Reflections on 9/11

From Samuel T. Gladding, professor of Counseling:

When terrorists attacked the World Trade Centers, I was shocked and concerned. I also wanted to do something positive in response to the tragedy. Little did I realize at the moment that I would receive a call to go to New York and work with the families of the survivors as a Red Cross mental health volunteer in the Family Assistance Center at Pier 94 in Manhattan. My job was to provide brief grief counseling and support services to families as they came into the center to file for death certificates.

Even though it has been 10 years the memories of that time will stay in my mind for many Septembers to come. Along with other mental health counselors, I began working with persons whose lives had been directly shattered. During my days in New York, I took families to Ground Zero, helped them deal with the reality of death, assisted them in finding long term support, calmed their anxieties, and gave them comfort. I am honored to have been able to have worked in these ways and to have carried forward the Wake Forest University motto of “Pro Humanitate.”

From Jacquelyn S. Fetrow, Dean, Wake Forest College

The attacks on the World Trade Centers in New York City on September 11, 2001, changed the world. While growing up, I never really understood my parents and grandparents when they said that they remembered exactly where they were when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, but I do now. I remember exactly where I was on September 11, when the news came over the radio. I was living in San Diego. It was early morning. I was getting ready to go to the airport for a business trip that would have taken me around the world — to Japan and to Europe — before returning to the United States.

I didn’t make that trip — at least I didn’t make the trip that day, and not until about three weeks later. When I did take the trip, it seemed like everything had changed. Lines for security were long, almost interminable. Everything — shoes (now commonplace that you must remove them), carry-on bags and checked bags — were all searched carefully. On that trip, everywhere I went, in each country, the first question was, “How are the Americans?”

I remember the first time I was asked this question, by a colleague in Japan. It was hard to know how to answer then — and it is still hard to answer it now. “How are we?” In the past decade, many of our freedoms have been eroded; our military continues to be engaged in several long-term occupations; the cost of those occupations continues to affect our economy; our sense of identity as a country and our pride in our country is low. So, “How are we?”

Anyone who lived through that day will never view the world in the same way. Yet there are ways in which Americans will never change because it’s who we are as a nation: optimism, charity, stubborn belief that tomorrow will be better. This combination has allowed us to move forward in a uniquely American way.

So “how are the Americans” 10 years later? Healing, rebuilding, but fundamentally changed in the way we view the world.

From Gail R. O’Day, Dean, School of Divinity

The majority of the students who entered the MDiv program at the School of Divinity this fall were between 12-19 years old on September 11, 2001. They have moved from their teenage years to young adulthood in a post-9/11 world. They are inevitably influenced by national and international anxiety, when talk of good and evil and fear of enemies constitutes daily speech.

At a most impressionable age, these students came face to face with the human capacity to kill and destroy, the distorted drive to place political ends over human life. They entered adulthood in a world where fear and insecurity dominate public discourse and decision-making. Yet when I talk to our new students, they speak the language of hope. They want to change the world — not in order to better protect or defend themselves, but because they still believe that justice and fullness of life for all is possible. Should this optimism be written off to their youth and naïvete? Not likely, since these students have been more directly shaped by 9/11 than my generation has been. Yet they are not making life decisions based in fear. Instead, they are drawn to be and do good, to set the world on a path to a future that overcomes our anxieties with hope.

From Mark E. Welker, Interim Provost:

On September 11, 2001 I was on leave working for the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia. After the first plane hit the World Trade Center Tower that morning people who worked at NSF started gathering in public places in the building and the monitors were all on the news channels. When the second plane hit in NY, I would say the mood was just shock. About that same time, the plane went into the Pentagon and we could see the smoke rising from it from the NSF building so we knew it was bad. Shortly thereafter, all government workers were advised to leave their buildings. I rode the subway to and from work everyday while I was there. The trains were jammed that day but they were eerily quiet. No one was saying anything. I think we all just couldn’t believe what was happening.

