‘I wouldn’t wish a catastrophe like 9/11 on anyone, but it would be nice if we could recover a sense that we are indeed one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. I repeat: For all.’
PROVIDENCE – Twenty-two years ago on Monday, Sept. 11, three al-Qaeda airliner terrorist attacks brought down both World Trade Center towers in New York City and damaged the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. A fourth hijacked jet crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.
Nearly 3,000 people were killed and thousands more were injured. A month later, the war in Afghanistan began. In 2003, the U.S. led the invasion of Iraq. America and the world were fundamentally changed, in ways that are still felt now.
As the anniversary of 9/11 approached, Ocean State Stories asked several Rhode Islanders this question: “Twenty-two years later, what is the enduring significance of 9/11?” Here’s what they said.
“I was in a high school classroom teaching when 9/11 happened and that’s where I have been for most of its anniversaries. Sometimes it has been acknowledged by the school community but most of the time, it has been a date that goes by unmarked. When it happened, I thought it would have more of an impact in K-12 education than what I’ve seen. At the time, many of us in Rhode Island had some connection to folks living in New York City. For my family, we had the fear that my aunt, a cleaning lady who sometimes worked in the towers, was there that day. She was not but the possibility was unnerving.
“For quite a while now, I’ve had students in my classrooms who have no memories of this day and close to no awareness that it happened. To be honest, that is okay with me right now. Talking about 9/11 would require that we be open to seeing ourselves as global citizens that need to navigate and participate in a multilingual, multicultural world. In the United States, we do not have a good track record of doing that.
“Generally, our historical-events-turned-holidays encourage us to ignore connectivity as well as responsibility. Every day, people all over the world are suffering from violence similar to what we endured on 9/11. Some of us have grown from knowing that we all have a role to play in preventing it while others have doubled down on a narrow perspective. I can see the probability of 9/11 going the way of Victory Day, Columbus Day and Thanksgiving in Rhode Island, for example, in which we accept and promote narratives that leave out important voices. If we are going to do that, we might as well not talk about it.
“However, I do remain hopeful that this will change.”
“September 11, 2001, was an inflection point for a nation whose patriots fervently rose to her defense. On that day, the nation stood in deafening silence with a sense of venerable vulnerability, but united by the American spirit, and bound by a common purpose; a true E Pluribus Unum was reborn. We ran to each other, not from each other. We looked to each other; determined to protect our republic from what President George W. Bush called the ‘axis of evil.’
“For most of us who lived through it, the images of that day, are forever seared in our memories. The living patriots who served now bear visible wounds of war, and carry invisible scars, etched in their psyche; their love for country continues to inspire us till this day. Today, we remember those we lost on 9/11 and salute the war dead and wounded.
“The enduring significance of 9/11 is complex with far-reaching implications.
“Twenty-two years later, we are reminded of the significance of patriotism, unity of purpose, perseverance, and national identity. However, I worry that the farther we are from September 11, 2001, the further we move away from ‘E Pluribus Unum,’ gravitating towards a different kind of conflict rife with polarizing ideologies. As with previous experiences in American history, we always find a way to come together.”
“In recalling the events of September 11, 2001, I first remember the shock and profound sorrow of the day. This was followed by a national sense of unease and, yes, terror of what might happen next. And of course, there was the anger. This anger gave rise to questions: How could this have happened to us? What sort of evil would prompt such actions? What do we do now?
“But what I remember most about those dark days was the feeling of national unity. Through our collective fear and outrage, we came together in our Rhode Island community and as Americans across this great and vast land of ours. As a nation, we leaned on each other, comforted each other, and grieved together. National unity served as our compass, showing us the way back to reclaiming our unique way of life. In a strange way, this horrible national tragedy brought us together.
“Today, however, this unity is in a fragile state. Neighbors who once consoled each other and stood shoulder to shoulder against the attack on our country and our people, stand apart. Never in my lifetime have I witnessed such a divide in America, the land I so love.
“As a professor of over 25 years, I know that most of my students today were not even born before 9/11. They did not watch the endless film footage that paraded across our television screens for days. They did not have to add their loved one’s name to the lists of missing persons or worry about a subsequent attack. They did not experience the trauma that many of us re-experience every September 11.
