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Middlebury examines legacies of 9/11 in panel discussion

September 7, 2011

MIDDLEBURY, Vt.—A panel discussion at Middlebury, “9/11 in 2011,” examined the events of Sept. 11, 2001, from the perspectives of eye-witnesses, and the longer-term effects on individuals, the United States and the world. The panelists for the discussion on Sept. 14 were President Liebowitz; Huda Fakhreddine, a professor of Arabic at Middlebury; Quinn Mecham, from the political science department; Joyce Mao, a history professor; and alumna Lisa Giuffra Diaz, a member of the Class of 1984. Michael Geisler, the vice president for Language Schools, Schools Abroad and graduate programs, served as the moderator.

Watch a video of the '9/11 in 2011' discussion

Lisa Giuffra Diaz described the morning of Sept. 11 in New York City from the vantage point of her office at Goldman Sachs, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. She said that survival instincts kicked in, prompting her to lead her group out of the building and away from danger. Even after the second tower had been hit by another plane, she said, terrorism was not the first thought on most people’s minds. That pointed out one way things “had fundamentally changed” since 9/11: Now, when something out of the ordinary happens, our first thought is often terrorism. The effect on the American psyche, she said, has been more powerful than most of us realize. There was talk of victory, she said, after Osama Bin Laden was killed, but “I wonder if he is the one who was more victorious,” citing the effects on the U.S. economy, foreign policy, immigration issues, and the level of “fear and defensiveness,” characterized by Americans’ “waiting for something to go wrong.”

President Liebowitz also described a morning spent in New York City, when he was on leave and living in Manhattan, on the Upper West Side, spending time at Columbia and the Mellon Foundation. He planned to walk across town to a meeting at the Mellon Foundation, which would include Clara Yu, a colleague at Middlebury who would go on to become president of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He intended to walk, but got behind schedule and jumped on a cross-town bus. At one point, a woman got on the bus and mumbled something about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. No one paid much attention, but when the bus stopped again and another woman got on and said a second plane had hit the twin towers, everyone got off the bus. By then, you could see the smoke rising from downtown. Liebowitz headed off to meet Yu, who had flown into the city earlier that morning, and had been driving to Manhattan when the second plane hit. They ended up watching the towers fall at the Mellon Foundation offices. Liebowitz recalled a remarkable transformation that came over New York and the country in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, feelings of patriotism and civility, though tinged with fear. But he said the change didn’t last. He noted that older generations were still having a hard time dealing with a post-9/11 world. He is optimistic, however, that the generations that came of age after 9/11, including most Middlebury students, will find ways to move the country forward, coming to terms with the world as it is today.

Huda Fakhreddine was in Beirut, Lebanon, studying at the American University, on Sept. 11, 2001, and said she had never heard of Al Qaeda or Osama Bin Ladin. She said her initial reaction, and that of many in Lebanon, was “as if it had been an attack in the heart of Beirut, not thousands of miles away. It felt like a personal attack.” But she said this sense of empathy was compromised by what came later, in particular the invasion of Iraq. And personally, she has found the post-9/11 world to be full of challenges for an Arab Muslim living and working in the U.S. And it goes beyond being singled out “randomly” by airport security. “I came here as a student interested in the study of poetry who also happened to be Arab,” she said, “but the system responded to me as an Arab who also happened to have an interest in literature.” She said she now has to “cross a barrier of suspicion . . . before I can be taken seriously.” She said that it was unfortunate, but tragic events like 9/11 had come to define the field of Middle Eastern studies.

Joyce Mao was starting the second year of a Ph.D. program at Berkeley in September 2001. Because of the time difference, at lot of what happened that morning in New York City took place while folks on the West Coast were asleep. “We’d gone to bed in one reality,” Mao said, “and awoke in another.” She was a teaching assistant in a class on 20th century U.S. history, and knew she had to be at a lecture that afternoon. She wondered if anyone else would show up, but the lecture hall was full, emphasizing that students wanted to process the events they’d witnessed. She recalled a student asking whether this was the beginning of something or the end of something, and another student replying that it was neither. She said that, 10 years and two wars later, the question of whether 9/11 represented continuity or change seems as contentious as ever. One thing is certain, she said: The events of that day have completely reconfigured the study of American diplomatic history, and prompted scholars to redefine the term “foreign relations.” She said the turnout for the 9/11 event at Middlebury was a testament to the continuing search for meaning from these tragic events.

Quinn Mecham pointed out that for Middlebury’s current first-year students, the events of 9/11 represented a flashback to grammar school. He had been headed to the Middle East that September, and in fact was scheduled to leave on Sept. 12. He recalled the fear and uncertainly engendered by the terrorist attacks, and said he’d written an op-ed piece, saying his generation, which had not served in World War II or Vietnam, would be defined by its reaction to 9/11. Ten years later, he feels mostly disappointment, and said the big decisions made by the U.S. since then had been “fueled by fear and have cost us dearly,” not only in our standing in the world, but also in the $4 trillion we’ve spent in our military response. He said one positive thing is that we have learned quite a bit about what 9/11 meant to its perpetrators. They felt they were justified by American attacks on Muslim nations and U.S. support of Israel, and by what they saw as hypocrisy and double standards in the West. “Bin Laden’s America is not mine,” he said, “but I can recognize parts of it if I squint hard enough.” He noted that another important date was 2/11, referring to the day Egyptians forced out Hosni Mubarak. He said the story in the future would not be about a battle between Islam and the West, but about justice and equality. The faster we move out of the 9/11 world and into the 2/11 world, he said, the more likely we are to escape being on the wrong side of the new era in the Middle East.

Student questions followed the panelists’ presentations. You’ll find the complete presentations and all the questions on the accompanying video.