From Bill Leonard, professor, School of Divinity

(excerpt from his essay, “Unanticipated courage“)

Sept. 11, 2001, came on a Tuesday, the day the school of divinity conducts its weekly 11:00 chapel service. On 9/11, the chapel speaker was Linda Weaver Williams, Virginia Commonwealth professor and Baptist preacher, who arrived to “breaking news” of the Twin Towers.

Dispensing with prescribed plans, Weaver Williams enlisted the help of her longtime friend Nancy Hastings Sehested, another Baptist preacher, and the two led a stunned community in prayers, hymns and scriptures with fear and trembling, grace and dignity, offering the enduring words of texts from other troubled times.

About 10 minutes into the service, something amazing happened. Undergraduates galore came streaming through the doors, packing pews, leaning against the walls and sitting cross-legged on the floor of the sparse Davis Chapel. Staggered by the news, they grasped for sacred space to help them comprehend the moment. Even then the towers were still standing; the worst was yet to come.

Read the full essay »

From Lauren Bienemann, Class of 2006

Ten years after 9/11, it is surprising how much of that trauma stays with you. NYC recently experienced a minor earthquake that felt like nothing more than a subway train passing underneath our midtown building. I still felt and saw in the eyes of all my coworkers who had been affected by 9/11, if only for a moment, the fear that our world could crumble around us again.

Unfortunately, we cannot forget, nor do we want to. Not only did we lose loved ones, we saw families fall apart, children grow up without parents, and too many everlasting heartaches that didn’t have to be. I lost an uncle, my mother her brother, my aunt her husband, my cousins their father, my grandparents their son. Every time you hear another family’s story you relive your own. This collective pain is still present and strong. The area affected by 9/11 will always have a unique unity that most will never understand — but we only ask that you never forget.

From Major John Cudar, Air Force ROTC

My reflections for 9/11 come from the other side of the globe. I was stationed at Kadena Air Base, Japan during this time. We had evacuated aircraft to Guam due to a typhoon scheduled to make its way through Okinawa, Japan. I remember checking into the hotel in Guam and watching the news halfway around the world. A range of emotions struck me as I watched the events unfold. I experienced shock, disbelief, sadness, and anger. I immediately called my wife to tell her I loved her and what was going on back home.

Our commander called for an emergency meeting in the lobby and confirmed to us that we were under attack and to expect the unexpected. Not soon after we were sent to an undisclosed location for an undetermined amount of time. I left my wife in Okinawa, and she went home back to Winston-Salem, N.C. Our role was to fly refueling missions in support of aircraft that flew in and out of Afghanistan. I felt a sense of pride and privilege to have contributed to the missions in defense of our country.

All of our lives have been changed drastically since 9/11. Things have never been the same since then. But we still live in the greatest country on the planet and am proud to have served and still serve with the greatest airmen, soldiers, sailors and, above all, Americans.

From Jonathan Willingham, Class of 2003

Willingham was the co-chair of Wake Forest’s “Year of Unity and Hope.”

The attacks came on Tuesday morning. The Presidents’ Leadership Conference (an annual gathering of student leadership co-hosted by the President of the Student Government and the President of the University) was the very next weekend. And while the agenda for the conference had originally been meant to cover student-life issues, the conversation was understandably dominated by the events of the 11th.

We spoke of what happened, why it happened, and what it meant for us as a community wounded. For those of who had grown up not knowing war or conflict — at least not in the visceral way that we knew after that day — the conversation was salutary. And, as it happened, while the school had sponsored a theme each of the previous three academic years, they had decided not to have one for 2001-2002. So the attendees decided to transform those horrific events of the 11th into the Year of Unity and Hope.

Over the course of year, the University sponsored events ranging from fundraisers for the United Way’s September 11th Fund to talks and panels from faculty and alumni to a book drive that sent textbooks to a library in Uzbekistan started by an alumna. I have never been more proud of my alma mater than I was during that year; the whole university responded to a tragedy, not with anger or malice, but with a desire to commune and open a dialogue about religious diversity, foreign policy, what it means to be global citizens.

