Like all generation-defining moments, people of a certain age can remember exactly where they were on 9/11/2001 when the first planes hit the World Trade Center in New York…and later the Pentagon and the field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I was teaching at the University of Delaware. It was the second week of class. Amid my own existential fears as the 9/11 attacks unfolded, I had to prepare for the next day’s class—an introductory level class with many first-year students in it. How were they feeling? What were they thinking? What should I say? How could I be the “adult in the room” when I felt like the world I knew could be coming to an end?
After the first plane struck, faculty were coming out of their 9 o’clock classes and reporting that some students were running from classrooms and crying. Because it was only the second week of the semester, many students were away from home for the first time. Most University of Delaware students came from Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC. Many were desperate to reach family and friends in the affected areas.
Like many Americans, I was gravely concerned about what would happen next. Would more attacks follow? Was I safe? The eerie quiet on the afternoon of 9/11 only added to my unease. Like many, I stayed glued to the televised news throughout the afternoon and evening of 9/11. My usual nervousness about commanding the attention of over 150 young people paled in comparison to my worry about how to teach the next morning.
The next day attendance in class was high, but the usual din and chatter as students entered the classroom and took their seats was eerily absent. I asked students to take a moment of silence to remember those lost and honor those still missing. I then asked them to write a brief statement about what they were thinking, how they felt, and any questions they had. More than two decades later, those papers are a quaint reminder of the days before laptops and cellphones in the classroom and they are, most importantly, poignant reminders of the immediate impact of 9/11 for those young people.
Foremost on student’s minds on the morning after 9/11 were great fears of war—of possibly being drafted into military service or seeing family members or loved ones drafted. Students wanted answers to who, what, why…and they were deeply concerned whether this lead to nuclear extinction. “Being a military dependent, I have worried all my life about going to war and losing my dad. Now I am more concerned than ever about the use of nuclear weapons,” wrote one student .Another wrote: “I am most concerned about the decisions that will be made by a president and government in the days to come. Will going to war and killing foreign civilians bring back the dead?”
Many wrote that they were very scared for their parents and relatives—many of whom worked in New York City. Some had relatives who worked for the New York City Fire Department. One wrote, “Forefront in my mind is the fact that my best friend lives in Manhattan and has not yet been accounted for.” Many students had grown up frequently visiting New York City and they worried they might never be able to do that again.
In their brief reflections, students expressed deep empathy for the many victims of 9/11. It is difficult to convey the raw emotion found by reading the actual reflections. A few expressed concerns for the fate of Muslim Americans after the attack. One wrote, “I pray that who did this is not a Muslim because I’m a Muslim and who did this is not a Muslim because Islam does not say to kill. And I feel as if people are staring at me, thinking all Muslims are like this, I pray and hope that, if it is a Muslim who did this people should realize that not everyone or a group is the same.”
One of the strongest themes I found in these reflections is that students just could not understand why this had happened to the United States. “I never thought that someone would be able to hurt our country—which is the most powerful in the world.” Just as frequently, they worried about what this would mean for their personal freedom—to get on airplanes, to travel to cities, to go to school: “I feel threatened in many places that I have never felt threatened in before. I am scared to go to school thinking that maybe terrorists will decide to destroy the future of our country by bombing universities.” Or, “I cannot ever imagine feeling safe in my own home again.” Their innocence was shattered: “I was aware that terrorism existed around the world, but not in the United States. Our home instantly was no longer safe. A level of innocence and idealist optimism left me that day.” Another simply said, “I feel as if everything I have ever known is slipping away.”
Much has happened since 9/11, but I wonder how this tragedy has influenced the 9/11 generation of young people. The students who wrote those thoughts in my 2001 September class are now in or approaching their forties. What do they say now? Luckily, with the aid of social media—Facebook and LinkedIn, in particular—I have located a substantial number of those students. Many have established marriages, borne children, and grown into careers. Has 9/11 been a defining moment for this generation of young people and how have their thoughts developed since?
At this point, I can only speculate about how 9/11 has defined this generation. But in 2001, as
I prepared for my class during the evening of 9/11, I felt I had to provide a sociological perspective for what was happening. I hastily drafted a list of “Lessons Learned from Sociology in the Aftermath of a Disaster,” included below. These pieces of sociological wisdom resonated then with my students. I find them still meaningful today as we encounter other disasters—environmental ones, political ones, and local emergencies.
- Even under tragic conditions, human beings form meaningful relationships with each other.
- All religions have produced fanatical extremists. One should not generalize to all people of a given faith, even if the behavior of some is reprehensible.
- Prejudice is a negative attitude toward a social group and toward individuals who are members of that group who are then perceived to have the presumed negative characteristics associated with the group. Prejudice results in many false depictions of otherwise good people.
- Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s group (or culture) is superior to all others. It can distort one’s objective view of events.
- In situations of social conflict, people and groups tend to demonize perceived enemies, based on group prejudice. Individuals (and groups) can be held responsible for their actions without condemning all members of the stereotyped group.
- Don’t jump to conclusions in the absence of empirical evidence.
- People’s biographical experience is situated in given historical moments. One of the founders of sociological thinking, C. Wright Mills wrote, “the sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two in society.” Your biographies have been forever altered by these events and will shape your lives for years to come.
- Technological change had made us highly depend on devices like cell phones, the internet, television, and so forth. These new technologies are profoundly shaping our social relationships.
- Social order is usually something we can take for granted. When it is disrupted, people work to re-establish social norms (thereby recreating social order).
- In the aftermath of a disaster, people search for information to make sense of what they have experienced. Rumors abound in such a context.
- In a disaster, people tend not to panic, but engage in social behavior by trying to help others, connect with others.
- There will be many individual acts of heroism, tragedy, and triumph over the next few days, but remember that there are hundreds of thousands of people whose labor is an essential part of meeting people’s needs. These workers are diverse in age, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, and other social factors, though their work often remains invisible, unacknowledged, and undervalued.
- The United States is a highly diverse society, including citizens of different races, genders, nationalities, sexual orientation, religious faith, ethnicity, and other sources of diversity. Although these are factors that often divide us, we can work to create positive intergroup relationships and we can unite across these differences.
- There are few “degrees of separation” between any two random people in the United States. Be aware of this in your interaction and comments over the next few days since it is highly likely that someone near you will have lost a loved friend or family member.
Dr. Margaret Andersen is the Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor Emerita at the University of Delaware