“It is, therefore, the sacred obligation of those of us who DID live through it to tell them the story—for it is an important part of our history. Indeed, when I reflect upon the most enduring significance of 9/11, I think that the terrorist attacks that attempted to break us, ironically, revealed our strength as a people. It showed us that we are more than our differences and offers us hope that we can heal the wounds that currently divide us.”
“The 9/11 attacks had a profound impact not only on the United States but also on the world. The early costs of the attacks were clear in the loss of life, destruction, and the onset of the War on Terror. Yet the lasting effects are more complex. Especially when it comes to migration and refugees.
“The U.S. launched military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq that led to the displacement of millions. Many refugees sought asylum in the U.S., causing stricter security measures, longer processing times, and greater scrutiny. These changes continue to shape our immigration policies.
“I’ve heard first-hand accounts from newcomers to Rhode Island from Iraq and Afghanistan on the positive efforts the U.S. made to stabilize the Middle East. They also shared with me the lasting toll on their families who remained, resulting from the political, economic, and humanitarian crises in the aftermath of U.S. withdrawal.
“Recently, the sentiment I’ve heard expressed by some Ukrainians, comparing America’s 9/11 to the ongoing conflict with Russia, highlights the deep impact of traumatic events on a nation’s collective consciousness.”
“In 2023, I see the world through my daughter’s eyes.
“But in 2001, I was a child myself, just 12 years old. I had just started 7th grade at a new school. My new classmates were away on a school trip, but I had stayed home, afraid of being homesick. So instead of being on a bus to camp, I watched the horrors of the day unfold on the television in our living room. My parents and I were gripped and terrified by what we were seeing. Images we couldn’t process, but at least we were safe and together.
“My daughter will never know a pre-9/11 world. It’s hard to fathom that when she’s 12, September 11, 2001, will have happened 33 years prior. It’s something she’ll learn about in history books. She’ll know its importance, of course, but it will be a story, not a lived experience.
“So as I reflect on this September 11, I think the enduring significance of the day lies in what we teach our children about it. How we rebuilt. How we relearned. How we remember (and never forget).”
“I would hope against hope that the disastrous wars that ensued would teach us to be wary of plunging into yet another. And here’s something else: As catastrophic as 9/11 was, there was, for a few days or weeks, a tremendous unity and national pride in the country.
“Since then, we have become mired in ugly partisan divides and demagoguery that tear us apart and even threaten our democracy. I wouldn’t wish a catastrophe like 9/11 on anyone, but it would be nice if we could recover a sense that we are indeed one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. I repeat: For all.”
“The tragedy of 911 demonstrated the fragility and uncertainty of life. Since then, we have experienced a pandemic, devastating fires and floods along with our own personal parade of woes. Yet we are surrounded by blessings, beauty, goodness. Human creativity and goodness still fill the world.
“Jewish tradition urges us to begin each day with gratitude. And as Michael J. Fox has written, ’Gratitude sustains optimism.’ The aftermath of 911 did not extinguish hope for a better day which each of us can help bring about.”
“While we’ll never forget the pain our nation shared, I hope we always remember the moments of heroism. The businesses that kept their doors open for shelter, the neighbors opening their homes to strangers, and vehicles and boats from all over driving people to safety. Most importantly, I hope we always remember our emergency and first responders from across the region – including from Central Falls and Rhode Island – dropping everything to help. As our country watched, they put their lives on the line to save others.
“This September 11, and every year, I pray for those who lost their lives, their loved ones, and our brave heroes and helpers. May we always remember and be inspired by the profound ways a community can unite, rise, and overcome.”
“The morning of the attacks, I was working at the Naval War College. I was on my way to the garage behind one of the main buildings, along a small road that offers a beautiful view of the bay and the Newport Bridge. The gorgeous weather that day, I learned later, is something pilots call “severe clear,” a deep blue sky that renders everything under it in crisp, stunning detail. (Like so many people, I still call that kind of day ’9/11 weather.’) I heard about the first plane as I took in that vista, but something didn’t feel right about the report of an accident. I lost my radio signal in the garage. When I got upstairs, I learned we were under national attack. Moments later, we were told (as were almost all government employees everywhere) to evacuate and go home.
