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The post-9/11 generation: Relating to the recent past

September 8, 2021

What does 9/11 mean to Gen Z; what might it mean to those to come?

For every generation, there is at least one collective, momentous occasion that leaves an indelible mark on the timeline of their lives. For boomers, Gen Xers and a good number of millennials, the moment the first plane crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, is unquestionably one of those occasions.

Twenty years on, what does 9/11 — an event that radically altered the arc of global history — mean to Generation Z, many of whom weren’t even alive at the time? And what might it mean to the generations that follow?

“Since I was 2 when it happened, I wasn't old enough to understand it in the moment and have that impact me going forward. So I was kind of removed from it. I don’t think it affected me as much personally as it would have if I was older,” said ASU psychology senior Lillian Lynch, 22.

“But I would definitely be open to hearing about the experiences of people who remember it well, because it was just such an impactful part of our history," she continued. "I think it’s important to know more about it, and they could probably teach me more than just a chapter in a history book.”

As program manager for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Arizona State University for going on seven years, Abby Baker has facilitated myriad intergenerational conversations and engagement activities. She said that opportunity to learn from one another is what’s at the heart of meaningful intergenerational connections.

“To me, intergenerational relations are all about education,” Baker said. “We each have something unique to learn from each other — among, between and across generations.”

And, she continued, that sentiment becomes especially salient when it pertains to traumatic events whose consequences ripple throughout time.

“Each generation has its traumatic historical events — the events that happen in their youth which, in part, shape their worldview and, in turn, shape the ways they make decisions about money, careers, family and so much more,” Baker said. “I think it is important to, once again, make connections across generations so it doesn't matter if a person has lived through the traumatic event in question – we've all lived through a traumatic event, and there is universality in that.”

Getting to that point of mutual understanding can be somewhat tricky, though, as former ASU Professor of English and bestselling novelist Jewell Parker Rhodes noted in an April 2021 interview with Publishers Weekly about writing “Towers Falling,” a children’s book that aims to teach them about 9/11 from the safe distance of fictional characters.

“When I presented my book in the school, the kids were so curious but lots of teachers were crying; they said they still didn’t want to teach it,” Parker Rhodes said in the interview. “What I discovered was that was very typical of parents, teachers, librarians who’d lived through it. They did not want to talk about it. The trauma was still so present. It was that sense that history is not so far past.”

The interconnectedness of past and present, and how it influences the identities of the book’s main characters — the daughter of a man who has trouble maintaining a job because of illnesses that resulted from the attack; a boy whose father is an Iraq War veteran; and a Muslim girl — is ultimately realized by them when they visit the Sept. 11 memorial and witness the firsthand accounts retold there.

Mark Tebeau, an associate professor of public history at ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, has directed more than two dozen digital humanities, oral history and public history projects. We document history for several reasons, he said.

“One is to mark that I was here; to say we existed,” Tebeau said. “But it’s also about enlightenment. Documenting the human experience provides a way of making sense of the world and defining our identities at any given moment. And that is learned and passed down through generations.”

Just as important as the fact that humans document history at all is how we document it. For example, Tebeau said, archives of World War I are more likely to have been created by members of the elite and to contain more documents from formal sources, such as newspaper clippings and professionally filmed battle footage, rather than informal sources like letters and personal photos, simply because the average person didn’t always have the means to create such records. Whereas nowadays, in the age of ubiquitous smartphone use, an archive might contain far more informal, personal documents supplied by a broader swath of society.

“That makes (history) more personal, for sure. It also makes it more accessible to younger generations,” Tebeau said.

By 2001, the proliferation of the personal computer and the increasing accessibility of the internet were giving rise to a democratization of historical documentation. One result was the September 11 Digital Archive, one of the first crowdsourced digital archives. Just a few years later, Hurricane Katrina spawned the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank. Both archives employed the same open-source web-publishing platform (Omeka) that Tebeau would later use to create “A Journal of the Plague Year: An Archive of COVID-19” in 2020.