I can’t imagine a more fitting testament to our commitment to Pro Humanitate.

From Nathan Gunter, Class of 2002

On September 11, 2001, I went to Dr. Lewis’ Philosophy of Religion class, where we were discussing theodicy, the study of God’s omniscience and omnipresence in light of the reality of evil.

Later that fall, in the pages of the Old Gold and Black, I shared this excerpt from my journal:

“There’s a boy here, a bombing survivor I suspect, with no legs. He balances on two mechanical legs, and it seems he’s learned to walk pretty well. I don’t have a theology for that.”

I wrote that on the grounds of the Oklahoma City National Memorial on June 11, 2001 — the day Timothy McVeigh was executed.

Today I live and work steps from that same Memorial, that site of such evil, and I think often about Dr. Lewis’ class that day. I think about what I learned during four years at Wake Forest — about the power of knowledge, of a critical mind, of a caring community.

The story of 9/11 is not written yet, 10 years later; we may all be long gone before history can wring meaning from it. But to the degree that we can, we know we can choose not the events, but only how to react to them. Our compassion for one another in the face of tragedy — this will be our theology, our sacrament, our meaning. Amen.

From Lisa (Mann) Tandan, Class of 2004

On September 11, 2001, I was a freshman at Wake Forest University from a small town in North Carolina, who had visited New York for the first time that June. On September 11, 2011, I am a former New Yorker, who spent 2 memorable years in the city. I moved there the summer after I graduated, in 2004.

During my time residing in New York, I gained perspective from those who had lived and worked near the towers. I met a woman who escaped after climbing down more than 20 flights of stairs. The sentiment some New Yorkers expressed that stuck with me the most was the disappointment and sadness of knowing that their city’s tragedy, our country’s tragedy, was turned into a political tool to further any number of agendas.

September 11th should serve as a reminder of the unity we all felt as a country on that day. I vividly remember the support I felt from fellow Wake Forest students as we grieved, as we donated blood, as we banded together. On the 10th anniversary, we should remember the courage and determination of Americans who pulled each other out of the wreckage on that fateful day. They did so without regard for the religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or immigration status of the victims. It is important to remember that even in our weakest moments, as on September 11, when we stand united as a people and as a nation, we are still strong.

From David Lubin, professor, Art

Two weeks after 9/11, I was scheduled to screen a masterpiece of Italian neorealism in my world cinema class. At the last minute I decided the occasion called for a very different classic instead, The Battle of Algiers, a 1966 Italian film that recreates the uprising of the Algerian people against French colonial rule during the 1950s. It depicts brutal acts of violence perpetrated by both sides in the conflict.

During a particularly disturbing scene, in which Muslim women dressed as Westerners plant bombs in crowded cafes in the French quarter of Algiers, one of my students jumped to his feet and stormed out of the auditorium. The rest of us finished watching the movie, which includes an equally upsetting scene of military interrogators torturing Muslim men.

When I returned to my office, I logged on to a message from the student, which read, “I figured you deserve an explanation as to why I left class. With recent events as they are, to see a movie with such graphic depictions of Arab terrorism (even glorifying such activities) infuriated me. I could not sit there and watch more innocent people die. I think it was in very poor taste to choose such a movie at a time like this.”

I called him to make peace, and we talked things out. He said he comes from a military family, where patriotism is the highest form of virtue. In his opinion, the showing of that film was unpatriotic. I asked him to come to class the next day and explain his point of view. He did, and the result was a heated and probing two-and-a-half hour debate about the responsibilities of the artist in times of national crisis. I’ll never forget that discussion, or that student.

Art does something that nothing else can do as well. It takes us into the hearts and minds of those who are profoundly different from us. The arts don’t make us more human, but they make us understand, deep down, what it means to be human.

From Brett Eaton, executive director, News and Communications

On September 11, 2001, I was a newlywed, trying to make a home with my wife in our first house. I stayed home from work that day, suffering from food poisoning. It may have saved my life.

