20 Years Later: Experts Share Their Thoughts on How 9/11 Transformed Their Field, Their Research, and the World

911 Memorial

Tribute in Light, an annual display near the site of Ground Zero, commemorates the September 11 attacks. Credit: Scott Spitzer

Experts across the University of Pennsylvania share their thoughts on how 9/11 transformed their field, their research, and the world.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Coming on the heels of the exit of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, America’s longest war and a response to the attacks, the anniversary provides an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of 9/11.

Penn Today asked experts across the University to share their thoughts on how 9/11 transformed their field or their research, the world, or their lives.

Leah Blain, clinical psychologist and director for the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Penn, where she oversees all clinical, administrative, and outreach operations

September 11 had a huge impact on the field of trauma recovery. Not only was 9/11 an unprecedented stressor unto itself, but the wars that followed had a massive impact in terms of helping us understand what happens when people experience immense amounts of stress, both from the stressors they experience and from being removed from supports like family. The silver lining is that with every stressor we study, we learn more about recovery.

1 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment

Soldiers from the 1-505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, based in Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, at a landing zone near the town of Keyki, Afghanistan on July 30, 2002. Credit: Courtesy of the Department of Defense/U.S. Army photographer Spc. Patrick Tharpe

Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are benefiting from all that we learned from our Vietnam veterans and trauma survivors before them. The knowledge we’ve accumulated as a field means we now have evidence-based practices to offer people who are suffering from things like PTSD, depression, and moral injury from their service.

The clients we serve have often been on multiple deployments. Over the last 20 years, service members who originally signed up to be in the Reserves or National Guard have deployed at rates comparable to active-duty personnel. That’s very different from prior conflicts. And, approximately two million children in our country have had at least one parent serve since September 11, 2001, so that’s having a really important impact on our families. A common stressor for military families is inadequate access to behavioral health supports and services for family members during and after deployments. A big piece of our mission at the Cohen Clinic is being able to serve family members as well as veterans.

Post-9/11, we’ve learned lessons of what recovery can look like and now have the ability to apply those lessons in real time to support people who are facing deployments, currently serving, or are transitioning from the military to civilian life. We have learned so much about resilience and recovery. We can make an impact now. To me, that’s such an inspiring mission: to be able to give back to those who have been willing to sacrifice so much for all of us.

In light of what’s happening now in Afghanistan, I’m hearing people talk about it as if it’s an endpoint. But in our field, we know that this is going to have ripple effects for years to come. And we are ready, better armed to help our veterans and military family members recover and thrive.

Cynthia Otto, professor of Working Dog Sciences and Sports Medicine; director, Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Prior to September 11, 2001, my work with search and rescue dogs was an interesting hobby that utilized my veterinary emergency medicine training in a different environment and sparked interesting, but somewhat limited research questions. On September 11, when the planes hit the towers, the world reeled. I got the call to pack my bags and report to the Philadelphia Fire Academy as part of the Pennsylvania Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1, and my world shifted.

The 10 days spent caring for the dogs at Ground Zero reframed my career, starting with the launch of the American Kennel Club-Canine Health Foundation funded 15-year study of the health and behavioral effects of the response on search and rescue dogs. During that time, I began working with all types of working dogs. My research focus pivoted from the laboratory to the Labrador (and other working breeds). The unanswered questions and the opportunities to apply science and veterinary expertise to the health and performance of working dogs became my ultimate driving force.

After 10 years of planning, seeking funding and space, on September 11, 2012, we opened the Penn Vet Working Dog Center (PVWDC) as a research, education, and training resource for working dogs, focused on search and rescue and other types of scent detection dogs. At the time, the term “working dog” was relatively unfamiliar to the general public and the field of canine sports medicine was just finding its foot (paw) hold. True to the goal of being the legacy of 9/11, the PVWDC has been instrumental in transforming the science, care, training, and visibility of detection dogs. Bearing witness to the horror and humanity of that day, to the undeniable bond between human and animal, served as the catalyst for an extraordinary and fulfilling new period of my career; from veterinary emergency medicine to canine sports medicine.

Search Dogs and Handlers Ground Zero

Search dogs and handlers with the Pennsylvania Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1 at Ground Zero in the days after the attacks on September 11, 2001. From left to right, Chris Selfridge and Riley; Bobbie Snyder and Willow; Rose DeLuca and Logan; John Gilkey and Bear; and (back row) Cynthia Otto of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. Credit: Courtesy of Cynthia Otto

Today the PVWDC has graduated over 100 detection dogs, trained hundreds of students and handlers, published 40 papers/reviews/chapters, provided congressional testimony and made “working dogs” a familiar and beloved topic. Just like the dogs at Ground Zero, the PVWDC has brought hope and promise through the noses and hearts of dogs.

