ASU faculty reflect on the day that changed our lives
From the global response to terrorism and the subversive weaponization of narratives, to the evolution of crisis management and guardians of civil liberties — 9/11 forced us to think differently; to rise to new challenges; and to confront the vulnerabilities of our democracy.
Twenty years after the attacks and in observance of the anniversary, ASU News reached out to faculty experts across Arizona State University to share their observations, research and reflections on 9/11’s cultural and global impact on our world — and on their work.
Stepping up safety and security after 9/11
Melanie Gall and Brian Gerber, co-directors of the Center for Emergency Management and Homeland Security in ASU’s Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions on how the events of Sept. 11 heightened safety protocols and standardized emergency management practices across the nation.
Brian Gerber: Before 9/11 we didn't have a particularly strong nationalized system. After 9/11, we have a much higher level of consistent and uniform practice and how all aspects of the emergency management process are followed by federal, state and local governments. In other words, we created a set of national standards and everybody follows them now. So that's a pretty dramatic change.
Melanie Gall: As a result of 9/11, the National Incident Management System (NIMS) was developed following the Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5. Part of NIMS is the so-called Incident Command System, which was adopted from the fire service, where it was used for interagency coordination for wildfires within and between California and Arizona. What is unique about ICS is the fact that it is a command-and-control structure with a clear chain of command and defined roles and responsibilities. Think of it as a system with defined job descriptions and job titles allowing responders coming to the incident site(s) to easily slot in and boosting local capacities.
Gerber: Over the last two decades there's been considerable progress made in managing or creating tools to help manage a really complex set of interacting hazards. We used to not talk about community resilience as part of dealing with emergencies and disasters. Now we've moved in that direction to figure out how different members of a community are affected differently. Social equity is now a consideration as well. All those kinds of issues in the year 2000 really weren't on the table.
Gall: Our field is constantly growing and evolving since 9/11. Our field is in flux. As an emergency management and homeland security academic, you have to keep up with a constant flow of new policy guidance, new or updated planning guidelines, new or updated training requirements and more. What has perhaps become most challenging for many academic programs in emergency management and homeland security is to find the right balance between teaching students the EMHS vocabulary, systems and structures but go beyond and expand students' thinking and incorporate topics such as climate change, sustainability, resilience, social vulnerability, the differential impacts of disasters and more. Those are topics that training courses from FEMA generally do not touch upon.
William Terrill, professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice in ASU’s Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, says evolving policing practices reversed course after 9/11.
Much of the 1990s was trying to get away from the military approach of policing. After 9/11, it really went back to this basic, fundamental aspect of public safety and the fear that we could be attacked in our homeland so we need a very strong police force. I do think law enforcement needs to get away from the “lock-up-everyone,” “everyone-is-a-threat” policing and think more toward policing the community.
Nadya Bliss, executive director of ASU’s Global Security Initiative, says technological advancements made in cybersecurity since Sept. 11 are helping to keep us safe from other attacks, but there is still much work to be done.
I started working professionally in the field of national security right after 9/11. My personal research and my own doctoral dissertation is on analysis of graphs and networks, so I mathematically understand networks. And while this is a very important aspect of security advancement efforts, it is not sufficient to address the problems of understanding the emergence of dangerous patterns or potentially dangerous themes.
The national security research and development community has been very techno-centric over the last 20 years. But we have come to realize that the community can't advance in isolation — away from the human or cultural elements that drive our society. Interdisciplinarity is very important, and we have to do it together. Bringing together a bunch of engineers with a bunch of humanists is a non-trivial task, but where we really make amazing progress on some of these challenges is where we do in fact bring people together.
We in the national security research community have gotten much better at widening our scope when it comes to developing technology, and I think we're much better at appreciating that this technology and isolation modality is not sufficient. We appreciate the need to bring non-technical disciplines into development of national security.
Fighting the longest war in history
Daniel Rothenberg is the co-director of the Center on the Future of War, a partnership between ASU and New America created in the 2014–15 academic year to explore the changing character of war, and the social and political impacts of recent conflict in the U.S. and around the world.
After the shock, devastation and national trauma of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and later Iraq as part of a reconceptualization of security policy known as the Global War on Terror. Through these processes, we have witnessed the extraordinary capacity of the U.S. to project military force and to complexly impact world politics. These actions produced many incoherent policies, led to enormous suffering abroad, and left our country divided and disillusioned.
This can be partly explained by two notable and interrelated elements of post-9/11 wars. First, the U.S. never clearly articulated the purpose, objective or broad strategy justifying these wars, despite their enormous cost. The goals that were consistently voiced — defeating terrorism, defending the homeland, protecting freedom and supporting democracy — were often too general and too vague for the specifics of the practice of war and required a political vision at odds with the humanitarian significance of large-scale military deployments. Second, the wars were managed with minimal serious recognition of the places and peoples where U.S. forces were deployed, commonly making assumptions about the ease of political transformation abroad — even as Americans took for granted the impossibility of mutual understanding and compromise here at home.
