We all remember where we were on the morning of September 11, 2001 — the image of the first tower crumbling fresh in our minds. But seven years later, we are still struggling to come to terms with the tragic events of 9/11 and find our place in a “post -9/11” world.
“I don’t believe I’ll ever forget the sight of the smoke coming out of the side of one of the Twin Towers,” President David Skorton said. “My first thought was of disbelief; this cannot be happening … I felt all of a sudden as if we were vulnerable. Americans were vulnerable on our own soil.”
Along with the shock and fear that came from the terrorist attacks came a new sense of patriotism. Americans seemed “prouder” to be American and stood united in the face of terrorism and Al Qaeda, an enemy few at the time had heard of.
Prof. Peter Katzenstein, government, was in Manhattan for the year.
“It was the beginning of September, and it sort of made this year very special for everybody that was there,” he said. “We were an instant community.”
Skorton described this sense of community, both in N.Y. and across the country.
“Though I wasn’t in N.Y., people of N.Y. and even across the country came together, though we don’t always agree politically or sociologically,” he said.
The tragedy unified Americans, but the fear that followed was also a dividing force. The discrimination against certain religious and ethnic groups in the aftermath of 9/11 is a blight on what is often seen as a time of unity.
Though on Sept. 20, 2001, President George W. Bush told Americans that “no one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith,” just one month later a poll conducted by ABC News/Washington Post showed that many Americans did not listen.
44 percent of respondents to the poll said they support authorizing police to randomly stop anyone “who appears to be Arab or Muslim,” 28 percent stated being Arab or Muslim should be an important part of the profile of a suspected terrorist and 39 percent said their suspicion of people of Arab descent had increased.
President of the Muslim Education and Cultural Association at Cornell Jasmin Sahbaz ’10, was born in Bosnia but has been living in the United States since the age of seven. On 9/11, Sahbaz was in middle school and remembers being in his social studies class when the news first broke and going to math class “where we all stared at the TV in horror for a good 20 minutes.”
Delbert Abi-abdallah grad, a Lebanese-American, was born and raised in Lebanon and came to the U.S. for college in August of 2001.
“In terms of connection, I think I share the same sympathy and anger and patriotism as any other American, given that I am American,” he said.
Abi-abdallah also described the prejudice he experienced.
“Given my last name, of course I had a hard time after September 11. The frequency of random checks at airports makes you want to wonder are they really random? Also given my last name, still to this day people will assume certain things about me even before they get to know me,” he stated in an e-mail.
“You are automatically branded as a backwards-thinking, terrorist-supporting, American-hating Arab. Forget about the fact that I am American and Catholic, but that seems to not register with most people,” he stated.
Sahbaz noted that ignorance breeds such prejudice.
“The fact that Muslims and Islam are constantly associated with 9/11 is, quite frankly, unfair. There is no basis in Islam for such acts as the ones that were performed on Sept. 11,” he stated. “The word Islam comes from the word peace in Arabic and so if one studies the laws and regulations of the religion they will find that there is no basis for acts like this in the religion.”
Skorton noted another negative effect of 9/11 is that we now live in a more polarized world.
“I think it’s just more important than ever in a pluralistic world, even if some perhaps violently disagree, that the University be the site of openness, freedom of expression and people coming together across arbitrary lines — background, gender, sexual orientation, race, socioeconomic — cross those boundaries and become comfortable. If we want to survive as a species, we have to get past those things. I think that’s the most important lesson from 9/11,” he said.
The long-term effects of the events of September 11 on both the American identity and foreign policy are not clear.
“On a personal level the attacks that day were deeply shocking,” said Prof. Fredrik Logevall, history, who was born in Sweden and was teaching in California at the time. “But I’m not convinced that 9/11 changed America’s place in the world and the immediate tasks of foreign policy as much as the administration says it did.”
There was an outpouring of support from nations around the world after 9/11, but as Prof. Elizabeth Anker, English, noted, in the seven years since 9/11 that support has waned. Anker teaches a course that utilizes 9/11 literature as “an essential tool in making sense out of the increasingly confusing 9/11 world.”
“While the immediate aftermath of 9/11 inspired countries from around the world to express solidarity with the United States, in the intervening years we’ve fallen out of favor with many of those same nations. For this reason, it’s fair to say that 9/11 has created a heightened need for us to think about cross-cultural understanding, which isn’t always easy,” she said.
American foreign policy in response to the rise of terrorism has taken the U.S. into controversial territory.
Lieutenant Colonel Brian Page, a professor of military science, noted that both the concepts of national security and freedom have changed. Page served in Iraq for seven months on military transition team from July 5, 2005 to January 6, 2007. “I think the government is doing everything it can of a reasonable nature to keep the American public safe. It has changed the dynamic of our understanding of freedom … We had something precious in terms of security and freedoms that can maybe never be regained,” he stated in an e-mail.
The March 2003 invasion of Iraq is one of the most divisive actions to have been taken in response to 9/11.
“To say that 9/11 helped bring us the Iraq invasion is true, but it is also misleading. There is evidence that members of the Bush administration wanted to go after Saddam Hussein from the start, from long before 9/11. That’s one way we could exaggerate the influence of 9/11,” said Logevall. “One of the unfortunate consequences of the Iraq invasion is that it took resources and time from Afghanistan, and we’re paying a price for that now.”
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are two of the most important issues of the 2008 presidential election, and candidates continue to debate long-term military presence and timetables for withdrawal.
Today, a permanent memorial park is being dedicated in Arlington, Va. to honor the victims of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. The Freedom Tower, the memorial at Ground Zero, has suffered delays due to disagreements, and is set to be dedicated on Sept. 11, 2011, the 10-year anniversary of the tragedy.
When asked if he thought there was a proper way to commemorate the tragedy, Katzenstein responded, “How do we remember? How do nations remember? What’s the politics of memory?”
Furthermore, the issues surrounding the delays to construction of the Freedom Tower, he contended, are not entirely negative.
“There’s a lot of fighting about the memorial and what it should look like. Some people say this is terrible, we should have a memorial. But why do we fight about it? I actually think fighting about memorials is great because it keeps the memories alive,” said Katzenstein.