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Remembering the 11th

As a first semester freshman in the fall of 2001, I enrolled in a writing seminar in the Anthropology Department entitled "Freedom and Socio-Cultural Control". Taught by a graduate student, the course explored the meaning of freedom through the lens of various cultures, with students encouraged to look for the way that culture spawns hegemonic thinking, tacitly controlling one's life perspectives, including our own.

The class met on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:40 to 10:10 in the morning, and I did not have any other morning classes on those days. Despite the writing seminar label, the reading load was heavy, with 100+ pages of Michel Foucault, Isiah Berlin, or Naomi Klein assigned on a weekly basis. As a wet-behind the ears Cornellian whose high school curriculum didn't include dense philosophical treatises, the reading was a challenge, and I would venture off to Uris Library after every class to find a secluded spot and dig into the class's reading on our distorted American view of 'freedom' for an hour or two.

So it wasn't until around lunchtime that I heard about the attack on New York City.

I can remember standing in Uris, at the landing between the Cocktail Lounge and the stairs down into the Fishbowl, checking my email on the old text-based telnet system. I saw a whole bunch of urgent email messages stacking up in my mailbox, from deans, RAs, and professors. Something about the extent of the damage in Lower Manhattan as yet undetermined. And, oh, attacks in D.C. and a plane crash in Pennsylvania as well. Students being instructed to remain calm and try to get in touch with their family via phone or email.

Keep in mind that these were in the days before student had cellphones, my only line a phone back in my dorm room in Court Hall. Given that my entire family is Buffalo-based, I had no urgent need to call my parents, but did send them a quick email.

Walking out of Uris that day, the campus was abuzz, much different than its pre-10 AM sleepiness, and many students were visibly upset and shaken, understandably so given the nature of the attacks and concentration of students on campus from downstate. I remember being not altogether surprised by the attacks -- but then again, I tend to treat things abstractly. The 90s had seen fairly significant tragedies occur within the country on almost a yearly basis -- from both domestic and international sources -- and this seemed no different.

Back in Court Hall we did inventories of all of our families -- who had parents or siblings or relatives or friends in Lower Manhattan who we had not heard from.

Probably because it's in a university's nature to try to make sense of the world, the campus very quickly ushered from shock to mourning, perhaps much faster than the American public at large. And by the evening of September 11th President Hunter Rawlings was quoting Carl Becker and reminding the campus that:

"It is incumbent upon all of us to make no premature judgments about the perpetrators of these attacks and to recognize, even if the perpetrators are identified, that members of the Cornell community are not responsible for the actions of others. We are a tolerant, fair-minded and humane campus, and we should remain so; otherwise we will betray the tradition established by Ezra Cornell, when he founded this university, and enhanced by Carl Becker. I urge each of you to pursue freedom with your heartfelt sense of responsibility and to set an example for others as you do so.."

It was little surprise that the topic of our writing seminar on the ensuing Thursday was changed to discuss the nature and the meaning of the 9/11 attacks. After all, it seemed like our writing seminar was made specifically for this issue. Already there was talk of the terrorists hating 'our freedom' and American culture prevailing. And, in keeping with Cornell's trademark diversity, our little band of 16 newly minted freshmen was highly divergent and opinionated over all of the looming questions building up in the national consciousness. Could there be 'peaceful justice' for the perpetrators? Who could America go to war against? Why did they hate our freedom? Was America at fault in the attacks?

Nevertheless, the semester continued with fraternity parties and football games, a Rusted Root concert and pizza at The Nines, and quickly the issue of the attacks took a backseat to more pressing issues, like linear algebra prelims and my first collegiate term paper. In some sense, the only lingering presence of the attacks was the 'GOD BLESS AMERICA' sign posted prominently across Mary Donlon's 5th floor windows across from my own room. I do remember some anthrax scares occurring as well on campus, but they were mostly committed by hysterical sorority girls. (Sorry, but it's true.) The binge drinking occurring every weekend by so many of my peers seemed much more dangerous and immediately present than any terror threat.

And it wasn't until that October, when I went home over fall break, did I get a sense for how much the national consciousness had changed. American flags were proudly displayed in front of every house, and my family's street had taken an eerie, somber, shut-in feel. Children were no longer playing outside, and there was a palpable sense of fear everywhere.

It was a fear not really felt on Cornell's campus; a dangerous fear that ate away at the national consciousness -- that people hated us for who we were, even though "we had done nothing wrong", and that we were always unsafe. It was a fear that end up being partially responsible for one of the bleakest decades in American history, with an ill-conceived war that resulted in unfathomable wasting of U.S. wealth and blood, and a financial crisis minted out of an American desire to wall ourselves up in our homes, the most powerful nation in history demonstrating a feeble yearning for security.

My graduating class stands at a unique juncture point in the history of American adolescence. We were essentially the last class to grow up in the pre-9/11 era. Unlike the students born a couple years after us, our pre-collegiate lives were not always scripted and coddled, secure from all of the unknowns now so visibly present in the post-9/11 era. We still played on the street growing up, hanging out with whichever neighborhood kid was around, no need for play dates. And we didn't have cell phones for our first couple of years in college, let alone high school. And at Cornell, we would talk to our parents every week or so, not text them multiple times a day. As a result, we're a bit less plugged in, a bit more spontaneous. A bit more free.

So when I think of 9/11, and I remember all those lost 10 years ago, and the untold horrors that millions of Americans went through in the ensuring days and weeks, I also think of all of the freedom that the American spirit has lost as well. It's a distinctly American-brand of freedom, one of commingled freedom and responsibility, the very one that Cornell channels so well.

Hopefully we'll be able to win that freedom back from ourselves soon.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on September 11, 2011 (#)

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