On September 12, 2001, I returned to work at the Pentagon. Entering from the north side of the building, opposite the crash site, I could smell the smoke from the burning jet fuel. The significance took time to sink in; I had just gone to work, along with 23,000 other people, in a building that was still on fire. A building where 184 people had just died.

I took particular pride in my country and my colleagues on that day, and on many days to come.

My job at the Pentagon took on a surreal aspect after 9/11. I worked on events for the President of the United States. I gave tours of the crash site to prominent politicians, athletes, actors, and musicians. As a spokesperson for the rebuilding effort, I frequently appeared in international, national and local news stories. I saw my name in Arabic.

My job at the Pentagon took on new meaning after 9/11. I worked closely with the Pentagon Police on a number of planned events, exercises and emergency response situations. Using FBI documents, I escorted people to the place in the Pentagon crash site where the remains of their loved ones were found. I worked with families of the victims to help establish the Pentagon Memorial.

In the past 10 years, I became a father to two beautiful children. I became stronger in my faith. I left Federal service for a new career. I moved with my family to a different part of the country. I wish I had known 10 years ago how hard it would be to hang on to memories that were so vivid at the time.

From Betsy Chapman, associate director, Parent Programs

I was working at Wake Forest on 9-11. Just as in New York, it was a gorgeous fall day here on campus. It was a beautiful sunny morning with a bright sky and as I came to work I remember thinking it was going to be a spectacular day Shortly after I arrived, a colleague came into my office and asked if anyone had a TV because he’d just seen something on the internet about a plane flying into the World Trade Center. My colleagues gathered around the one TV we had in our office. And like the rest of the country, we watched the morning unfold in stunned silence.

And as the hours passed, my remarkable colleagues in Residence Life and Student Life and Campus Ministries and the Counseling Center — and countless other departments, as well as our faculty — did what Wake Forest does best: We supported each other. Wake Foresters are all about community, and I would pit our ability to circle the wagons in times of trouble against any other group in the world. I think each of us who work here felt a special responsibility to look out for our students and be sure that everyone felt they were safe and secure, that people cared for them, and that they had access to counselors and caring people who could listen. In loco parentis never felt so real to me.

Two other things stand out in my mind. One was that our president at the time, the late Thomas K. Hearn Jr., did an amazing job connecting with the students. Specifically, there was a service in Wait Chapel and Dr. Hearn gave a speech where I felt he really found his voice and provided both comfort and context. Dr. Hearn understood instinctively that students needed to hear from the head of the school, and needed to have an adult remind them that we would find a path forward, together.

The other moment that stands out in my mind — and is another example of the very best of our community spirit — is that our Office of Alumni Activities held a phonathon to contact the alumni, parents and friends who lived or worked in the greater New York area. During the week following 9-11, students, faculty and staff called these Wake Foresters to offer thoughts and prayers, to see if they were safe, and to ask if there was anything Wake Forest could do to help. I made some of those calls, and it was incredibly powerful to connect to someone else who was a Wake Forester simply to let them know we cared. My colleagues and I heard stories of people who saw it all unfold on the streets or from their windows, and many of the recipients of those calls said how stunned they were that their alma mater or their child’s school was reaching out in this way.

As parents and families, when you leave your students with us every August, you trust us to educate them. But I want you to know too, that even in darkest times, we care for them as if they were our own kids. That’s my Wake Forest.

From Bob Mills (’71, MBA ’80), associate vice president, University Advancement

The following is a tribute to Mark Schurmeier ’79, who was killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11. The Mark Schurmeier 9/11 Peace Fund was established at Wake Forest in his honor. Mills is a 30-year veteran of the Wake Forest staff.

The truth is that before September 11, I hardly knew Mark Schurmeier.

