The arrival of the new freshman class on campus this fall marks a quiet milestone: the class of 2024 is the first made up almost entirely of students who were not yet born on Sept. 11, 2001, when hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in rural Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000 people.
In fact, on the 19th anniversary of the deadliest terrorist event in human history, nearly all undergraduate students at UT are too young to have clear memories of that day.
Yet the day lives on in vivid detail in the minds of adults in the UT community, many of whom remember exactly where they stood that morning as United Airlines Flight 175 tore through the second World Trade Center in New York City, alerting the world to a grim new reality.
The professors at UT whose research and writing were influenced by 9/11 and its effects on our national culture and international relations come from a variety of departments, spanning the academic disciplines. Some of them were eyewitnesses to that day.
Marilyn Kallet, poet and professor emeritus of English at UT, was sitting on a plane at LaGuardia Airport in New York City when an announcement came over the speaker that a plane had struck a tower of the World Trade Center. She and her fellow passengers were told to de-board the plane and gather their luggage. They entered into a world of confusion.
The screens displaying the day’s flights and the televisions throughout the airport had gone dark. All outgoing flights were grounded. Travelers were told to exit the airport, where they could see a dark image on the horizon, one that no one could forget.
“When we stepped out of the terminal at LaGuardia, we could see the smoke, the gray smoke rising from the World Trade Center,” Kallet said. “That visceral image, that’s something that’s stamped on your soul. That doesn’t go away.”
Kallet said that after being pushed out of the airport terminal she and other passengers were pushed further and further away until they stood on the edge of the bustling Grand Central Parkway with nowhere to go. At that moment, she joined the caravan of dazed and frightened people trying to escape the nation’s largest city that day, on foot and with no clear destination.
What was supposed to happen next? With no way back into the city and no clear mode of transportation, Kallet and thousands of others were stranded. In the chaos, one man waved a $100 bill in the air and a taxi picked him up. A man who Kallet describes as “sleazy” offered to get her a hotel room, but on instinct, she turned his offer down.
With no other options, Kallet asked a woman standing nearby what she planned to do. The woman, named Dina, said that she and her 8-year-old daughter Tonya had secured a rental car. Kallet asked if she could go with them, and Dina said yes. She was rescued.
It ended up taking Kallet six days to get back home, after driving with Dina to Long Island, ferrying to Connecticut and driving back to Knoxville. She had planned to teach a poetry class on the night of Sept. 11, but the world in which that class was supposed to happen didn’t exist anymore.
As a poet, Kallet says she took in everything she saw that day, knowing that she would need to find words to describe it later on.
“At that moment, my job was closer to journalism than it usually is,” Kallet said. “I was bearing witness. Here’s what I’m seeing, here’s what’s going on, trying to get the facts straight. So I was trying to translate what I was seeing into language. The advantage of that is that people want to hear the news, people need to hear the news.”
Back in Knoxville, the latent shock of that day in New York City fell on Kallet. As she had driven out of the city with a stranger and her daughter, Kallet remembers that the young girl had said, “I will never trust the sky again.” The same seemed to be true of Kallet in the following days.
“After I got home, I wasn’t able to leave the house. I didn’t realize this, I’d never had this kind of trauma before,” Kallet said. “But when I would get to the back door of the house to go outside, I would suddenly find that I wasn’t able to go out. … You have to develop the confidence and the breathing to be able to get out the door again.”
It took Kallet a few days to feel safe leaving her home and it took the city of New York about nine months to clean up the wreckage of the collapsed towers, but the aftermath of 9/11 is clearly ongoing 19 years later.
The legacy of fear continues today and it does not operate only at the individual level. For the entire nation and the world, the attacks of 9/11 gave a new understanding to the term “terrorism,” transforming it from a distant threat to a doorstep reality.
According to Brandon Prins, professor of political science whose research focuses on international relations and conflict, 9/11 fundamentally changed our national priorities and our relationship to our government.
“Terrorism today continues to probably be one of the most, if not the most important issue to Americans, and that certainly was not the case in previous decades,” Prins said. “This fear of terrorism is a change and the expectation that the government must do more to protect us is a change.”
Prins, who, like most Americans, remembers clearly where he was on the morning of Sept. 11, says that we know more about radicalization and terrorism post-9/11 simply because of how much money went into research on these topics following the attacks.
“There was always work, research into extremist organizations and terrorist organizations,” Prins said. “That work dramatically expanded after 9/11, where it’s one of the most dominant kinds of research programs in international relations and political science.”
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Prins was tasked with writing several blog posts and op-eds about the Bush administration’s response to the attack.
At home in the United States, this response entailed a vast expansion of government surveillance into the lives of Americans, especially in regards to communication and transportation. Abroad, the response marked the beginning of the longest war in American history, one that has been a constant geopolitical backdrop in the lives of young Americans.
Prins says that both of these developments are mostly taken for granted today as the unfelt legacy of 9/11.
“We have certainly come to accept these additional government intrusions into our own life. And in fact probably most people think that they’re necessary and that they’re good,” Prins said.
“We’ve come to accept that … we have to stay in Afghanistan or stay in Iraq, that our security is dependent in part on us being abroad to ensure that these radicalized groups can’t launch attacks against us.”
It took a number of years for the events of 9/11 to catch up with Prins’ research as a political scientist. His current research project on maritime piracy fits into the larger framework of studying violent non-state actors, a category which includes extremists such as the Al-Qaeda militant group behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
One inextricable effect of 9/11 was the association of Islam with Islamist terrorism, an association that has become cemented in the mind of many Americans thanks in large part to a national media that portrays Islam as a dangerous, radical religion, even in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary.
