Looking back at Sept. 11

Probably anybody over the age of 30 has memories of September 11, 2001.

I was teaching a class that morning. I walked back to my office to see everybody clustered around a radio. Someone said a plane had rammed into one of the World Trade Towers. My first thought was “What a terrible accident.” Of course, it was quickly apparent this was no accident.

I was the dean of the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan at the time. We had lots of students from the East Coast. We spent several hours that day calling all our students to check in and make sure their families were accounted for.

My daughter was in kindergarten and I didn’t want the non-stop images and terrible news turned on at home for her to see. My husband was stuck in Chicago. Since everything was cancelled, I spent the late afternoon and evening playing with her in the backyard, desperately wondering what was unfolding.

That whole day (and the days to follow) has a bad-dream quality to it in my memory. The news got steadily worse, as the death toll mounted with the towers falling, a plane crashing into the Pentagon, and another plane crashing in Pennsylvania. Almost everyone had some connection to someone who had died. Even in Midwestern Michigan, people were fearful of a terrorist attack for months afterwards.

Twenty years later, this may feel like ancient history. Yet, it has shaped us and shaped our nation in many ways. We’ve all become used to levels of security that would have been unacceptable before 9/11. We became used to a seemingly endless series of military engagements in the Middle East. And we no longer feel the invulnerability of a large continental nation that cannot be easily invaded – we’ve learned that we are vulnerable and that’s produced a level of uncertainty and fear that shapes some of our current partisan and divisive politics. Just as Pearl Harbor shattered our nation’s sense of protection from wars abroad, so 9/11 shattered our sense of a nation that can separate itself from chaos beyond its borders.

What is the role of UW in all of this? We have to teach this history, draw lessons from it, and make sure that we don’t forget those lessons. Through our research, we have to help develop the knowledge and the technologies that guard against terrorist attacks, while also understanding how to regulate this so that we retain an appropriate degree of personal liberty. And – perhaps most importantly – we have to model how to engage in civil conversations across different world-views, both domestically and internationally, finding alternatives to violence.

The tragedy and deaths of 9/11 are still with us in many ways. On this 20th anniversary, we must stop to remember, to grieve, and to learn how to move forward.