Twenty years ago, even as the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were unfolding, Americans understood that, to paraphrase CNN’s Jeff Greenfield, we would wake up the next day in a completely different city and country.
The families, friends and colleagues of those who perished suffered irreplaceable loss, with each passing year bringing graduations, weddings and other milestones unshared with absent loved ones. For them, 9/11 will always be “about” the parents, spouses, lovers, siblings, children and others abruptly taken from their lives.
For the nation, as many observed, the myth of Fortress America had been shattered. In 9/11’s immediate aftermath, we sought to understand our vulnerabilities and to secure ourselves against future attacks.
But the true impact of a transformative moment is often more clearly understood in the context of subsequent events. Think of all the cataclysms since 9/11/01 that brought about disruption, upheaval, suffering, and loss on a staggering scale: the Great Recession of 2008; the ongoing global refugee crises; rapid climate change, evidenced by storms, tsunamis and wildfires of greater frequency and intensity; and of course, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic and the national reckoning on race.
The 9/11 attacks did not cause these ensuing events. But these events have unfolded in a world rendered ever smaller and more interconnected by technology and population growth. And they confirm, with increasing certainty, that we have entered a new era that requires us to live, love, work and socialize differently – a time when strict airport security and masks, vaccines and testing are part of the new normal.
We must adapt to these changes even as we mourn the lifestyles we leave behind. But with sadness comes wisdom – and with wisdom comes hope. We understand so much more deeply now that our actions and choices have consequences for others. And we know that we can and must join together to preserve and improve our world.
At Teachers College, this knowledge brings even greater clarity and focus to our work. As in all periods of wrenching change, educators – teachers, psychologists, community health experts, researchers in all fields – are key responders who create strategies for adaptation and pathways to recovery.
Thus, TC people are working in refugee camps, helping families overcome paralyzing depression and rebuild their lives.
They are in schools across the nation, helping to rethink and reboot an education system upended by the pandemic.
They are in cities and communities, helping us to understand one another as human beings and to see that blind hate – whether it motivates terrorists like those who leveled the World Trade Center, or engenders a senseless backlash against peace-loving Muslims around the world – begets only greater evil.
And they teach us that, collectively and individually, we are stronger than we think. In the words of TC psychologist George Bonanno, whose studies following 9/11 helped overturn conventional wisdom about human resilience, people are wired for “constantly adapting as we go along” even when “something major happens that throws us for a loop.” [Read an interview with Bonanno about his new book on trauma, and read his recent essay in The Wall Street Journal.]
We see that resilient spirit now in action as New York City – Ground Zero for both 9/11 and the first wave of the COVID pandemic – works to reopen its schools, businesses, and theaters. As with 9/11, our experience and responses to the pandemic will make us wiser and, I believe, stronger for what we have endured. Now, as we look back on September 11th, 2001, let us not merely remember or honor or grieve. Let us also be resilient and resolve to use what we have learned to truly create a smarter, healthier and more equitable world.
President, Teachers College
Read excerpts of TC alumni experiences from Forever After: New York City Teachers on 9/11, published by TC Press in 2006. View “Columbians Remember: 20 Years Since the September 11 Attacks” to read personal remembrances of 9/11 by members of the University community, including TC alumna Genise Reid (M.A. ’90, M.Ed. ’90, Ed.D. ’12). Columbia will light the two main columns of Low Library on the evenings of September 10th and 11th. On the morning of September 11th, at 8:45 a.m., the Columbia campus chapel bells will ring, summoning the community to participate in a moment of silent reflection.