20 years later, remembering 9/11 and reflecting on its lasting impact

Professors reflect on how 9/11 impacted the different generations and the War on Terror.


Gillian Manning

The New York City skyline. The tallest visible building is the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, standing where the World Trade Center once did.

Gillian Manning, Editor-in-Chief

Today is the 20th anniversary of 9/11, a tragic event that older generations lived to witness, though the current generation of students may have no memory of it.  

September 11, 2001

On the morning of Sept. 11, Steven Roper was watching the news. He watched, live, as what was once his place of work collapsed as a result of the terrorist attack.

The political science professor and former executive director of the Peace, Justice and Human Rights Initiative (PJHR) had been working on the 55th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower a year prior to the event. 

“It was really surreal. It was really hard to believe that the towers had come down. We’ve all seen images of the World Trade Center towers, but they were just so massive. The edifices were so huge, imposing, and to think it was all gone, was just unimaginable to me initially. And I don’t think I ever kind of made some sense of peace until I was able to visit the site again,” Roper said. “Early on those first few years, it was very, very visceral and very emotional.”

Director of the Leon Charney Diplomacy Program and political science professor Jeffrey Morton recalled the impact that 9/11 had on him. 

“I can say, as someone who lived through it, that it is the sort of thing that shapes your way of viewing yourself and the world in permanent ways. And for those who were either too young, or were not yet born, you read about something and it just can’t have the same impact on you,” Morton said.

The impact on Gen Z

Generation Z, which the Center for Generational Kinetics defines as those born after 1996, wasn’t able to remember or comprehend the events of 9/11 in the way that older generations could. 

When asked how it may have impacted Gen Z’s worldview, Morton said, “The easy answer is that it makes your generation less interested in politics, less willing to engage in the political process… and it makes your generation less trustworthy of the government. But the reality is that we say that with every single generation. That was said about my generation.”

Having read about 9/11 rather than lived it, Morton explained that Gen Z may have a less emotional interpretation of events. 

“I imagine that people of [that] generation are more objective than those of us who felt the blow that morning,” Morton said.

Roper said that the U.S. is trying to have a better understanding of the events from an intellectual and policy perspective. In addition to a shifting perspective, Roper mentioned how the tragedy has impacted Gen Z in ways they may not be aware of.

“9/11 fundamentally shaped the world in which you live in. So, the world that you know is very different [from] the world that I knew before 9/11,” Roper said. “It really shaped every aspect of your generation’s existence from both the international perspective, as well as a normal day-to-day way.”

Roper used the TSA and airport security as an example of one of these changes. He also noted the way “terrorism” has become a part of the country’s vocabulary.

“It was not part of the vocabulary of my generation. We were talking about nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction. Our concern was of superpower rivalry,” Roper said, referring to the Cold War. “We did not think about the types of combat that your generation has had to deal with in terms of this notion of terror and terrorism.”

The War on Terror

Soon after 9/11, the U.S. entered the Afghanistan War, which was officially ended by Pres. Biden and his removal of U.S. troops from the area as of Aug. 30.

“We would never have gone to Afghanistan had it not been for 9/11,” Roper said.

Morton said that 9/11 was the second most important day that week. The first was Sept. 12, the day the country began to respond. Former Pres. George W. Bush promised a “global war on terrorism with almost no limits, militarily, financially politically, morally, ethically, legally,” Morton said.

The controversy of the war still continues. Yesterday, the New York Times published their investigation into one of the last known American missile attacks in Afghanistan, marking the end of the war. The missile hit a car which the military referred to as a “righteous attack” and military officials said that though they did not know the identity of the driver, they had deemed him as suspicious and possibly connected to ISIS.

The Times identified the car’s driver as a longtime worker for a U.S. aid group, Zemari Ahmadi. The Times said that Ahmadi was filling his car with water, but officials said they were bombs. The military said the strike may have killed three civilians. The Times reported that it killed 10, including seven children.

“Our response to 9/11 was nothing short of abysmal because we ﹣ and this was wholly elective, it wasn’t forced upon us ﹣we decided that this was a war about religion, that this was a war about freedom and democracy. Our president said that we were attacked because of who we are and what we believe, and that is wholly and completely nonsensical,” Morton said. “The United States had behaved in ways that, in many ways, set the table for Al Qaeda to become very popular in the region and to launch the attacks of 9/11.” 

Morton argued that the U.S. focused on religion, on Islam vs. Christianity, rather than the terrorist organizations with weaknesses that could have been exploited. 

After 9/11 , racism against American Muslims increased and 20 years later, the Associated Press reported that 53% of Americans hold unfavorable views on Islam. 

Generations from the past didn’t learn from the Vietnam War, Morton said, and he feels the same about the Afghanistan War.

“I don’t see any indication that the American public would be willing to take a deep breath, should there be another devastating attack and say let’s logically analyze this and respond,” Morton said.


Gillian Manning is the Editor-in-Chief for the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, tweet her @gillianmanning_ or email [email protected].