Twenty years ago, a small group associated with extremist group al Queda hijacked four planes, crashing two of them into the Twin Towers in New York City, hitting the Pentagon in Washington D.C. with a third plane, and crashing a fourth in a field in Pennsylvania. All told nearly 3,000 people were killed in the attacks, survivors and first-responders continued to feel health effects of the attacks long afterwards, and the day changed the course and policies of U.S. and the world.
Robert Snyder, Professor emeritus in the Arts, Culture & Media department and the official Manhattan Borough Historian since 2019, was in downtown Manhattan en route to Rutgers University-Newark the morning of the attacks. He has recounted his experience for the September 11 Digital Archives, as well as participating in many commemorative panels and events over the last twenty years. On this anniversary, his message is for the many students and young people who were not yet born in 2001, or too young to remember the events as more than a historical event.
Many of you were born before or just after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, so understandably you have no strong memories of that terrible day. As one who was there and witnessed the attacks in lower Manhattan, here is what you need to know: it was hell, but ordinary people stepped up and helped each other survive.
I was in the middle of my commute to Rutgers-Newark, standing across Broadway from the south tower of the World Trade Center, when it collapsed in fire and smoke. I ran for my life, got beyond the falling debris, and, as the smoke cleared, locked arms with two other men and headed east. As we made our way down a narrow side street, food court workers threw open a door and pulled us inside.
The workers, mostly women from all parts of the world, gave us water to clear our throats and towels to filter out the dust when we breathed. One woman loaned me her phone—cell phones were rare in those days—so I could call my wife and tell her I was alive. (Until I did, my wife told me months later, she assumed that I was dead.) Then I made my way out into the streets of lower Manhattan, gave containers of water to passing strangers, and walked home to my family’s apartment on East 81 Street in Manhattan.
In family discussions over our dinner table, we made much of a quote from an op-ed in the New York Times by the scientist Stephen Jay Gould: “Good and kind people outnumber all others by thousands to one. The tragedy of human history lies in the enormous potential for destruction in rare acts of evil people, not in the high frequency of evil people. Complex systems can only be built step by step, whereas destruction requires but an instant.”
My daughter Allison brought that back to her first grade class at PS 290 in a nice paraphrase: “there are more good people in the world than bad people.” Her teacher, Paula Rogovin, inscribed that on a sheet of paper and kept it posted for many years.
As I said when I returned to Rutgers, the women who helped me didn’t ask me about my nationality, my religion, or anything else. They simply recognized me as a suffering human being and helped me. Our response to 9/11, I said in a campus forum, had to be built on that kind of solidarity if it was to succeed.
As young people who grew up in the shadow of 9/11, you know what followed as well as I do. In following the news from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo, to name only a few places made famous in efforts to prevent another 9/11, many of my students acquired layers of fear, doubt and pessimism that make it hard to imagine a better world. Living through the covid pandemic, you have seen how a lack of solidarity can take lives. How all of these things happened is inextricably bound up with the events set off by 9/11, and they are worthy of questioning and study for years to come.
So the next time the anniversary of 9/11 comes around, and for the rest of your lives, remember two things: the need for courage and generosity in a time of crisis, and the need to ask questions on the morning after.
As my daughter observed after 9/11, I too believe there are more good people in the world than bad people. I also believe that the good people need to find each other and work together, despite all their differences, if we are to build a better country and a better world in the next twenty years.
Robert W. Snyder
Professor emeritus of Journalism and American Studies