Themes in American History: Capitalism, Slavery, Democracy

The 20th Anniversary of September 11th


Today is the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001—an event which took place before many of you, the students in this class, were born, but which continues to shape our experience in ways both acknowledged and unseen.

Whether you are aware of it or not, many of you are among the first generations of college students who were born after Sept. 11, 2001—a milestone of sorts for those of us who remember that day vividly as something that shaped us in the prime of our lives, and have struggled to convey the meaning and significance ever since as witnesses and teachers.

For those of us who are able to remember that day in detail, it brings back a plethora of conflicting emotions: shock, horror, rage, disbelief, and, for far too many of us here in the New York City area, the unfathomable grief that attends the loss of a friend, family member, or loved one, even many years later.

At the same time, it is worth trying to consider 9/11 as an historic event—meaning that, among other things, we try to understand and evaluate it more or less objectively. How does our understanding of the events of 9/11 change if we view them as part of a continuum with the past and/or as an indicator of change over time, rather than as a seemingly random event with no history or context, as the sudden appearance of passenger planes headed towards the Twin Towers seemed to so many of us that day?

Another question we might ask is, “how has the United States changed in the twenty years since 9/11?,” Posing such a question almost unavoidably asks us to confront the deeper question of whether those changes have been for the better or the worse. Coming on the heels of a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan—the longest war in our country’s history, with failures spanning two decades and multiple presidencies, from President Biden’s responsibility for the withdrawal to President Trump’s signing of the terms of the agreement with the Taliban, to George W. Bush’s fateful decision to go to war in the days and weeks after 9/11—it feels like an especially appropriate time to contemplate that question.

In the twenty years since 9/11, there have been many excellent books, essays, documentaries, and think-pieces written about the events of that day and what has transpired since. Unfortunately, there has also been a tremendous amount of misinformation, disinformation, racially- and religiously-motivated hatred, and conspiracy theories. One of the questions we will try to address in this class, is how to distinguish between valid, less valid, and implausible or deceptive interpretations of historical events. With an event like 9/11, where there is still much that remains  unknown (and will probably always remain so), and where emotions are particularly raw, it can be particularly hard to separate fact from fiction. One place to start is the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, which has an ongoing and ever-changing series of exhibitions and events. If you have the time for a longer series, and feel you can handle a more unstinting look at what has transpired in our country in the years since 2001, I also recommend the Frontline documentary “America After 9/11.”

I invite you to weigh in on this blog post with your thoughts and comments, with a gentle reminder to keep your comments respectful and to avoid repeating unfounded facts or conspiracy theories. Although we will not return to this subject until the end of the semester (and probably only briefly then), I hope that by that time, we will have filled in enough of the gaps in our knowledge of American history as to begin to put the events of Sept. 11th, 2001, in perspective. Only then can we address the bigger question, which falls to all of us, but particularly to you as members of the coming generation: Where do we go from here?

3 thoughts on “The 20th Anniversary of September 11th”

  1. As 911 was chaotic and life-changing for all Americans it is very important that we remember 911 with much love for that day many lives were lost. That’s what I really like about this post as it is not only very detailed but also very life-like due to the inclusions of personal perspective. Although one might read this blog and question themselves and their perspective but found it to be eye-opening especially with the question “how has the United States changed in the twenty years since 9/11?” for which I have a lot of answers but one simple one would that American gotten more diverse than ever. Throughout this post I have questioned myself a lot but also found clarification for those thoughts which is always great as to this 911 is changing American for the better. Which is the wonderful aspect of this blog as it reminds us of the past and how we as a country can do better going forward.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your post about September 11th, 2001 because it really is a traumatic event that took place. And even though it happened in New York City, it affected the whole country and generations after the event. My mom tells me stories about her experience during 9/11 because she was working a block away from the Twin Towers that day, and the things she tells me are horrific to imagine. A question that you raise in your post about how the United States has changed in the twenty years since 9/11 was quite interesting. It really made me curious because I didn’t live before the 9/11 event or experience it so I only know the result of 9/11. But the only thing that came to mind when thinking about this question was airlines. My family likes to travel a lot and whenever we go to JFK or LaGuardia, waiting in long lines for TSA guards to check bags and make us take off our shoes and all metal items, the same thing is always said by my parents, “The airports used to never be like this.”. And I always wondered what airports used to be like before 9/11. Were there full-body metal detectors before 9/11? Were there security guards in every section of the airports? Was it more laid back? And is 9/11 the result of why almost all important or historical sites are filled with security guards and people checking bags? This historic event raised a lot of questions for me and although the event has already happened, I would like to experience a world where 9/11 and terrorist attacks didn’t take place.

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