ways what American Schism the book is, is an investigative tracing of where those divisions come from.

VOA: As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the deadliest attack on American soil, when you look back, how did this moment, how did 9/11 shape these divisions or the the schisms?

Radwell: I think it is a demarcation point. Certainly, 9/11 was a tragic episode. And I guess what's most relevant to me now is that in many ways, how bitter and divided we are today is tragic because after 9/11, there was a period of time when we were quite unified as a country, when we came together and empathized with each other and reinforced the elements of what make up the American credo, a lot of elements of why we were founded as a nation in the first place. And it seems like, in a way, we've wasted that unity that we had established because we've become so divided. So, I think it is a symbol of 9/11 for sure. And in many ways, my wish for Americans is that they could recapture some of the shared values that we celebrated in the aftermath of 9/11, which seem to have been lost.

VOA: And is this schism exceptionally American? Is it what drives the philosophy of American exceptionalism?

Radwell: Precisely. So, the book goes back to our founding, during the Enlightenment, and it articulates that there were two contending schools of thought, two different visions, if you will, of the country that were formed back then. And it pitted our founding fathers against each other. On one hand, you had Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin who had one vision of America, and then you had people like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton who had a very different vision.

And so, what I show in the book is how the divisions that we have today trace back in fact to that original split of what became the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans. And there is a definite tracing that's useful. In fact, what the book does after describing that early part of our history as being so important, it then examines five episodes of our history using this frame of these two competing schools of the Enlightenment as a lens to make sense of what happened.

And then in the third part of the book, it actually distills core lessons and lays out a path forward in terms of how we can heal our divide. And I think that's going to require both structural changes and mindset changes that we as Americans need to embrace.

VOA: And speaking about moving forward, for those saying that we are tired and we want to work towards healing and unifying this country, what lessons will they learn from this book about the compromises the founding fathers had to make as they embarked on this American experiment?

Radwell: What they'll find is a couple of things. The first thing they'll find is that in our history, we've had many, many periods of disagreement, sometimes vehement disagreement, which became, of course, quite violent like in the civil war. But we've made the most progress when we've been able to forge compromises and recognize that even though we're very different — the original 13 colonies were very different — when we work together and we compromise and forge solutions, we have an ability to do exceptional things.

And I would say that, you know, that the reason why America became the beacon of hope in the world is not because of our military might or because of what we just tried to do in Afghanistan. The reason why we became so envied are two things.

One is our experiment in self-government, which was far from perfect, has been the most transparent and successful and open of any society in the history of the world. And the second thing is our model of meritocracy, while again far from perfect, has allowed people to come here and succeed without needing to be nobly born or born into a rich family.

'American Schism' Author Details How 9/11 Divided US
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