Office of the President

September 10, 2021

Twenty years after 9/11, let’s keep finding strength in each other

Ana Mari Cauce

Tomorrow marks 20 years since the 9/11 attacks that shook our nation, and the events of that day continue to reverberate through the years and around the world. We almost all have vivid memories of where we were on 9/11 and how we first learned of the horrific acts that took place on that day.

On the West Coast, we woke up to the news. I remember brushing my teeth, listening to NPR and dropping the electric toothbrush in the sink where it rattled on, seeming to mirror the disjointed rattling going on in my brain trying as I tried to process what I was hearing. My first thought was of close friends in NYC and wondering if they’d survived, but seconds later my thoughts turned to our UW students. At the time, I was director of our honors program and I began to think about our students studying abroad and where they were.

I jumped in the car and drove to campus to begin the work of locating them, learning whether anyone was in danger, and contacting them to see if they wanted to return to the U.S. By the end of the day, we’d been able to reach all but one, and begin making arrangements for several to return. Throughout our UW community, like communities everywhere, the future seemed uncertain as we wondered when and if another attack might come.

As is so often the case in moments in trauma, it brought out the worst in some, as in the shameful Islamophobia and xenophobia we witnessed in the days and months that followed, which we worked to combat on our campus. Our UW leadership for Undergraduate Academic Affairs, in collaboration with Jackson School faculty, Faculty Senate leadership and the Board of Deans and Chancellors, planned a “teach-in” and day of reflection. We sought to help our students, and the community at large, learn more about the broader historical and cultural context of conflicts in the Middle East, as well as about the roots of the anti-Muslim xenophobia that was a tragic side effect of the attack.

But amidst the uncertainty, pain and fear, the memories I cherish are of how our community — like communities across the nation — drew strength and comfort from each other in those initial days and weeks, sometimes from total strangers. In the aftermath of the attacks, many of us were compelled to seek communion with each other. This photo from Red Square, taken just a few days after 9/11, reminds us of how our campus community took comfort just from being present together.

As we prepare to return to school and work, to once again be present together, after the difficult months of Covid-related isolation, we must pledge to protect each other from the Covid pandemic by getting vaccinated and masking when indoors or in close proximity. And we must continue to battle racism, ethnocentrism, and xenophobia in its various forms and guises. What we learned from 9/11 — to seek out expertise, so we could be guided not by fear, but by knowledge and understanding, and that we are stronger together — will forever be a part of who we are, and how we can choose to respond when the unimaginable occurs.