Georgetown University in Washington, DC, did not cancel classes on September 12th, so I went into a class packed with mainly freshman at 9:15 a.m. By that point teaching early modern European history was out of the question, so we talked. After I got home, I sent the following message to everyone.
Date: Wednesday, September 12, 2001 12:56
Frankly, I was surprised by the rather large turnout in class this morning. Yesterday’s news was disturbing, and many of us feel worse as the details and reality of the terrorist attacks sink in. The class discussion was heartening for me, because I saw a large group of curious, thinking, politically astute and morally aware students, who will one day help to lead this country. There is still much to learn (for your professors too), but your remarks show that you want to learn. This desire to learn about and engage in the world might help give a little meaning to the tragedy.
Those of you who did not come to class leave me worried. Was it because of the general sad and bewildered atmosphere that has enveloped this city? Or have you lost family members or friends? I do not expect an answer to these questions, but I do want to point out two things to all students. First, those of you who feel despondent, in shock, depressed, angry, or confused should know that this is normal. You should also know that such feelings can be extremely debilitating if you cannot address them in some way. Make sure you seek out counselors, chaplains, advisors, professors, friends or family members for assistance. Some of you will find your academic work a good diversion–or way of understanding what happened. If, however, your personal situation makes such work impossible, because of depression or family obligations, please also visit your dean, who can run interference for you with your instructors.
Student reactions in class covered a wide spectrum of opinion and emotions, which I would like to summarize. Some of you appeared numbed or angered by the attack and could not yet put it into some sort of abstract moral or political framework. Others were outraged at the apparent insensitivity some people showed towards this great loss. These are normal reactions, and I imagine most of you have felt or will feel similarly, at least for a time. Many of you pondered what the U.S. reaction should be. While some expressed concerns about the morality and justice of retribution, others worried about what application of force might actually work. Who was behind these atrocities and what would be the most efficacious manner of dealing with them? One of you pointed out that any political or military reactions must consider the mindset of the terrorists, their cultural assumptions and psychological make-up. We cannot assume that they think as we do. Some of you talked about what yesterday’s event meant for your sense of security in the U.S. This concern appeared to waver between two poles: our own physical security and the impact that this violence will have on our own humanity. I underscored the latter concern. Finally, Anton pointed out that coming to terms with many of the big conflicts in our day entails learning how to ask the right questions. Besides learning about what happened in the past, our course provides an opportunity for you to learn how to ask trenchant questions.
Finally, some personal notes: A friend of ours in Augsburg, Germany (north of Munich) called this morning to find out how we are doing. She says no one in Augsburg is talking about anything else. They are horrified. My mother-in-law in Munich spoke of a minute of silence being observed today in the textile industry (probably elsewhere too). As far as my friends in New York go, well, it is impossible to get through on the phone. One can only hope and, if one is so inclined, pray.
I encourage you to participate in the university’s various forums for dialog today, and to listen to or read some quality news, such as NPR radio, The Washington Post, and so on. Some of you might also read the foreign press online. Participating in the country’s and world’s dialog is good not only for your intellectual development, but also for your mental health.
Take care of yourselves.
This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date. Image of Pentagon (via Ghosts of DC) added later.