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The week before 9/11: A Different anniversary

September 8, 2021

What was I thinking before I realized the world outside my campus was real?

The foreign policy world is gearing up for the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 next week. There will be think pieces, roundtables and symposia galore. I will have a piece here on the Duck with some of my own reflections on what the anniversary means. But right now I’m thinking back to twenty years ago this week, and what I was doing at the time. That may matter as much as our reflections on 9/11 in trying to make sense of that horrible day.

Blissfully waiting for the storm

As I tell my students in the “about me” part of my introductory lectures, 9/11 was my second week of college classes, and my third week at college (we had a week-long orientation at Vassar). The events of that day inspired me to focus my studies on religion and terrorism, and to pursue a career in counterterrorism and academia.

I rarely talk about my time in college before that, though. I took an overnight backpacking trip, and proudly used all the gear my dad had bought me. I resolved to use the campus’ luxury gym regularly (that lasted a few weeks). I had a lot of fun, and will leave it at that in case my mom reads this.

But I also took my first week of classes seriously. I was taking an English course on “the symbolic quest,” beginners’ Italian, a course on Baroque harmony, and introduction to International Relations. Those first few classes were mainly prologues to the course, touching on the important themes.

The possibility of an impending earth-shattering event never crossed my mind, although to be fair it didn’t cross the mind of our President either. Maybe this is expecting too much of a 19 year old, but the idea that people were so angry, and enduring so much, that an attack like this could be planned and occur didn’t cross my mind either. While I happily took in the lefty activism of the campus, the subjects of our discussion felt as remote and figurative as the myths we discussed in my English class.

What we thought mattered

Pushing past the self-absorption and experimentation of a 19 year old who just got to college, what did we think was important in the world? Thankfully, my intro to IR course was taught by Steve Rock, a great teacher-scholar who has remained a mentor throughout my career. So I actually remember what we talked about the first week of class twenty years ago.

I took it all seriously, but with the levity of someone who never had to take anything seriously before.

They were a few inter-related themes:

  1. Globalization: This was still basically the 90s, so globalization was the lens through which many people viewed the world. The flow of information, goods&services and people seemed to matter more than the movement of troops and ships.
  2. The decline of state power: A key component of globalization, states were rapidly losing control. Their sovereignty was being eroded from above–by transnational flows and international organizations–and below, through social pressure.
  3. Human rights: One of our textbooks reframed discussions of IR along the lines of human rights concerns (I always wish I could remember its name). That is, human rights were not a secondary consideration in policy or something that would be nice to think about when we have time. They should be the basis of all theoretical and policy deliberations.
  4. The limits of American power: Remember, this was the 90s. America was still the indispensable nation. But from the assertiveness of China (the Hainan island incident happened in 2001) to the Asian financial crisis to pre-9/11 terrorist attacks like the bombing of the USS Cole, there were indications that America was struggling to impose its will on the world.

So when my classmates continued our debates into the halls after the lecture ended, this is what we discussed. When I tried to impress female students, this is what I pontificated on. And when we sat up late that first weekend in someone’s dorm room, pondering existence, this is what came up (along with some of the Joseph Campbell I was reading in my English class). I took it all seriously, but with the levity of someone who never had to take anything seriously before.

Did this prepare us for 9/11?

Did any of this help prepare us for 9/11? Obviously nothing would completely. The attack was a shock, and the personal connection of many of my classmates to New York made the emotional impact overwhelming.

But once that wore off, should we have recognized this for what it was? I remember my parents’ stories of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the defining crisis of their age. They said it was terrifying, but also familiar. It was a validation of what they already knew about the world. The Soviets were the enemy, and a nuclear war with them was likely. Even when the crisis passed, they knew they weren’t really safe until the Cold War ended.

That realization–about the nature of 9/11, and its impact on the world–never came to us. My first week of class should have helped. The increasing interconnection of the world, the declining power of states to control it, the limits to what America could do, and the driving impulse of human rights crises combined to create an untenable situation. Add to that the growing influence of religious beliefs in international relations (about which I also learned from Steve) and something like 9/11 was almost inevitable.

It’s not that we didn’t reflect. There were interfaith vigils, peace marches (the people of Poughkeepsie did not like that), roundtables by Professors. Cornel West had previously been scheduled to speak on campus, and he spoke about 9/11 in a way no one else could.

What could we have done differently in our lives to prevent al-Qaeda’s evil resonating and spreading until it took down the World Trade Center? Was it inevitable?

But in retrospect my reflections felt self-serving. They made us feel good for being so enlightened. They let me feel entitled to debate my conservative friends back home. They gave me material to contribute to class discussions.

They did not, however, prepare me to live in the post-9/11 world, or try and improve it. It’s not that I had a bad education; my studies at Vassar were incredibly helpful both personally and professionally. I was given the capabilities to flourish in this new world. It’s harder to provide the wisdom needed to be guided through it.

I worked in counterterrorism, for a defense contractor, thinking that would help. But it felt mercenary and morally suspect. I got a PhD, thinking that would help, but it left me disconnected from the foreign policy community I had been part of. I worked in the research world, thinking technocratic data would be useful, but it wasn’t. Now I’m a professor, and I’m still trying to figure out the best way to be of use.

Why wasn’t it enough?

So what went wrong? Why was the incredibly expensive education that put my parents into debt and left me working three jobs throughout college not enough?

Maybe I’m expecting too much. It was a week of classes after all. I was 19. I’ve had a good career, even if I haven’t solved the world’s problems.

And I wasn’t the only one who struggled with self-reflection. As I’ll discuss in my post next week, the sub-field of international relations made some noise about changing in the face of the post-9/11 world. But ultimately the same approaches, same assumptions, same topics drove what we did before and after 9/11.

I’m not ready to let myself off the hook that easily, however. I think the personal question here is the same that I hope our government asked itself: was this a completely unknown unknown, or is there a way we could have prevented this?

And by prevent, I don’t mean increased coordination between the FBI and CIA. I mean what could I, we, have done differently to prevent the world–a world in which al-Qaeda’s evil resonated and spread until it took down the World Trade Center–from existing? Or was it truly inevitable?

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Peter Henne is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences in the University of Vermont. His research focuses on religion in foreign policy and political violence.