The 9/11 attacks have become a part of our generation in ways that extend far beyond the days after the attacks. Reaching past the limits of New York and Washington, the atrocities on that day — coupled with the ongoing “War on Terror” that was initiated in their wake — have shaped both world events and our generation’s worldview.
Those of us who were between the ages of eight and 12 on 9/11 are now in college. We have spent the past 10 years living in a world where we don’t think twice about taking off our shoes at the airport. And daily reports of troop casualties in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are unsurprising fixtures on the news ticker.
Academics and policy wonks have been discussing the possibility of terrorist plots for decades, but the shock of 9/11 has thrust the threat of danger into the consciousness of even the everyday American. For some of us who were children on 9/11, it was the first time that we learned the word “terrorist.” Now even children are cognizant of the possibly imminent risk of terrorism.
As the 9/11 generation has moved on to college, the impact of that day can be seen in students’ academic and professional choices. Bringing together people of all backgrounds, the Hilltop has become a locus for the cross-cultural dialogue that has become our generation’s reality.
DRAWN TO SERVE
Sean Gormley (MSB ’02) was driven to enlist in the military after 9/11, after he watched the attacks cast a pall over the fall of his senior year at Georgetown.
“That entire month, I would describe as a somber blur,” he said.
“I actually enlisted in the Army … about six months or so after graduating and went through Officer Candidate School and became an infantry officer,” Gormley said. “It was a sense of duty I felt. Military service runs in my family but I can guarantee you that had Sept.11 not occurred, I probably would not have enlisted in the Army. It sort of took my life down a path that I certainly wouldn’t have expected years before Sept. 11,” he said.
Gormley is now pursuing a joint J.D.-M.B.A. degree at the University of Pennsylvania. He considered attending law school immediately after finishing his undergraduate degree, but put those plans on hold to serve in the military.
Thomas “TM” Gibbons-Neff (COL ’15) may be a freshman at Georgetown but he is hardly the same age as many of his classmates. With two tours in Afghanistan behind him, Gibbons-Neff looks back at Sept. 11 as a driving force in his decision to pursue military service in the Marine Corps.
“I was in eighth grade. It might as well have been Pearl Harbor for my generation,” he said.
Colby Howard (SFS ’12), now in his third year at Georgetown, enlisted in the armed forces in 2000 and was completing training in the United States on Sept. 11. The attacks were a game-changer for his military career and that of his unit.
“You could feel it in the military,” he said of the difference between before and after that fateful day. “It went from training to [having] a destination.”
For Howard, the destination was Iraq, where he served one tour of duty before re-enlisting and completing a second. After finishing his second tour of duty, he found himself at a point where he was ready to return to the classroom. “You come to a point where you need education to progress in a career,” he said.
Now engaged in his studies, Howard believes his time in the field has strengthened his performance in the security studies and international affairs program. But even as he sees his military background help him apply theory to practice, he notes that domestic policy has room to grow in helping veterans transition to life at home.
While he described attitudes toward student veterans at Georgetown as, “positive and improving,” relations aren’t always harmonious. “There is a disconnect between those serving and society at large,” he said.
Closing that gap is part of the mission of Student Veterans of America, a group that Howard leads on campus.
Neff agrees that veterans face a heavy load in acclimating to college life. “Really on the whole, it’s only getting bigger as more people come home,” he said
He said that civilians could be more genuine in their support of returning soldiers. “There are things you can do besides putting a bumper sticker on your car,” he said.
AN EXPLOSION FOR INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS
In academia, 9/11 spurred greater interest in international relations and securities studies, ushering in a new wave of students trying to make sense of a world shaken by terrorism.
“They are deliberately coming into the Security Studies Program because of the events that have transformed the world over the last 10 years,” Bruce Hoffman, director of Security Studies Program in the School of Foreign Service, said of his students.
Hoffman has also seen a change in graduates’ career paths. “I think you have more students who are going into the military. You have more students going into the intelligence community than before, and are seeing this degree as easing the way into those jobs,” he said.
Jennifer Sims, director of intelligence studies within the Security Studies Program, has seen a similar trend in her specialty area.
“I think [the Sept.11 attacks] has done two things. First, it’s created in the student body a stronger demand for intelligence classes and particularly intelligence classes that help students understand the counterintelligence threat,” Sims said. “I have noticed that in my classes, there is an interest in U.S. intelligence, but an even stronger interest in what makes for the capacity to pull off surprise attacks. In the post-Pearl Harbor generation, there was a similar interest in the capacity to pull off surprise attacks, which led to a burgeoning of literature.”
Professor Hoffman sees the Security Studies Program as something that will only continue to grow in popularity.
“There’s more of a demand from students,” he said.
Student interest has also grown in Middle Eastern studies, particularly the region’s culture, language and religion. John Esposito, Georgetown professor and founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, which opened its doors in 1993, sees a rising curiosity about Islam among the American public. But this interest carries with it some pluses and minuses, he said.
