University hosts series of events commemorating 9/11 terrorist attacks
The Community reflected on 9/11.
In commemoration of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the University held multiple events for the community.
The Center for Spiritual Life held 9/11 commemoration events on Sept. 9 and Sept. 11 at Fellows Garden. Both events were meant for students, faculty and staff to reflect on the lives lost.
Another event, “Politics and Psychology: An interdisciplinary discussion of bias, perception, terrorism, and international policy after 9/11,” featured professors who used their fields of study to shed light on different aspects and perspectives of 9/11.
Prof. Jytte Klausen (POL) and Prof. Gary Samore (POL) started the panel with an exploration of the technical details of the attacks and their effects on international policy.
Klausen, a political scientist, began by recalling the exact details of the moments the planes hit. “The country was blindsided,” she said. The fact that these attacks were successful and the U.S. government so terribly missed what was happening still shocks her. Her research shows that there were presidential morning briefings saying Al-Qaeda was planning an attack, even though the “how” and “when” was unclear.
After the planes hit, there was a flood of military defense reactions but none were successful because the United States was unprepared for an attack of this type and magnitude, Klausen explained. This detailed information about the attacks is what caused the budding, and now widespread, global war on terror.
Samore then took the stage to speak about the impact of the 9/11 terror attacks on U.S. government policy, specifically nuclear policy. In this sphere, America’s primary focus prior to 9/11 was to limit the arsenal of countries with nuclear weapons and limit the spread of access to nuclear weapons. Post 9/11, the focus shifted to preventing non-state organizations from using nuclear weapons in the United States. The terror attacks not only transformed the focus of government research and policy but also of perception.
“It was no longer amateur hour,” Samore said. The general public and government officials agreed that if Al-Qaeda had the ability to carry out such an effective attack, it was plausible that they could acquire nuclear weapons. Fear became more pronounced and widespread.
As Samore looked back at the past 20 years, he observed that there has not been a mass casualty attack on the United States by nuclear weapons. “We may have exaggerated the threat in the shocking aftermath, but I think the efforts the U.S. made to prevent non-state actors from using nuclear weapons were successful,” Samore explained. The efforts Samore discussed are a part of the U.S. counter terrorism campaign, carried out by the U.S. Intelligence Community and the Department of Homeland Security — all of which weakened Al-Qaeda’s leadership and power. “For the foreseeable future, Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) terrorism will be low likely but high consequence,” Samore concluded.
Considering the U.S. military’s presence in Afghanistan for the past 20 years and Biden's most recent decision to pull U.S. troops out of the territory, it was undoubtedly a topic of conversation. In Samore’s opinion, the previous administrations’ (President Bush, Obama and Trump) decisions regarding Afghanistan — continuing the attack on the Taliban and eliminating Al- Qaeda — were “completely justified and successful.” Coming back to Biden's decision, Samore believes nation building in Afghanistan was, and continues to be, a futile effort. Biden was right that this mission is beyond America’s capabilities, according to Samore, but he could have kept troops there to sustain low levels of casualties.”
Klausen voiced a stronger opinion on the matter. She disagreed with advocates of the phrase “ending the forever war [against terrorism].” According to her, this is in fact a forever war and her prediction is that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan will return “really soon.” Her research shows that a direct attack by Al-Qaeda on the United States is unlikely in the near future, but there are significantly more affiliates of Al-Qaeda than before. The United Nations Security Council reports that 40,000-100,000 militants fall under the Al Qaeda umbrella. Although Al-Qaeda may not pose a direct threat to America, these militants and their possible collaboration do. “My professional opinion is that we have a lot of reasons to be concerned,” Klausen said.
On a panel on Sept. 10 titled “Then and Now: An exploration of how 9/11 shaped personal and professional lives,” three University professors reflected upon the 9/11 terrorist attacks, speaking about their own experience and memories of that day.