“With the computer age, what happens is we start to see a more broadly sourced record of a moment in time,” Tebeau said. But more doesn’t always mean better. “So that might mean it’s more relatable, but the sheer volume of stuff can actually make it incomprehensible.”

There is also the concern that, compounded by a lack of context, the ease with which traumatic historical events can be accessed and the tangibility afforded by modern technology have the potential to do more harm than good, something else Parker Rhodes noted in her Publishers Weekly interview.

“Due to technology, we can see the towers being attacked over and over and over again. We can’t see the Civil War repeating,” she said. “We have another kind of trauma: We risk having our children misinformed because they only see the physical impact upon our nation.”

Though a reasonable argument, some posit that perhaps precisely because younger generations have grown up in a world of overstimulation, they are actually better at coping with the side effects.

Younger generations’ openness to discussing their traumas and prioritizing their mental health has been both derided and celebrated in recent years.

Niki Gueci, executive director of ASU’s Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience, is among those celebrating, noting that “research findings have proven, time and again, that prioritizing our well-being can lead to enhanced professional and academic outcomes, less burnout and more life satisfaction.”

“We’re seeing that living in a no-sleep, constantly busy, hustle culture is not sustainable,” Gueci said. “Celebrities and others in high profile positions experienced public consequences after bouts of physical and mental exhaustion, citing stress and the feeling of being overwhelmed.”

And although she stresses that the desire to live a more mindful life in the name of overall health is not a new trend, she has noticed more amenability to the idea among younger populations.

“Younger generations are fully embracing whole-person well-being and implementing strategies that work for them in their lives, on their terms,” Gueci said. “… What I see now within our own ASU community is there is more awareness, more acceptance and more credence given to building resilience into individual lives and social structures.”

No matter how one engages with the memory of 9/11, it will always be an opportunity to reflect, to commiserate and to learn. Which lessons we choose to pass on to subsequent generations remains to be seen.

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Top illustration by Alex Davis/ASU

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Engineering students still learning from collapse of World Trade Center

September 8, 2021

Looking back helps today's engineers prevent future structural failures

Twenty years later, engineering students continue to learn from the structural factors that contributed to the collapse of World Trade Center buildings following the airplane impacts on 9/11.

“The World Trade Center was a brilliant design,” said Barzin Mobasher, an Arizona State University civil engineering professor who includes a section on the collapse as a learning tool in his upper-level undergraduate course in design of steel structures.

“It was a marvel given the resources, boldness, confidence and optimism of the engineers who designed and built it. The building worked.” Mobasher said. “It was the pride of New York, and rightfully so.”

But engineers aren’t prescient, and designing around a possible terrorist attack by commercial airliners wasn’t built into the WTC safety package.

Acknowledging that design engineers can’t predict every possible scenario that could have impact on any structure, Mobasher asserts that future engineers need to assess possible derivations and consider possible failures at each point in the design process.

“We study the lessons we learned in terms of the design of structures,” Mobasher said of his course content. “The forensic analyses from the WTC are a window to the importance of evaluating all potential modes of failure.”

Infographic showing the impact footprint of the World Trade Center plane impact

Mobasher’s course relies heavily on WTC investigation reports from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

He also includes the findings of his own mentor, Zdeněk P. Bažant, a professor of civil engineering and materials science at Northwestern University. Bažant’s paper, “Why Did the World Trade Center Collapse,” was written two days after the collapse and published six days after that.

Critics questioned Bažant’s summaries, noting they were presented too quickly and without specific data about the building’s design. 

“Often, a basic understanding of engineering principles and back-of-the-envelope calculations can tell you what you need to know,” Mobasher said. “I want my students to learn to take in the available info, build a model and hypothesis, and then make an evaluation,” he said. “You don’t always have to make a big soup with every ingredient to get a grasp of a situation.

“After all, Bažant’s engineering-based findings were validated by NIST and have stood the test of time after 20 years.

“While it’s impossible to design for every variable that could happen to a structure, our future engineers will need to assess possible derivations, run the mathematics and consider how design failures may occur at any step.”

Without the fires, the towers would still be standing

The physical impact of the planes into the towers didn’t cause the buildings to fall. The fires were ultimately the cause of the progressive collapse.

