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?