Yes, we were acquainted. When the call came from his co-worker Zenia Raudsepp ’83 to tell me about Mark’s death in the World Trade Center, I immediately recognized the name of someone I once knew. Then images came back: a tall, lanky actor with a comic talent; perhaps one of those Theta Chi fraternity boys who were active in the theatre then. There he was in an old yearbook: that quiet guy with a great smile — I’d forgotten he was president of the fraternity when I was its alumni adviser.

I found myself at the center of the University’s efforts to link Mark’s college friends with his family and friends elsewhere. Thus I write this tribute not because of a long friendship with Mark, but because of what I’ve learned about him since September 11. I write from the perspective of a long time Wake Forester who is one step removed from the tragedy, but who has heard the testimony of many who loved him.

In thirty years of working with Wake Forest, I’ve met most of our leaders, benefactors and famous alumni and friends. We are richly blessed with men and women of this caliber.

But like nearly all who died in the September 11 tragedies, Mark was part of a group far more representative of an institution’s — or a nation’s — value. He was, in the best sense of the term, a Wake Forest everyman.

Mark was extraordinarily gifted, extraordinarily gentle, extraordinarily loving and extraordinarily modest — a combination that rarely makes headlines, but invariably enriches the lives of all who are touched.

Through those Mark touched, I’ve come to love this man I hardly knew.

With them I invite you to love him too. We invite you to help us honor all those “extraordinarily ordinary” people worldwide who are tragically injured by terror.

You can donate to the fund by using the online giving form, checking the “Other” box under Restricted Giving and putting “Schurmeier Fund” in the Comments field.

From Mike Buddie (’93), assistant athletic director for administration and development

Buddie, who was a starting pitcher for the Demon Deacons between 1990-1992 and holds the all-time school record for strikeouts in a single season with 138, was playing Major League Baseball with the Milwaukee Brewers when the two planes struck the Twin Towers. He recently talked with Krista Brown, an intern with Wake Forest sports information.

“I woke up on September 11 in my apartment in Milwaukee,” Buddie remembers, “We were videotaping my son, who was just learning how to walk. He was walking across the room and he would lean on the television stand to catch himself. During that you could see the television set with the Twin Towers on fire. We still have that video and it’s eerie to look back on it now.”

After 9/11, many sporting events were cancelled because of the fear of more terrorist attacks. The Brewers participated in the first MLB game played after the attacks in a nationally televised game against the St. Louis Cardinals.

“I remember being nervous. I was thinking we’re the only Major League Baseball game being played. If there were more attacks coming then that would be a good place. We were actually looking around at exits thinking if an airplane came towards the stadium where we would run.”

Though Buddie, along with most Americans at the time, remained nervous about more attacks, he was thankful that he was able to return to baseball so soon after the Twin Towers fell.

“There was kind of a feeling that we had to go back to our lives at some point. We might as well start sooner than later,” Buddie said. “That was the big rally cry, not to let the terrorists change the way we live our lives because that was their goal. It was a welcome distraction.”

Perhaps Buddie’s biggest reflection came when he visited Ground Zero. Originally drafted by the New York Yankees in the fourth round in 1992, Buddie had experienced New York in the years before the attack.

“I knew the city pretty well and I knew the people,” Buddie said, “When I went back to Ground Zero later during the 2001 season, having lived there and knowing how big those towers were, having gone by them hundreds of times, to see nothing but a big hole in the earth was something that stays with you forever. Having lived in New York and been a part of that city, you just never forget what an unbelievable, unthinkable tragedy it was.”

From Dwayne Godwin, associate dean, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

An Antidote to Terror

This has been the decade of the amygdala.

I happened to be in the Office of Research on the morning of 9/11 when I saw the tragedy unfolding on a television that was tuned to CNN. I remember initially thinking that the world had just witnessed a horrible accident. I thought this in part because a little over a year before I moved from Long Island to join Wake Forest in 1997, TWA Flight 800 had crashed into the Atlantic Ocean not very far from where my wife and I lived, killing all 230 on board. The idea of a airline tragedy in New York was part of the world of the possible.

