I’ve been lucky in my life to have had wonderful teachers–the kind who know which buttons to push to get the most out of you, all the while seeing things in you that were, at least at first, completely obscured from your own view; the kind who make you a better person, and not just a better student; the kind who you always wanted to, but never felt you could, both satisfy and adequately thank. The kind to whose example, as a teacher, you always aspire. But for as many wonderful teachers as I’ve had, none hold a candle to Nasser Hussain, Professor of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought at Amherst College, who passed away on Sunday, far too soon.
I first met Nasser in January 1998, as a wide-eyed, second-semester Amherst freshman, when, mostly because all of the other classes in which I was interested were full, I enrolled in his class on “Law and Historical Trauma.” Although it was only Nasser’s second year at Amherst (hence why the class was still open to freshmen), the course was a wonderfully complex and yet deeply accessible study of the role law plays and has played in the formation of historical memory–how societies react to violent crises, how they remember them, and what work, if any, there is for the law in such situations. That was my first introduction to, among other things, war crimes trials, truth commissions, Holocaust deniers, and a universe of other critical topics all going to “the politics of memory.” And, as someone whose only real life “plan” at that point was to maybe pursue a Ph.D. in history (if my sportswriting career didn’t work out, anyway), it was a life-changing experience. Nasser not only opened my eyes to the role law could (and often did) play in shaping these historical narratives; he opened my eyes far more fundamentally to the transformative potential (and deep potential for violence) of law, in general. And I was hooked.
I took three more classes with Nasser while I was at Amherst, and wrote my senior honors thesis–on the forgotten history of the post-World War I war crimes trials–under his supervision (which included more than a few timely interventions to save me from myself, or to demand that I do more than just tell a nice story). I have such profound memories of sitting in his office (which was in such a weird corner of the LJST department that it took me the better part of two years to find it), desperate to figure out what I was missing, or what more I could be getting, from the material. More than simply stirring my interest and passion as a student, studying under Nasser convinced me both that I wanted to go to law school, and that I wanted to teach others. It’s no exaggeration to say that the shape of my life would have been profoundly different had it not been for Nasser–and, even though it would have made him terribly uncomfortable to hear me say it, almost certainly not for the better. I went to law school, then, thinking that I wanted to work on the nascent International Criminal Court. Given my work with Nasser, it hardly seems like a surprise in retrospect that, after the September 11 attacks (during my second week of my 1L year), my interests turned toward our domestic legal response to such a traumatic episode, where they remain 14 years later.
Nasser wasn’t gregarious. But as Catherine Epstein, Nasser’s colleague in the History Department and Dean of the Faculty, perfectly summed it up, “Nasser was known for his irreverent wit, tremendous kindness, and unfailing generosity. He began teaching at Amherst in 1996 and has inspired countless students and colleagues,” including me–someone who was lucky enough to start as the former and end as the latter. But lest this focus too much on his teaching and mentorship, Nasser was also a first-rate scholar, whose work on law and emergency is as sophisticated as it is widely respected. His masterful book on “The Jurisprudence of Emergency,” which uses case studies from the British colonial experience to explore deeper lessons about the relationship between emergencies and the rule of law, is simply a tour de force, and one I routinely find myself returning to in efforts to derive deeper lessons from the United States’ reaction to the 9/11 attacks. Nasser also worked closely with his colleague, Austin Sarat, to produce a series of fascinating collections of essays on hot topics in the field–including one I had the honor of participating in on “The Rule of Law After the Bush Administration.” Not surprisingly, of all the papers I’ve written as a legal academic, that’s the one over which I lost the most sleep–terrified that Nasser wouldn’t think it worthy. Nasser was also a beautiful writer. Don’t take my word for it, though; read for yourself two short essays he wrote for the Boston Review–one in 2010 on the colonial origins of counterinsurgency, and another more recently on the phenomenology of drone strikes.
In the time that I was lucky enough to spend with him as his student, and to interact with him as a fellow scholar, the two things it always seemed that Nasser hated the most were praise and obsequiousness. As such, I’m sure that, wherever he is, he’s “tsk”-ing me for this very blog post. But among the many things I learned from Nasser was that the politics of memory can be very fickle. And so although he may be gone way, way too soon, consider this my first attempt to preserve his story. I know that I will never forget Nasser Hussain for as long as I can remember anything. And I know that I will do whatever I can to make sure we don’t forget him, either.