Esposito cites major studies and surveys conducted by organizations like Gallup and Pew that have revealed unfriendly attitudes toward Muslims held by many Americans.
“Studies done that occurred after the whole so-called mosque at Ground Zero, show that … when asked what [they] admire about Islam or Muslims, 50 percent of Americans say nothing, or ‘I don’t know.’ Significant numbers question the loyalty of Muslims, or see Islam as a particularly violent faith,” Esposito said. “So that’s the downside.”
He said that these perceptions may be influenced by media coverage of terrorist attacks and Islam. Various media sources from cable television to the blogosphere, he said, don’t provide enough context on Islam and Muslim communities.
For Hoffman, the spotlight has opened the door to conversation rather than dictate the discussion.
“I think the media’s helped because it’s raised awareness. It’s created interest, and more so, I think, it’s generated a motivation to dig deeper, to get behind the headlines, in essence,” he said.
While Esposito believes 9/11 may have fanned the flames of intolerance in some circles, he also recognizes that the event of a generation created many opportunities for intellectual engagement with a once-overlooked culture.
“I think on the plus side, post-9/11, like you see at Georgetown, it’s led to an explosion of interest in the study of language, Arabic and other Muslim languages. If you look at the courses and the curriculum at Georgetown and across the country, there’s been a growth and a significant coverage of Islam, and also of American Muslims.”
A NEW FOCUS ON FAITH
For Muslim students now at Georgetown, 9/11 turned their day-to-day worldview on its head.
Wardah Athar (COL ’13) felt those challenges firsthand immediately after the attacks.
“I was blessed in that my family lived in a community where the Muslim population had been putting down roots for quite some time, so there was very little anti-Muslim sentiment in my area. Despite that, I do remember worrying about what would happen to my family because we were Muslim,” she said of her Houston home.
The waves of Islamophobia that flooded some corners of the country after 9/11 may have retreated, but Athar has still had to adjust her mindset.
“As I grew up … I became much more aware of the fact that I was different. My mother wears the hijab, so we always stuck out in public. People asked me questions like, ‘Does Islam tell you that you have to kill all non-Muslims?’ or ‘Can a man really have four wives in Islam?’ so I was forced to really strengthen my hold on my faith,” she said.
Athar, who started wearing a hijab in 11th grade, admits her veil sometimes attracts unwarranted attention.
“But today it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it would have immediately after 9/11,” she said.
In today’s America, she said she sees attitudes toward the Muslim community changing for the better.
“I think despite the fear and the uncertainty that many non-Muslim Americans feel when they think of Islam, Muslims are definitely making progress and creating a place for themselves in American society,” she said.
Asked if her ambitions had changed at all after 9/11, Athar was quick to respond in the negative.
“9/11 hasn’t shaped my career aspirations,” she said. She had always wanted to be a doctor and maintains that goal, she said, adding that, “I think it’s important that the average American realizes that such a thing as ‘an average American who happens to be Muslim’ exists, so it’s just as important for there to be Muslim doctors and firefighters and English professors as it is for there to be Muslim politicians.”
Imam Yahya Hendi, the director of Muslim chaplaincy on campus and an imam known for his advocacy work in the United States and abroad, said a greater focus on Islam holds both good and bad implications for the lives of Muslims in America.
“There was no interest in religion, let alone Islam, before Sept.11. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, there has been an intense and growing interest in Islam,” he said.
Hendi, who recently finished a speaking tour in Afghanistan as well as a 13-state bus tour with religious leaders from other faiths to mark the 9/11 anniversary this week, said that some people are genuinely interested in learning more about Islam — but not all have harmless intentions.
“The … challenge is dealing with those who are not interested and not willing to know anything about Islam,” he said.
Hendi added that some people he talks with insist that Islam sanctions violence or gender inequality, despite passages from the Quran that prove otherwise. But bolstering inter-religious dialogue, he said, will lead to greater understanding by others of his faith.
WOVEN INTO THE FABRIC OF GENERATION
Americans nationwide may have felt the paralysis triggered by this attack on our soil. Ten years later, the memory of 9/11 is nowhere near erased, fighting in Afghanistan is not over after a decade of hostilities, and terrorism is a a familiar word spoken in news reports and scrawled on the blackboards in our classrooms.
Meanwhile, the 9-year-olds sent home from elementary school or the college students who were called to war rather than Wall Street have gone on with their lives. Though we have taken time to remember those who lost their lives on each anniversary of 9/11, we have in many ways moved on as a generation. The paralysis has diminished, and for some, all but disappeared.
But 9/11 shapes us in less apparent ways, too. Whether we struggle to see how our religious practices fit into the puzzle of American society, contemplate government or military service, or sit through Arabic classes, that Tuesday in September will always be with us — in fact, it has become a part of us.