Barbie Zelizer, Raymond Williams Professor of Communication, associate dean for research, and director of the Center for Media at Risk in the Annenberg School for Communication

The recollection of crisis is cluttered with before and after moments: before and after the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination, the Trump presidency, COVID-19. Bracketing time into before and after moments lets us separate objectionable or problematic circumstances from the drive to improve them. It’s no surprise, then, that the events of 9/11 are often framed as a demarcating point, segmenting, among other things, the U.S. media’s coverage of crisis into before and after moments. But how has post-9/11 crisis coverage changed from its earlier self, if at all?

September 11 Small Monument

Small monument to the victims of September 11 on a car lot fence on Greenwich and Seventh Avenues in New York City, August 11, 2004. Credit: Courtesy of David Iliff

The days following 9/11 spawned anguished hand wringing about where U.S. institutions, among them U.S. media, had gone wrong. The media’s unsatisfying coverage drew from well-established patterns that often framed events without context, glossed developments in simplicity and portrayed uncrossable camps between “us” and “them.” Calls for a new normal and for better coverage that could reflect more fully the positionalities of those being covered at first seemed to promise soul-searching and a nod toward more global understanding.

But 20 years later, little has changed. The world of the U.S. media is still largely bipolar, severed into two with little granularity, contemplation, or complexity. Coverage offers scant structural understanding of how and why crises unfold and hinders the development of meaningful intervention. And the media still refract distant crises through the prism of U.S. interests, shrinking and eliminating from coverage the positionalities that matter most.

Immediately after the events of 9/11, cries of “why us?” were everywhere. Twenty years later, those cries, though somewhat diminished, nonetheless impede change. As the gut-wrenching developments in Afghanistan accompany the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from a war begun in 9/11’s wake, a new before and after moment is developing. Maybe this time the media can resist its entrenchment and rather than ask “why us?” finally begin to ponder “why them?”

Roxanne L. Euben, Walter H. and Leonore C. Annenberg Professor in the Social Sciences, School of Arts & Sciences

My first book out of graduate school focused on the political thought of a then-obscure Egyptian Islamist thinker named Sayyid Qutb. When the book was published in 1999, I assumed that precisely three people would read it, all family members. That radically changed in the immediate wake of 9/11, when fear, anger, and a hunger to make sense of the attacks cemented a shift, already underway, from a preoccupation with the Cold War to a focus on Islam, Islamism, and Muslims (often collapsed into one another). Almost any research on Islam moved from the margins to the epicenter of a country that seemed to be just waking up to how the rest of the world experiences U.S. power. At the same time, a new narrative of “Islam versus the West” had already begun to congeal, distorting the very political landscape it was imperative to understand.

Donald Rumsfeld and Hamid Karzai

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld addresses reporters with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, Afghanistan, on September 7, 2003. Rumsfeld’s trip to Kabul was part of his scheduled tour of the Middle East. Credit: Staff Sgt. Keith Thompson

Yet even as many barriers hardened, a few fractured. From my vantage point, these events actually helped crack open the field in which I work, political theory, conventionally organized around a canon of ‘Western’ philosophical books from Plato to NATO. Arguments about the parochialism of academic fields organized almost entirely around the study of Euro-American books were nothing new. But the combination of accelerated globalization and 9/11 drove home, as perhaps nothing else could have, the high price of insularity.

It’s now no longer outlandish to argue that political theory is a practice of inquiry rather than the study of specific answers located in a ‘Western’ canon, that it’s a distinctive way of asking questions about what matters in collective life upon which no particular culture or epoch has a monopoly. This way of reframing political theory is more than just a call to add a Muslim or Indian thinker to a syllabus and stir. It’s a recognition that the most pressing questions—and answers—of political life exceed the experiences and preoccupations of Euro-American thinkers. It’s an insistence that such questions equally take shape through ideas, concepts, and arguments formulated by both unfamiliar thinkers from elsewhere and from within ‘the West,’ past and present. And it’s an exhortation to call into question the very narratives and categories we’ve invented to provide the comfort of order in a disorderly world—beginning with “Islam versus the West.”

Ken Lum, Marilyn Jordan Taylor Penn Presidential Professor and Chair of the Department of Fine Arts in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design

Like many, many people, I remember vividly the terrible day of September 11, 2001. I was on the telephone, a landline connection. It was early in the morning on the West Coast and I was speaking to a friend in New Haven, Connecticut. She was a newly hired professor of art history at Yale. I was excited for her, happy for her. From my high-up apartment in Vancouver, I could see the mountains change colors under the moving clouds. At some point in our conversation, Ann stopped speaking and there was only silence. After some moments she said: “You need to turn on your television set,” and I did so. I remember staring at the screen and feeling a sense of my own bodily presence in time and space as never before. I had forgotten that Ann was still on the line. But it turned out she had also forgotten about me.

Twin Towers Burning

The Twin Towers burn on the morning of September 11, 2001, as seen from the Brooklyn Bridge Promenade. Credit: Courtesy Michael Foran/Flickr

I hung up the phone. I returned to the screen and just stared and stared and stared. On some fathomless level, everything that I had held to be true or wanted so desperately to believe in was suddenly open to question. The staring at the screen was deracinating. The deepest truths and the darkest secrets inside and about me seemed to be bubbling up everywhere in my mind and body, like molten lava. Volcanic rivers continue to course through the world and into me. They continue to scald my sense of self and what art had meant for me up until that point.

My dissatisfaction with the insufficiency of art has only grown since then but it has also become the source of what propels me.

Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher, senior lecturer, Graduate School of Education

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 provides an opportunity not only to reflect on what happened that day but more importantly, on the ongoing ripple effects that continue to shape our world.

Many young Americans see 9/11 as a moment in history, something that “happened” long ago; something that doesn’t affect their life. But that’s not the case for Arab, Muslim, Sikh, African, and South-Asian communities in the United States. Several colleagues and I are finishing a four-year national qualitative study with 13-to 23-year-olds from Muslim-American immigrant communities across over a dozen states in the U.S. Despite not being alive in 2001, these youth described how 9/11 continues to cast a shadow over their everyday experiences.

Anthony Buchanan

U.S. Army 1st Lt. Anthony Buchanan of the Camp Atterbury Public Affairs Office gets a hug after reading a book to children of East Side Elementary School in Edinburgh, Ind. Soldiers were invited to participate in “Read with a Hero Day” to commemorate September 11, 2001. Credit: Sgt. 1st Class Russell Klika

My research largely informs a current endeavor, the Teaching Beyond September 11th curriculum project that provides educators lessons to help their students explore the attack’s lingering impact on everything from U.S. military interventions abroad, to questions about civil liberties, to changes in media representation. The curriculum is not just for 9/11: It’s for any time in the year. It’s no exaggeration to say that teaching young people to be more aware of this history is one of the most effective interventions that we have for upholding our democracy.

I was on the George Washington Bridge heading into Manhattan at the exact time of the 9/11 attacks. I had emigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan the year prior to start my new life as a graduate student and a newlywed. Following that surreal day, I witnessed the backlash and rise in hate crimes against Muslim, Arab, and Sikh communities across the U.S. In the years after, I was drawn to study and work with immigrant communities and I can tell you this: Twenty years can feel like a long time, but it rarely does for the groups directly impacted by 9/11. That’s why the work I do is so important to me and why reflecting beyond September 11 is necessary for us all.

Leah Blain serves as the Clinic Director for the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic, where she oversees all clinical, administrative, and outreach operations. Her clinical work focuses on trauma recovery, working with survivors of assault, abuse, and combat, on issues including depression, guilt and shame, anger, dissociation, and PTSD.

Barbie Zelizer is the Raymond Williams Professor of Communication, associate dean for research, and director of the Center for Media at Risk in the Annenberg School for Communication. A former journalist, Zelizer is known for her work on culture, memory, and images, particularly in times of crisis and war.

Cynthia Otto is a professor of Working Dog Sciences & Sports Medicine in Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center.

Roxanne L. Euben is the Walter H. and Leonore C. Annenberg Professor in the Social Sciences in the School of Arts & Sciences. Euben’s area of expertise and research is Muslim and Euro-American political thought, and her scholarship has addressed such topics as Muslim cosmopolitanism, jihad, and martyrdom and political action.

Ken Lum is a practicing artist, Marilyn Jordan Taylor Penn Presidential Professor and Chair of the Department of Fine Arts in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design.

Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher is a senior lecturer in the Literacy, Culture and International Education Division, and director of the International Educational Development Program, in the Graduate School of Education. Her research focuses on the socialization, academic engagement, and civic commitments of migrant children and youth, which has informed her curriculum projects. She also is the co-producer and host of The Parent Scoop podcast.

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