“This made me angry. Generally, I hate working in an office, but I felt a stubborn and irrational need not to do whatever the terrorists were making us do. I was ordered to leave and so I left. But on my way back out, that same view of the bridge now seemed ominous instead of inspiring. Who were these new enemies, and were they still in that brilliant sky?
“Terrorism is meant to leave scars on civilians that will outlast the immediate carnage, and in this, Al Qaeda succeeded. Just as I will never see the New York skyline again without thinking of the Twin Towers, I was never able to take in that view from Coaster’s Harbor Island again, right up until I retired from the College, without thinking of that terrible morning. Twenty-two years later, I want to believe that the day seared into the consciousness of every American that our democracy is a precious inheritance – and one our enemies would gladly destroy. But I fear we’ve forgotten that terrible truth. As the years since 9/11 pass, I am sometimes nostalgic for that brief moment when Americans realized how much they have in common. It seems like a long time ago now, but the bridge and the bay still remind me.”
“From a personal experience, there is the old ‘do you remember where you were when…?’ [Many] generations ago, it was Pearl Harbor. In my own childhood, it was the assassination of JFK. (I think I have a memory of that – but I was a first grader, in Belgium, and the story I ‘remember,’ that someone interrupted our class to tell us about it, sounds unlikely in retrospect.)
“I know very well where I was when I saw the first tower get hit — I had just finished a minor operation and came out to the waiting room to reassure the parents that everything was fine, and a few (not all!) people were intently watching the TV, not understanding at all what had just happened…
“I am in London right now, and I’ve twice noticed a plane flying over the city: that’s something you don’t see any more since 9/11. It’s almost emblematic of all the daily activities that changed abruptly after that, especially around traveling and crowded events (checking bags at a concert or a museum, the rituals at airports, the clear three-ounce plastic bags, the barricades along crowded sidewalks (in London, for example), … Terrorism and high-jacking clearly existed long before 9/11, but we tend to ascribe anything related to that to this singular event.
“And so it’s become a memory, like that of other painful events: we don’t forget, but the raw shock gets blunted a little. And we have since learned to see it in context. 9/11 sparked so many other downstream events, from our handling of Afghanistan (going in, and coming out) to engaging the Taliban, Isis, Syria, world politics in general — the way the acts of the Dulles brothers were responsible for our disastrous Middle East policies, and the way theirs were preceded by the Sykes-Picot agreement, and so on, and so on. 9/11 is now as much a historical event as a ‘personal’ one.”
“It depends on whom you ask. I feel it personally – I can recall where I was, what I was doing; we had just buried my saintly Uncle Bill. I felt overwhelming loss, both in my family, and in my nation in that conjuncture. But as a scholar of globalizing knowledge, I also have friends and colleagues across the world. None of them would embrace the terrorism of 9/11/01, but they also pointed to innocent deaths in their own communities that America hardly noticed.
“For those who could hear these voices distant from America’s leading tones of grief and anger, this may be appreciated, now, as the start of a more humble approach to America’s place in the world. In the decade preceding, many celebrated America’s victory in the Cold War; our vision of globalization promised to lift all ships with its celebration of free markets and democracy. Some wondered, especially after 9/11, whether our worldly sense was sufficiently inclusive, however.
“One can revisit 9/11 from the epoch end we now inhabit. With the suffering the Covid Pandemic has imposed through the intensification of climate catastrophe this summer’s fires & floods have rendered, those paying attention might recognize the hubris that has brought disaster, and even an existential precarity, upon the world.
“I focus now on solidarity with Ukraine in the face of their invasion by Russia. Some see this as a continuation of the Cold War, but I rather view it through the lens of 9/11. Preparedness and resilience in the face of threats are essential, but to face those threats through misleading historical analogies can disable. Alas we don’t know which histories are most instructive, but to reflect on the lessons of 9/11 in this time of global existential anxiety only seems responsible, even for the pain it invites us to remember.
“Maybe we should think more about those lessons of loss as we consider our alternative futures. Humility has been known to foster a more inclusive resilience, a quality we desperately need today.”