But then, at 9:03 a.m., Flight 175 crashed into Tower 2. It was then that I crossed over that bridge between the possible world of tragic accidents and a dark, impossible realm where someone, anyone, could purposefully inflict what I was seeing. I flashed on the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. And it was at about that moment when someone, still in their enviable “pre 9/11” state, walked up beside me and asked, quite innocently, what was happening. Only one sentence occurred to me in reply.

“An abomination.” And it was.

Now 10 years later, I find myself visiting the material facts of the event itself as I have for the last nine years. These facts are somber and staggering, and indiscriminant. In addition to 2,669 Americans, 372 people from more than 56 different countries were murdered. Christians, Jews and Muslims, believers and non-believers were killed. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters were killed. September 11th is one of those handful of historical horrors for which the term “crime against humanity” was coined.

We all search for meaning in it. But I don’t believe that there is a single unique meaning of 9/11 — there are many, personal to each who suffered loss, and to each mind that struggles to comprehend it. It is more profound in its way than any other human tragedy we have experienced, many of which are in comparison straightforward because we can easily grasp their cause and effect with our Western brains.

I often wonder how it has changed our world — what alternate universe was spawned on that day. September 11th was different from other tragedies because of the reactions it elicited in us, from our personal reactions to the reactions of our government. The latter will continue to be debated, but it is clear that one goal of terrorism is to provoke as well as to maim. It is true that the tragedy initially brought our nation together, but as the consequences of our reaction have become clearer with the distance of years, I wonder whether it has compounded our current political and economic struggles, turbocharging and overheating the mistrust of government by far too many of our citizens.

But we cannot let terror win. My belief is that 10 years after 9/11 we have the capacity and responsibility to create a meaning that rejects fear, and embraces service, understanding and engagement with the world. But how do we do this, wounded, weary and divided as we are as a people?

Part of the answer lies within, in our own brain. The amygdalae are a pair of almond shaped structures deep within our temporal lobes. Everyone has a pair. Normally, the thalamus, the brain’s switchboard, routes information to the cerebral cortex (the thinking part of our brain), which processes the information and, after making sense of it, sends it down to the amygdalae to create an emotional response. In his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Daniel Goleman describes a phenomenon called “amygdala hijack” whereby the normal processing of emotions is subverted in the face of traumatic events, and where the thalamus bypasses the cortex and sends the information straight to the amygdala. In effect, bypassing our rational, deliberative brain. That can be useful for reactions in certain fight-or-flight situations, but it can also lead to responses that are ungoverned by thought and untempered by experience, and are recognized as such only in retrospect.

Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie once said, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” While the emotion processing circuits of the brain were poorly understood in Madame Curie’s time, her prescription is appropriate. Our higher selves, our cortex, has been disengaged for far too long.

The passengers of United Flight 93 set the example for us on the morning of 9/11, in their expression of bravery and deliberativeness in the face of unimaginable fear. In the last moments of their lives they seized an opportunity and engaged their higher selves, defeating their fear and denying terror a larger harvest. They still point the way forward for all of us. The Twin Towers, and to a lesser extent the Pentagon, are the iconic symbols of the fear we all felt that day. The heroism of Flight 93, as well as that of the first responders, is significant because of what it has taught us about conquering that fear.

What we do today is important. My thoughts invariably turn to our students, many of whom at the time of 9/11 were in their early teens, and who have entered their young adulthood under the shadow of 9/11. We now read critiques of a university education born of concern that the value of a college degree is diminished. But when I see our new students and postdoctoral fellows take their place alongside us for a new academic year, I see the antidote to the ignorance and rage that were visited on us by 9/11. It is precisely now that education and understanding are most important, when the Wake Forest ideal expressed in pro humanitate is most essential, and our personal connections to one another are most precious if we are to prevail over the societal challenges we now face.

Now is the time for American renewal, and an important first step is simply remembering who we are and what makes this country great. It isn’t money or power, political systems or ideology. It is our generous spirit, our diversity, our brave hearts, and the American drive to make things better.

That is the world I want for our children.