None of My Students Remember 9/11

For coming generations of students, September 11 is history rather than memory. How does that affect how they learn about it?

An illustration depicting the World Trade Center towers
Adam Maida

About the author: Amy Zegart is a contributing writer at The Atlantic. She is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford University, and the author of the forthcoming book Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence (Princeton University Press).

This fall marks the 21st year I will be teaching college students about the September 11 terrorist attacks. It used to be that 9/11 was a trauma shared by everyone. Now it is a day that no one in my classroom but me remembers.

Educating successive generations of teenagers about the intelligence failures that led to that day has been a strange and surprising journey. At first, I struggled to find ways to take the emotion out of my teaching—to bring logical reasoning, historical perspective, and careful analysis to a moment that seemed to defy all of those things. Now I struggle to put the emotion back in, helping students who weren’t yet born when al-Qaeda terrorists attacked our nation understand the visceral context and swirling uncertainties that intelligence officials and policy makers faced.

I started teaching about 9/11 on 9/11. At the time, I was a newly minted public-policy professor at UCLA writing a book about how American national-security agencies were adapting to the end of the Cold War. The World Trade Center towers collapsed between 7 and 7:30 a.m. in California. I watched the news live on television as I fed my toddlers breakfast. After shuffling my kids away from the TV screen and sobbing in my husband’s arms, I got into my car and drove to campus.

Colleagues and I decided to hold an impromptu seminar. The lecture hall was soon overflowing, with students, staff, and faculty sitting on the floor and crammed in the aisles, some of them crying. It was hot; the air was stifling. The room had wood-paneled desks and walls that made it feel like a Cold War bunker. I remember thinking how it seemed so out-of-date, a hallmark of false protection in a terrifying new world.

I didn’t have answers that day about why American intelligence agencies couldn’t stop al-Qaeda. It was far too soon to know what had gone so wrong, and why; the search for answers would end up driving my academic research for the next decade. But I had questions, and history—I had studied surprise attacks and past intelligence failures. Together, my colleagues and I did the only thing we knew how: We tried to make sense of the world, to begin searching for explanations for something that seemed inexplicable.

In that awful room on that awful day, my students taught me a lesson that’s lasted a lifetime: Learning is an act of community. My students weren’t looking for answers. Just being together, grappling together, inquiring together to find some small way through our collective grief, was enough.

For many years after 9/11, students came to my class with powerful feelings and personal experiences. One had escaped the Taliban in Afghanistan. Another had enlisted in the Army after 9/11, serving in Iraq before attending college. When I casually asked on the first day of class that year why students were taking my course, his hand shot up. “I want to know why my buddy died in Iraq,” he said. “I want to know why I was there.”

Then, students sought certainties; I pressed them to see complexities. I assigned my own research alongside an article that argued I was completely wrong, so that they could see how even experts armed with logic and facts could disagree about root causes—and how engaging contending points of view could make their own understanding richer.

I also wanted them to see how hindsight prevents us from realizing how little intelligence officers and politicians understood in the moment. In one exercise, I divided the class into CIA analysts and policy makers. They all read the same declassified intelligence report—the now-infamous August 6, 2001, edition of the President’s Daily Brief, which highlighted Osama bin Laden’s ambitions but also included outdated and wrong intelligence, omitted vital clues that the CIA and FBI had about the 9/11 plot but never put together, and gave the impression that the FBI had everything under control.

Was this a warning that wasn’t sufficiently heeded, or a warning that wasn’t sufficiently warning? And why? Each group of students had to make the strongest case for its view. Walking in the shoes of others, I hoped, would help them understand that reality is much more complicated than we think. Each group tended to see the same document very differently. That report wasn’t a smoking gun. It was a Rorschach test.

Now I’m at Stanford, and I have the opposite problem: Instead of taking the emotion out of 9/11, I am trying to find ways to put the emotion back in.

My students see 9/11 as long-gone history, a kind of black-and-white reel of events that happened long ago, alongside the Cold War and the Peloponnesian War. The distance of time has benefits, but one drawback is that the human element of policy making gets lost. In political science, we treat policy as a Spock-like process of rational decision making in which leaders choose what to do based on a careful, dispassionate analysis of options, costs, and benefits. But real life doesn’t work that way.

On 9/11, the president and his advisers were hustled onto Air Force One and into underground emergency bunkers, fearing for their families, agonizing over the deaths of their fellow Americans, tracking the locations of airplanes on paper, and wondering when the next wave of attacks would come.

Policy makers are humans, not robots, and we need to better understand how real people under real stress make difficult and consequential decisions as best they can, and what can help them do better when the next crisis arrives.

My current students didn’t experience 9/11, but with the help of video, they can get a better sense of what that day was like. In class, I use archival footage of the attacks unfolding in real time to show the planes hitting, the towers crumbling, New Yorkers covered in dust evacuating the city, newscasters horrified, the Pentagon smoking. They aren’t required to watch—even now, it’s hard for me to see those images and hear those sounds again—but nearly all of them do. When the lights come on, many are visibly upset. That’s when the assignment begins. “You’re all members of the National Security Council staff,” I tell them. “You’ve just lived through this day. Your job is to figure out what the U.S. should do. How will you think about it? What are our options? What do you know; what don’t you know? What will you do next? And how do you feel?”

I doubt that many of my students over the past 20 years remember much about the books I’ve written or the lectures I’ve given. But I hope they remember that foreign policy is far more complex and challenging than pundits often claim, that analysis and emotion both play important roles, that you gain more insight from rigorous debate than comfortable agreement, and that learning is an act of community.