While it is still too early to fully comprehend the meaning of the post-9/11 era, the last 20 years reveal how difficult it is to create a unifying narrative of what it means to commit a country to the danger and sacrifice of war as well as the profound impact and unexpected consequences, at home and abroad, of failing to do so.
Brooks Simpson, Foundation Professor of history in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, compares the war in Afghanistan — launched in response to 9/11 — to previous U.S. wars.
The withdrawal of United States military forces from Afghanistan has brought to an end nearly two decades of direct involvement in that nation’s affairs after the Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. soil, winning it the characterization of “America’s Longest War.” The departure of Americans from Kabul in August 2021 seemed all too familiar to those people who remembered the final American evacuation of Saigon in 1975, two years after most U.S. troops had left the struggling Republic of South Vietnam to fend for itself. That the cost in American dead was far less in Afghanistan does not assuage feelings of anger over what appears to have been the futility of the mission — although that mission shifted from destroying the ability of terrorist groups to attack the United States and its allies to an effort to establish a new regime in a nation that has long weathered external interventions, as the former Soviet Union could attest.
Vietnam casts a long shadow over Afghanistan. Less obvious but in many ways as telling was the United States’ effort to subdue first the Confederacy during the American Civil War followed by a seemingly endless endeavor to quell white supremacist terrorist violence and protect shaky Republican state governments throughout the South. In all three cases, whatever the original mission, efforts to engage in state-building failed before a resilient enemy who disrupted efforts to establish peace, often through unconventional military obligations, as public support for the endeavor faltered. In all three cases the final disengagement came under heavy criticism as people wondered whether the effort had been worth it. In the cases of Reconstruction and Vietnam, Americans continue to wrestle with the consequences of retreat and defeat. We can expect the same when we begin to review the failure of American intervention in Afghanistan and what that means for American foreign policy in the future.
Culture, communication and counterterrorism shifts
Keith Brown, anthropologist and director of the Melikian Center: Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies at ASU, on how the aftermath of 9/11 called for an urgent re-examination of our cultural competency in foreign policy and education.
Two long-standing concerns for the field in the U.S. have been to maintain a distance from U.S. intelligence and military operations, and to challenge easy stereotypes about other cultures. The shock of 9/11, and the pressure on Americans (or foreign residents) to demonstrate their national loyalty by supporting a military response, called those concerns into question. This has changed the field, highlighting tension between those willing to take the risk of “weaponizing” anthropological knowledge to advance national security, and those who maintain that critical analysis of growing U.S. militarism — including, for example, the up-arming of civilian police — is the best way to serve the common good.
After 9/11, U.S. anthropologists were asked to answer very specific questions, including “Why do they — lumping together Middle Easterners, Muslims, Arabs and, after 2003, Iraqis — hate us (Americans)?” And “How can our military win hearts and minds?” It was harder to raise public awareness in more complex analyses of the long-term impacts of U.S. foreign policy — including supplying arms to the mujahedeen, supporting authoritarian regimes like Saddam Hussein’s and denying Palestinian rights of return or restitution — on attitudes and livelihoods around the world. By opening new lines of social science research funding for focused work on topics like religious fundamentalism, tribal structures or youth radicalization, it emphasized anthropology’s local applications rather than its global sweep.
After 9/11, I expanded my own teaching and research interests in the cultural dimensions of conflict, especially in insurgencies against imperial or occupying powers. I have worked closely with military colleagues to explore the comparative experience of irregular warfare, including developing reading lists and syllabi for military personnel and, especially, for veterans of the long wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. The civilian-military disconnect in the contemporary U.S. — in particular, civilian ignorance of what it is like to go to war, and the challenges that veterans face in leaving war behind — constitutes an enduring threat to civic discourse, that demands attention.
Steve Corman, professor and director of the Center for Strategic Communication in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, provided academic research to support counterterrorism efforts against the group behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
I was a typical unfunded researcher in a small academic field, studying organizational communication. After the 9/11 attacks, I researched texts from the extremist group al-Qaida and became alarmed. People on an academic mailing list I was a part of were suggesting al-Qaida had legitimate grievances and maybe the United States had it coming. I replied with some al-Qaida quotes and noted that if they got their way and took over, academics like those on the list would be among the first to be targeted for violent acts. This was not a popular point of view on the list.
Apparently, someone in the Department of Defense saw this exchange and invited me to participate in a workshop for the Joint Warfare Analysis Center on countering al-Qaida. I presented some work I had done on how to stress organizational communication and activity systems. This led to other such invitations, and eventually a large grant from the Office of Naval Research in 2009 to study how al-Qaida and similar groups use narratives to recruit people to their cause. This in turn led to the establishment of the Center for Strategic Communication here at ASU, which I currently direct. CSC has since received several more large grants from the Department of Defense and other agencies in the years since.
Ehsan Zaffar, founding executive director of The Difference Engine at ASU and professor of practice at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, says that 9/11 “essentially created my field: the nexus of civil rights and security.”