Prof. Carol Osler (IBS) began by recounting walking past the World Trade Center and witnessing a group of people looking up at the building, watching as some of the people inside were jumping in attempts to reach safety following the aftermath of the first plane crash. As she walked toward the ferry to get home, against the flow of people following the river out of the city, Osler said she had “this really interesting deep, deep upswell of fear.” She added, “It was, oh god, I wish there was a strong man right next to me. It was honestly biological. I’m not like that.”
Osler then discussed her fearful experience of trying to get in touch with her family and keep them and her neighbors safe. As she was calling her family, the second tower collapsed. “There was a deep, deep rumble. It must have been like serious earthquakes. The whole ground was shaking and there was this deep sound,” Osler said. “It was terrifying to me.” She said that her children were in daycare at the time, just two blocks away from the collapse, and she had to run outside to ask people which way the tower had fallen, worried it may have hit the daycare center.
After discovering that their children were safe, Osler and her husband decided to leave them with the daycare center while they focused on helping the crowds of people seeking safety at their apartment building. She said that her downstairs neighbor let in refugees: “Women, children and some men were coming across the river completely unprepared. We had people with no shoes. We had people with no money. People just came as they were.”
Osler said that at first, no one realized the first plane crash was part of a terrorist attack because it was so unexpected. She said, “We allowed our own hopes to guide us and, in addition, we couldn’t think beyond our normal experiences.”
Prof. Amy Singer (NEJS) followed Osler at the panel. Singer recounted a very different experience of 9/11, having been abroad on a trip back to Israel from England at the time of the attacks.
Walking through the airport, she said that a kiosk had been playing news clips from CNN, but with subtitles instead of sound. Singer remembered watching the plane crash on the news, but assumed that it was “a tragic accident,” as she didn’t have the context behind the event.
Singer said that her next memory was of boarding the plane to Tel Aviv but not taking off because of an issue with the engine. While the passengers were waiting, they turned their phones back on, and Singer said that they each began to gather the news of the attacks over phone calls. She added that most people on the plane were from Israel, and they had been concerned that the attacks would end up being connected to their country. “There was an atmosphere of complete uncertainty,” she said.
Since she was far away from the United States, Singer was not concerned for her own safety following the 9/11 attacks, but once back in Israel, she finally heard the full story on the radio and began contacting family and friends in the U.S. She said that every conversation she had was similar, recounting how each person she spoke with was trying to express their emotions and fears. “They [were] telling me what they had seen, what they had experienced, and then trying to convey their confusion and anguish at being so obsessed about talking about those things over and over and over again and reliving those traumatic experiences,” Singer said. “When you are at the center of some life-threatening event, you relive it, you talk to all the people around you, and you process it that way.”
Prof. Neil Swidey (JOUR) was the last speaker at the panel. A journalist in Boston at the time of 9/11, Swidey’s experience involved trying to quickly gather the facts of the story and report on the terrorist attacks.
He said that his first feeling upon learning about the collapse of the first tower was “selfish,” realizing that he had a long, hard day of reporting ahead of him. “If you want to find the place to delay dealing with trauma, a newsroom is one of the best places to be because rumination and reflection is replaced with action,” Swidey said.
Swidey then described his experience of reaching out to people to interview in the aftermath, and how he found his undergraduate studies on the Middle East and Arab politics to be useful for covering this situation. He recounted speaking with Abdullah bin Laden, Osama bin Laden’s youngest brother, who was studying at Harvard Law School, and added that he interviewed Abdullah bin Laden at a restaurant owned by Osama bin Laden’s oldest brother, Hamid Karzai. “You can imagine the intense interest in getting somebody from the bin Laden family to talk,” Swidey said. He said that he learned that Osama bin Laden, an “outcast” within his family, “was going to war with his family as much as he was with the United States” by orchestrating the 9/11 attacks.
Swidey also reflected on his work as a journalist during such a large world event. “Journalism can play an important role in sort of creating and bringing up the floor of people’s knowledge of what we need to know so we can make informed decisions,” he said. “You’re trying to do that first draft of history, but trying to make that an informed first draft of history.”