Prins said that this preoccupation with the religious ideology of the Al-Qaeda terrorists is not only misguided, but is largely immaterial to his research.
“When it comes to violent non-state actors, certainly like extremists and terrorists, a lot of what I try to understand is not necessarily the ideological motivations, but kind of the underlying structural economic and political components that might create grievances in the places where these violent non-state actors emerge,” Prins said. “And we certainly see certain grievances that most of us would consider to be legitimate in places where these groups are emerging.”
Such grievances no doubt include long-term American military presence in the Middle East, where only about 20% of the world’s Muslim population lives.
Many researchers tie this interventionism to the proliferation of terrorist activity in the Middle East region since 9/11. But fear of terrorism, especially at the governmental level, has been turning inward in the last few years. The Department of Homeland Security recently reported that the greatest terror threat to Americans is now white supremacist activity.
“It’s certainly the case that most terror attacks in the United States are a result of domestic far-right nationalist extremists,” Prins said. “Our focus needs to shift and our resources need to shift to addressing far-right radicalization and terrorists in the United States. That’s a much greater threat to Americans than foreign terrorism or international terrorism.”
The legacy of 9/11 extends well beyond geopolitics or views on terrorism and radicalization. Many of the most enduring icons of the so-called “culture war” were born out of 9/11.
French fries became “freedom fries” when France equivocated in its support of the war in Iraq. The musical group The Dixie Chicks (now known as just The Chicks) were cancelled before cancel culture was a thing when they criticized the Bush administration’s response to the attacks.
America became divided, and remains divided, over whether suspected terrorists ought to be subject to torture techniques by the U.S. government.
Mark Hulsether, professor emeritus of religious studies whose research focuses on North American religious history, says that the tense atmosphere in America following the attacks created a breeding ground for such intergroup enmity and corrupted foreign policy.
“There was a lot of talk about national unity — some of it ‘protesting too much’ and undermining itself — plus the strongest climate of censorship and self-censorship that we have suffered in our country since the McCarthy era,” Hulsether said. “The campaign to destroy the Dixie Chicks’ career is a great example, and of course Guantanamo prison was in the background.”
There was also hostility coming from actors from the Christian right, who scrambled to justify how God could have allowed such a devastating attack.
Rev. Jerry Falwell, an architect of the religious right, infamously laid blame for 9/11 on “the pagans, and the abortionists, the feminists, the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle,” among others who he believed had incurred God’s wrath on America.
“A lot of people have defected from the organized Christian right because of this sort of thing since 9/11,” Hulsether said. “I would say the long-term effect was to hurt the religious right and to help both secularism and the religious left in the long run.”
Though the Christian right may have lost some support for the opinions of its de facto leaders, the close association between being Christian and being American was only solidified by 9/11.
Hulsether has used an image printed in the Knoxville News Sentinel on the first anniversary of the attacks to illustrate this point to “a whole generation of UT students.” The photo depicts a Christian cross planted in the front yard of a local family, topped with a crown of thorns and draped with an American flag.
According to Hulsether, the complexity of 9/11 derives from the fact that it did not tip the scales of the culture war in favor of any one side.
Practicing conservative Christianity may have become a display of patriotism, but the reaction against anti-Muslim sentiments across the nation drew many people of faith to the religious left. The Dixie Chicks may have had their career halted, but they have since garnered much sympathy for their political stance and are back with new music and a new name.
Rather than furthering the agenda of one side of the culture war, Hulsether believes that 9/11 only deepened the divisions that were already apparent in American culture.
“I guess if you have to boil all this down to one image, I would say 9/11 was either a major link in the chain that we now call the culture war, or a step in deepening it — but emphatically it helped both sides in the long run,” Hulsether said.
Every year on the anniversary of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, teachers and professors across the nation take time out of class to discuss the importance of that tragic day with their students.
Parents sit down with their kids and reminisce about the chaos of that Tuesday, when school was canceled and screens everywhere were filled with black smoke, trailing through childhood memory.
Marilyn Kallet takes time each year to get in touch with the woman who saved her that day in New York, speeding her away from the press and confusion of the crowd outside LaGuardia Airport.
On the first anniversary of 9/11, her new friend, whom she met under the most bizarre of circumstances, sent her flowers. Kallet has difficulty speaking of this gesture without crying, remembering the beautiful sense of community that came out of tragedy.
Her poem “Before (September 10),” published in her 2013 collection “The Love That Loves Me,”puts into words the stark contrast between the calm of the day before the attacks and the war-like havoc raining down only hours later.
“The night before the end of innocence / the lights of Houston Street glimmered. / The firemen had not yet mingled with the ashes,” an excerpt of the poem reads. “The night before the air was shattered, / the watchmen had not begun to speak of war, / or revenge.”
There is a sense in which the events of 9/11 reduced all who witnessed them to the state of a child, helpless and lost in a world that was once familiar. Indeed, most students at UT were children, if not babies, when the world changed forever that Tuesday morning in 2001.
But the videos from that day, the last phone calls to loved ones from the burning towers and the photos of blood and dust-covered firemen can still evoke tears from those who were not old enough to remember the attacks.
For Kallet, this return to a child-like state in the face of terror is precisely why poetry, as opposed to formal research into radicalization or foreign policy, is ultimately the ideal language for processing 9/11 in the mind and the heart.
“Poetry gives us intimacy with the universe. Poetry lets us stay broken. In other words, lets your feelings have their way,” Kallet said. “It lets us sing. It has that early power of lullaby that we remember but don’t remember from being babies.”