Prior to 9/11 the field of counterterrorism (much less civil rights policies around counterterrorism) was a sleepy, relatively niche professional field. Sept. 11 resulted in an unprecedented influx of cash and the largest reorganization of the federal government since World War II. New departments like the Department of Homeland Security were established from scratch, and the subfield of civil rights related to security was even more niche — focusing almost exclusively on American activities fighting terrorism abroad, which sit more squarely in human rights rather than civil rights.
My reaction to 9/11 was fear, but not fear of terrorism or future terrorist attacks since I was relatively familiar with terrorism, having fled war myself. Instead, I feared for the reactions and reprisal that would ensue against people who looked like me or had a background similar to mine. That concern, among other reasons, drove me to become a civil rights lawyer, and I have spent the better part of that career directly trying to curb the worst excesses of the government, and now broader society, as they seek to achieve an ostensibly laudable goal at the expense of our rights.
A turning point for teaching
John Carlson, interim director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and associate professor of religious studies in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, on how 9/11 increased study interest in religion, especially Islam.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 hit the academy like a hurricane. And the field of religion was right in the eye of it. Scholars of religion have always understood the importance of their subject — so 9/11 didn’t change that. But society urgently began calling upon them to explain religion’s influence in public life — especially in international affairs. Rather suddenly, religion became chic.
Foremost, people wanted to learn more about Islam, given the role of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida and the Taliban in the terrorist attacks. So, scholars of Islam had an incredible burden to educate entire societies (especially in the West) about a religion that few people knew about — no, Islam doesn’t command terrorism; no, most Muslims don’t want to live under Taliban rule; no, Shariah law isn’t coming for the Constitution.
In the course of confronting such stereotypes, many Americans learned — or relearned — about the struggles for acceptance that minority religions have faced throughout the nation’s history. Catholics, Jews, and Mormons (among others) had been here before — either persecuted or pressed to reconcile their faith with their allegiance to the United States or both. Violence often has played a part in that national story, and 9/11 forced many of us — scholars and citizens alike — to retell and update that story.
Sarah Risha, senior lecturer of Arabic studies in the School of International Letters and Cultures, on how educators can create a safer learning experience for students of diverse cultures by offering a broader perspective of 9/11 and its aftermath.
Sept. 11 disrupted the lives of many of us in the Muslim community, especially women wearing scarves. To this day I, as a Muslim woman, still feel fearful of those who blame Islam for the attacks. In the days and weeks following the attacks 20 years ago, some people screamed at me, "GO BACK HOME!" when I went to stores, and others made me feel uncomfortable with their stares. I would leave stores quickly without getting all that I needed. However, one day when I arrived home from school, I found a box full of vegetables, fruits and snacks for my children with a note "I am here when you need anything." It was from our next-door neighbor, and it really made me grateful.
Now as a lecturer, I use actual examples of daily life to help students face their own unconscious beliefs in my Arabic culture and Islam class. I introduce Islam and discuss Muslim women who wear traditional dress. I am encouraged to hear students say that they have a much better understanding of Islam and Muslim women after our lessons and readings. I am always happy with their honest opinion, and most importantly that they have learned something new.
Amy Dawn Shinabarger, a lecturer of English and linguistics in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, on how the aftermath of 9/11 fortified her own commitment to teaching.
In the days after 9/11, four years into a teaching career I never planned, I experienced my first crisis in faith as a teacher. My students were not necessarily safe, and I could not assure them otherwise. In all of the classes I taught and visited, students left ASU and returned home. The United Arab Emirates, most notably, pulled their students out of American universities, but others left, too. One class shrunk by nearly half. A female student who had previously worn a hijab returned with her hair uncovered, and I bit my lip to hold back tears which sprang forth in spite of my best effort. My students and I discussed the events at length; then we discussed the vandalism and rocks thrown through windows of Arab and Muslim places near our campus, our place that was supposed to be safe. We discussed the hate-crime murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi in our community days later. I was a green teacher but already trying to make the world a more peaceful place through education, studying and working with the framework of Paulo Freire's critical pedagogy, a precursor to today's critical race theory.
I still wasn't sure what I was going to do once I actually had the doctorate in hand until after 9/11. My mom is an elementary teacher, and I was always aware of the power of teachers to change lives. Teaching can be so powerful that sometimes it frightens me, then and now. The events of that day and the days that followed changed me as a scholar, as a teacher and as a human being. But, even more so, going through the aftermath of those events with my students changed me. I committed my future to postsecondary education as a result.
9/11: An astronaut’s story
Cady Coleman, global explorer in residence in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, describes her experience learning about the 9/11 attacks as an astronaut and the fears around the safety of Mission Control as the attacks were unfolding.
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Mary Beth Faller, Emma Greguska, Mark Scarp, Scott Seckel and Penny Walker also contributed to the creation of this article.
Top photo of the 9/11 Memorial in New York City by Jesse Mills/Unsplash.com