This year marks the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack which killed nearly 3000 people and injured thousands more on Sept. 11, 2001. The attack on American soil brought about changes in travel, counterterrorism, government surveillance measures and increased Islamophobia.
Professor of criminal justice, Matt Petrocelli, who served 10 years previously in the Army, said when 9/11 happened his instant response was to defend his country.
“When it became clear it was a coordinated terrorist attack, I became enraged. I immediately contacted the Department of Defense and tried to be reactivated,” Petrocelli said. “I didn’t get an opportunity to do that, but that was my immediate reaction.”
Petrocelli said a record number of individuals who previously had no desire or intent to join the military prior to 9/11 responded to the recruiting efforts because the country was incensed.
“It was really the last time I recall the country rallying around a cause,” Petrocelli said. “It was a moment that I believe that the country was collectively enraged by what happened and wanted to give a collective response.”
Petrocelli said the U.S. was well guarded, being one of the most geographically well-protected countries in the world with good allies to the north and south.
“To have an attack like that happen on American soil and have 3000 people killed by way of that attack, that shook people to their core,” Petrocelli said. “For the first time, the United States was attacked by a foreign entity in a very real way.”
Vice Chancellor for Administration Morris Taylor said changes in national security measures that resulted from the terrorist attack have been both positive and negative.
“On the one hand, it has been positive because it has made us more sensitive to the potential threats that are out there, but on the other hand, there have been instances of abuse of power, unfortunately, at times by government authority,” Taylor said.
Taylor said as Americans we have to be concerned about being both safe as a country and also free, but it’s a delicate balancing act.
“I remember shortly after 9/11 the government went into high gear to do some things like wiretapping and other things to show we were safe, but some of those procedures were questionable, and perhaps even in some regards unconstitutional,” Taylor said. “I think it was one of those things where [there] were several works in progress and was sort of a knee-jerk reaction to a very dangerous situation.”
Kenneth Moffett, department chair and professor of political science said while some of the changes made to national security were good others were not.
“[There was a] dramatic increase in racial profiling, especially of Muslims and those from Middle Eastern or North African countries,” Moffett said. “In part, how that happens is through some of the increased security and surveillance apparatuses that were put in post 9/11.”
Taylor said he believes the racial profiling of Middle Eastern people that occurred after 9/11 has calmed down somewhat but that it’s a fact that people are being profiled every day without justification simply because of their heritage.
“You have to be open minded. You can’t just treat someone [like that] because they are from a different part of the world or you think they might be a potential terrorist,” Taylor said.
After 9/11, airline security was federalized, and the Transportation Security Administration was created. Professor Emerita Rowena McClinton of the history department said her travel after 9/11 was affected because of her time spent in the Middle East and predominantly Muslim countries.
“Every time I would leave, get on an airplane for a long time I was searched, and patted down because I fit a certain profile that if you have an aisle seat and have gone to the Middle East or you had been with non-Christian people for any length of time you were pointed out as suspicious,” McClinton said.
Moffett said besides the TSA the USA Patriot Act and questions of civil liberty violations were also introduced as a direct result of the attacks.
“The USA Patriot Act, which allows for all sorts of searches that prior to 9/11 would undoubtedly not have been constitutionally permissible,” Moffett said. “It is debated whether the Patriot Act itself is constitutional, simply because of the relative invasiveness and lack of clear legal transparent procedure.”
McClinton said fear and a heightened awareness of security guided both positive and negative results in the years following 9/11.
“There were many programs instituted in schools to teach about the history of the Middle East and to help educate people about the Muslim religion,” McClinton said. “But there has been some prejudice against women who wear the veil here in this country.”
McClinton said she was in Chicago on scholarship at the Newberry Library in 2001 when she learned of the attacks. She said she remembers thinking how vulnerable the United States was at that time to another attack.
“I walked from where I was staying in Chicago in an apartment to the Newberry,” McClinton said. “I would look up at the John Hancock center and just think, ‘If planes flew into that building it would have the same effect of what had happened to the Twin Towers in New York.’ There was such a heightened awareness … ‘and how we were going to safeguard our security?’”
Taylor said he was in his office at SIUE when his sister from New Jersey called and told him she could see smoke coming from New York but that it wasn’t until the second plane hit the towers that they knew that there was an attack.
“I remember, [someone from the] department found a TV. I can’t remember which room it was in, and we just began to listen to the news accounts as it was all unfolding, almost unbelievable, kind of somewhat surreal,“ Taylor said. “It was a very traumatic day. And we were all basically on red alert because we didn’t know exactly what was happening.”
Moffett said he was a teaching assistant working on his Ph.D. in political science at the University of Iowa and learned of the first plane that hit the Twin Towers during class from one of his students and subsequent attacks afterward.
“I went … to the common area where they had the TV on and everybody was glued to the television, trying to make sense of what just had just happened and what was happening,” Moffett said. “I was just dumbfounded how this could happen.”
Moffett said another faculty member encouraged him to teach his afternoon class and discuss the events of that day with his students and he was glad he did.
“I’m thankful I took that approach,” Moffett said, “because two students in that class that day ended up being directly affected by the events of 9/11.”
Petrocelli was a professor at Cal State in California and remembers receiving a frantic phone call from his mother at 6 a.m to tell him that someone had blown up the Twin Towers.
“My brother was a police officer. We grew up in northern New Jersey just a few miles away from New York City, and he was a first responder. He was there that day, that morning, responding there,” Petrocelli said. “Luckily, he didn’t get hurt, but obviously a lot of guys did so I have a very vivid memory of that.”
Taylor said the country seemed to pull together a lot closer after 9/11, but that closeness has sort of faded over time and that we should learn from that.
“It’s kind of an irony that it takes us [being] on the precipice of disaster sometimes before we can pull together and see that we need each other, more than ever,” Taylor said.
Moffett will be holding a virtual seminar, “Constitution Day: Civil Liberties 20 Years After September 11,” on Sept. 17. The seminar is open to SIUE students and staff.