“The WTC buildings were like huge sails built to resist a hurricane hitting at 225 kilometers an hour,” said Mobasher. “They were designed to resist wind loads at more than 30 times the weight of the aircraft; very few metal components in the aircraft were comparable in strength to the perimeter columns of the buildings.  

"There is no way to prepare for the kind of structural damage done when steel is exposed to high-intensity heat that lasts for hours,” Mobasher said. “At 600 degrees, steel cannot even sustain its own weight, let alone the weight of floors above.”  

The primary fire blew off all the fire-retarding material from the main structure. Then, the secondary fire — all of the burning office furniture, equipment and paper — caused overheating of all the structural elements and lost connectivity between floors.

“The impact footprint illustrates that the columns around the crash site, coupled with the columns on the other three sides of the building, were enough to sustain the structure," Mobasher said. “Were it not for the fire, engineers could secure the building, strip out the damaged components and repair and retrofit.”

In fact, the building was the first structure to be studied during its initial design stage by considering the impact of a passenger jet airplane, but not at the full traveling speeds and fuel loads of the airplanes on 9/11. Also not considered was the effect of the secondary fire that lasted more than an hour before the collapse. 

“Despite the loss of fireproofing materials around the steel members, and the fact that steel columns were damaged, they were still initially transmitting the load,” Mobasher said. “However, once the temperatures reach 600–700 degrees Celsius, the stiffness and strength is practically reduced so much that a column can’t sustain even its own weight any longer.”

Infographic showing the National Institute of Standards and Technology conclusions about the 9/11 tower collapses

In his course, Mobasher’s points out that the explosion of 17,000-plus gallons of fuel and the fireball it initiated prolonged the burning of all flammable materials, which in turn heated a majority of columns that were damaged and stripped of the fire proofing, causing them to buckle under the load.

“That deformation broke the connections of the floor trusses, which bridged the core of the building to the perimeter walls. Once a few floors lost their load-carrying capacity and connectivity, the perimeter columns lost the bracing provided by the trusses, and then even the virgin columns buckled as well,” Mobasher said. “The potential energy stored in the structure due to weight of the building itself at the floor heights was sufficient to create a self-driving and accelerating domino collapse effect much like a landslide that gains speed through the process.

“Losing the connection between the floors meant overall losing the ability to carry the floor loads. This allowed the surviving columns to stand unprotected without any bracing provided,” Mobasher said. “One damaged floor broke all of the end connections in the floor below, which then broke the end connections in the next lower floor, until all of the floors collapsed.”

An illustration of a cross-section of the concrete floor deck of the World Trade Center

Focus on design 

Mobasher’s course focuses on how the buildings were constructed from an engineering perspective, including the interaction of foundation with the core, the steel columns and the floor systems. 

“These topics are the bread and butter of understanding the design process by evaluating how the failure could take place. The concepts are tied to current design learning — the study of tension and compression, fracturing bolts and buckling columns,” Mobasher said. “The principles are the same as they were in the late 1940s when many of the buildings were designed. 

“Of course, students today have computers and software to assist with the calculations, but the fundamentals have not changed. The World Trade Center provides a dramatic illustration of what can go wrong when you don’t consider all possible design failures,” he said.

Conspiracy theories cannot displace science

“Before the fake-news mentality was the cultural means of dismissing facts we do not want to accept, I was contacted by many 9/11 ‘truth seekers,’” Mobasher said. “I was asked to review videos, listen to conspiracy theories and go on the record to cast doubt on the actual causes and mechanisms.”

Now, Mobasher uses these conspiracy theories to impress upon his students the importance of using scientific evidence.

“I tell them to build an understanding from the individual components of a puzzle through examination, engineering and the science fundamentals they learn in their first two years of study at ASU,” he said.

“I also use the example of Bažant who, using scientific principles, was able to provide a full and solid understanding of what happened, while years of alterative conspiracy theories have failed to stand the test of the basic engineering concepts we expect our students to wield in their structural design arsenals.”

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Graphics created by Alejandro Cabrera/ASU

Terry Grant

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications