Yale News

Twenty years ago, 7,000 members of the Yale community — undergraduates, faculty and graduate students — gathered on Cross Campus. All present held a single candle, lighting up the otherwise dark evening. That morning, as students walked to class, caught in the chaos of shopping period, the first plane had crashed into the North Tower. Then, less than 18 minutes later, a second Boeing 767 hit the South Tower, suspending classes and forever altering the lives of those students, their families and the country. Nine University alumni died that day.

Now, few, if any, students enrolled in Yale College are old enough to truly remember that day’s events. In interviews with the News, University leadership from the time, current Eli Whitney students and other members of the Yale community painted a picture of the world in September 2001, the emotions that ushered the nation into war and the lessons we have learned — or failed to learn. The tragic events have shifted American reality in many ways, contributing to a sharp increase in anti-Muslim discrimination and the rise of a United States surveillance state. For some, the decades since 9/11 have not changed their perspective on the tragic events or lessened the effects of 9/11 on American society today.

“I know at that time I felt [it] was really important to come together and show that we as a University, where open mindedness and willingness to hear the views of others, exhibit that trait for ourselves and for the wider world by reaching out to all the people in our community,” former University President Richard Levin, who was president in September of 2001, said. “I very much feel the same way today: I think historically the dangers of creeds that shut off all conversation. This was one such instance of the terror that is the product of that dogma.”

Ten years ago, speaking at a vigil on Cross Campus, Levin expressed similar ideas: “Tonight, with the perspective of a decade, this remains the principal lesson of 9/11: that the best weapon in the war on terror is an open mind.”

Kurt Nowak ’22, an Eli Whitney student who served in the Navy for 10 years, also said that all these years later, he feels the same way. “I don’t know if I can say that the distance has changed my perception of the day and that it is as significant to me today as it was all those years ago,” he said.

Lieutenant Colonel William Mitchell of the United States Marine Corps, who is spending the year taking classes at Yale and served in the Marines for 23 years, was similarly resolved in the decision he made to serve, while accepting the challenges of the two-decade-long and often-controversial war in Afghanistan that ended in August. Last week, Yalies connected to the country and region shared their views on the situation with the News, expressing reactions that included anger at United States leadership and regret of the withdrawal itself. They stressed the importance of humanitarian work in Afghanistan, and some students organized a fundraiser for at-risk groups in the country.

For his part, Mitchell said that the tragedy of Sept. 11 and his subsequent service in the Marines allowed him to have a “greater sense of appreciation for what we have here in this country.”

“I’d like to think that what we did was justified and with good intentions but certainly as you have time to reflect, we agree that we probably could have done some things differently,” Mitchell said.

Although most Yale College students were very young or not yet born when 9/11 happened, many Yale students have, and continue today, to join the military following that day’s events and amid the war that ensued. In Yale’s ROTC program, which was reinstated in 2012 after a four-decade hiatus, there are currently approximately 120 midshipmen and cadets.

Yalies have joined the military service due to a broad desire to serve their country and to contribute to something greater than themselves, said Mitchell, Nowak, the President of the Yale Veterans Association Adrian Bonenberger ’02 and James Hatch ’23, an Eli Whitney student with over 20 years of service in the Navy SEALS.

“Whatever someone’s motivation for joining is, I think a core foundational level is a love of country and a desire to be of service to their countrymen,” said Nowak. 

Levin also noted the impact 9/11 had on the importance of service within the Yale community. 

The attacks on that day followed a decade of relative peace and prosperity for America, Levin said, and shocked people into the realization that there are people who oppose the American way of life and that something needed to be done to protect against them. Levin added that many saw military and national service as a way to do this. 

Levin pointed to Jake Sullivan ’98 LAW ’03, the current United States national security advisor, as someone who was “very motivated by that [9/11] to go into public service.” For Levin himself, 9/11 reinforced his attitude on the importance of public service. 

Some veterans who spoke with the News, however, made clear that there are lessons to be learned from the years of war that followed the attacks. Mitchell said the United States government should only use military force as a last resort.

“I think we better think long and hard about what we are willing to do,” said Nowak. “Are we willing to sacrifice our young men and women and, if so, what can we do to ensure that this is as justified as possible?” 

Furthermore, Bonenberger and Nowak both noted the way in which 9/11 served as an inflection point for the domestic politics of the nation, changing everything from the way in which Americans travel to their willingness to sacrifice domestic freedoms for security.

The events of 9/11 served as a triggering event for a sudden and dramatic increase in anti-Muslim bigotry aournd the country that has persisted to this day, the Director of Muslim Life at Yale Omer Bajwa said.

“Islamophobia really metastasized after 9/11, in the jingoism and all of the frenzied patriotism that gets blanketed around post-9/11 and islamophobia is part and parcel of that in many ways, from political discourse to media discourse,” Bajwa said.

Bajwa also noted how many undergraduate Muslim students have only ever experienced the United States post-9/11, during which they experienced significantly higher levels of bigotry than they would have before.

“Their whole reality has been the invasion and occupation of two Muslim countries,” Bajwa said, referring to young Muslims today. “The idea of a police and surveillance state, constant profiling, no fly lists, harassment … of Abu Ghraib, of Guantanamo … drone strikes. All of this is the reality… they grow up from the time they are in elementary school being called Taliban and Osama bin Laden.”

Bajwa also noted how Muslims are still living with this kind of harassment. He pointed to a report out of the Stanford Muslim Mental Health and Islamic Psychology Lab which details how Muslims are twice as likely to have attemted suicide than any other religious minority, in part due to the religious discrimination they face.

Reflecting on the moments following the attacks, Levin spoke of a national sense of unity, however brief. Levin described how the outreach from Christian, Jewish and Muslim students on campus helped bring together a community in shock, while Hatch and Nowak described, in general, a “rare moment of unification.”

On campus, the Yale Divinity School commemorated the 20th anniversary of 9/11 with a memorial service, and the Harkness Tower carillon bells tolled four times to mark that day’s events.

Philip Mousavizadeh covers Woodbridge Hall, the President's Office. He previously covered the Jackson Institute. He is a sophomore in Trumbull College studying Ethics, Politics, and Economics