Sept. 11, of course, changed America forever, but not in any unexpected ways — based on the notes I found from a course I taught that semester.
I did not plan to write a column on 9/11 because of all the national media attention given to the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks on our country. Well, that and my desire to not dwell on some negative aspects of the event and its consequences.
But curiosity got the best of me as I reminisced about the public policy course I taught that semester in 2001. While I no longer have the course folder of my notes, class roster and student papers, I discovered three documents on my computer listing topics from class discussion the day after the towers collapsed. With humility, I must say I am pleased that those lists and notes were so accurate and complete.
Sept. 11, 2001, was a Tuesday, so my MWF class did not meet until the next day. A friend from New Jersey emailed me midmorning telling me to turn on the TV because the World Trade Center had collapsed. At a noon lunch with a prominent visiting political scientist, James Q. Wilson, about six colleagues and I dined at the Reynolds Alumni Center in near silence. That might have been the first time I heard the words “al-Qaida” spoken aloud. That evening, I walked to campus, where hundreds of MU students sat in Lowry Mall in near total silence. That was before many had cellphones, so there was no texting or phone whispering. Just silence and shock.
I don’t recall who spoke or sang, just stunned and silent young people with the occasional expression of emotional support that college students are apt to display.
By class time the next day, I knew that my public policy class would be a subdued but sustained discussion, if I could only move the class from telling personal accounts to discussing public policy issues. We must have succeeded, as evidenced by the notes of two students who are still on my computer. Kate’s list is the clearest and titled “Notes from 9/12 class discussion:”
Intelligence performance and funding
Justice and military response to deal with this
Arabs being target of hate crimes
Effect on civil liberties
How do we change our long-term foreign policy?
Missile defense system/implications for defense policy
Valerie’s notes were more thematic, with lots of questions:
- What should the U.S. response be to 9/11? Bring them to justice — declare war. What about interruption of oil supply? Middle East foreign policy? Implications for defense policy? She asked: How did this happen? Intelligence and security failure?
- What are implications for transportation: Can airport security be improved? What’s the threat to civil liberties to increase security? Is this a “New Era” of policymaking?
- Should there be a victim compensation fund compared to Oklahoma City?
- What about safety access to Capitol — security doors?
At the end of class on the day after 9/11, I offered to throw out the syllabus and focus on policy issues surrounding 9/11. I recall it was a unanimous decision to take the course in a more timely direction. It was a good decision.
Missouri was the first state to establish an Office of Homeland Security. The director accepted an invitation to speak to my class because, as he told me, he wanted to hear what students thought. He received an education that day. He had asked Missouri water systems and reservoirs to submit drawings of their facilities to the state in case there was a terrorist attack on them. As luck would have it, the son of the director of such a water system was in the class and explained why his father had refused to follow such a request — nothing like making public policy personal to stimulate class interest.
Toward the end of the semester, then-Congressman Kenny Hulshof spoke to the class about his memory of 9/11. He recounted being asked to evacuate the Capitol complex, so he hurried to his apartment several blocks away and switched on CNN, where he heard, “All members of Congress have been taken to a secure location,” and he thought, “Hey, what about me?”
Twenty years later, I believe but am not certain that we are safer from external attack because of improved airport security, better agency coordination and tighter visa procedures, but I know we have lost some privacy — but probably no more than we have given to Facebook and Amazon.
Perhaps more important, our political, media and educational institutions are troubled and distrusted, with thousands of Americans and citizens to blame. As we have seen with the pandemic over the past 18 months, we don’t know whom to trust.
I wish I had kept my folder from that semester. I wish I knew how the students I still remember have changed their views and attitudes since 9/11. Some have been lawyers, journalists and parents for nearly two decades. I imagine they have followed and affected public policy over those years.
My wish for today’s college students, and all Americans, is to recognize and remember the feelings of national unity that were widespread in Congress, on campuses and across the country those months after 9/11. It was not Camelot, with what we now know were bad and wrong policy decisions resulting in our nation’s longest war that few will remember. And yes, locally it was marred with graffiti on Osama’s coffee shop — now the Coffee Zone, then next to The Heidelberg — and similar hate crimes across America. We still sing “God Bless America” at Major League Baseball games after the seventh inning, but it is hard to imagine members of Congress singing the national anthem on the Capitol steps.
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.