How Penn State Students Remember the 9/11 Attacks, Sixteen Years Later


Monday marked the sixteenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. While the Penn State College Republicans were holding a memorial to remember those lost, we interviewed several Penn State students about how they remember the day, and how they perceive its impact sixteen years later. We also asked whether they believe the U.S. response in the wake of the attacks, both militarily in the Middle East and domestically through various counterterrorism programs, was justified.

Most individuals we talked to, between the ages of three and seven at the time, are unable to vividly remember the attack. What they do remember is the chaos and fear that engulfed the country, their family members panicking as they frantically tried to get into contact with their loved ones, and the impact it left on themselves and their community.

Alyssa Bartkus, a junior from Bucks County, PA, could only remember two things: her mom freaking out because her aunt lives in New York, and that she “could smell the smoke that day” when she stepped outside her house.

The attacks have a close connection to Bartkus’s community: the daughter of the pilot that crashed into the first tower went to her elementary school. Every year, her community has a ceremony in his honor. This morning, she “woke up at almost the exact time that the first tower went down. I just reflect for a few minutes, just thinking about everyone, because it had a really big impact on my community. Most people know someone who was there and did die.”

Andres Rivera, a junior studying biology, was in New York on the day of the attack and witnessed the fear first-hand: “I was five or six years old. And I’m getting phone calls from my mother, my grandmother, I was at her house at the time… and we’re all saying ‘What’s happening, are we going to war or something? This is crazy.’ We’re in the Bronx, we can see [the towers] from here. It was very shocking. At five years old, I was like ‘okay it was an accident, but I’ve never heard of this before.’”

Rivera’s father had previously worked in the World Trade Center, but left three years prior to the attack. He is still left “feeling kind of connected to it.”

Brian Anthony Davis, a senior majoring in African American studies, said that “As a 5 year old, it didn’t mean anything to me. I had no political consciousness at the given time, so it was like a free day off from school. I remember many of my teachers crying and trying to figure out the best way to disseminate the disheartening news.”

He also commented on the impact that the attacks have had on the way Muslims and immigrants have been treated in the U.S. since: “this event changed the contemporary discourse on terrorism and extremism. Muslim people domestically and internationally have been identified as the ‘other’. Historically, when groups are ‘othered’—the barbaric and brazen treatment of such people is justified.

“Muslims are treated like second-class citizens when they arrive, till the time they depart from the airport. The glorification of such antipathy to quasi-Muslim identity has created a context where all Muslims are held responsible for the acts of terrorism.”

Corey Crew-Williams, a junior majoring in energy engineering, commented on the impact the attacks have had on the U.S. as a whole: “You still see the effects of it till now: like how our security has changed, and how different infrastructure has changed to mitigate the issue of terrorism, how it affects different social institutions and how different people from different backgrounds interact, different stereotypes that were built off that traumatic event.”

In the wake of the attacks and under intense political pressure, the U.S. government took a variety of steps to decrease the likelihood that such an attack would happen again. These measures included the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the implementation of the Patriot Act, which greatly expanded executive authority to find and pursue terrorists but was later subjected to intense criticism after the leaks of Edward Snowden, and increased security measures at airports.

Those we interviewed had mixed reactions to these policies.

Some, such as Pranavi Nara, a first-year pre-med student, expressed the desire for “security over privacy,” although she did note that she would make an exception in the case that it is, “blatantly obvious that you’re being targeted for a certain reason.”

Bartkus echoed Nara’s sentiment: “I personally don’t have a lot to hide, and if it was a matter of national security, I wouldn’t mind someone having to look through my phone, as long as they were telling me… I would like to feel safer, after all of the attacks that are happening.”

Others, such as Rivera, acknowledged that security should be a concern, but worried about the balance we have struck: “You need to sacrifice something in order to have something in return. Is it saving lives? Absolutely. But there’s not a lot of regulation, because it’s still fresh… I would say at least have people informed about it first, and then have them decide if they want to give up those liberties to be safe.”

In the same manner, Crew-Williams stressed caution regarding the tools being used to potentially invade and violate personal privacy: “People are like ‘yeah we need to be protected’…but you need to be protected in the right way. And also respect people’s rights when you’re being protected,” he concluded.

Crew-Williams also argued that these tools have been used to discriminate specifically against Muslims, rather than the general population. TSA security will “try to say it’s just a coincidence; this is just routine. But, when the… person looks the same way every time they make that security check, obviously there’s something behind this.”

Siddhant Chakravarthi, a first-year biomedical engineering student shared his experience with airport security as a person of color: “It can [be] a little bit too much profiling, especially now. I’ve been stopped for random searches from security… I felt kind of bad about that, personally. But, security measures in a broad sense are a good thing.”

After the attacks, the George W. Bush administration also made a connection between the 9/11 hijackers and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, connections which were shown to be largely nonexistent by a bipartisan commission investigating 9/11. Based partially on these allegations, along with claims that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration invaded Iraq, along with Afghanistan, where Osama Bin Laden was thought to be hiding. Both campaigns are still ongoing to this day, and an estimated 180,000 civilians have died in Iraq alone since the invasion.

Considering the political upheaval that the country was under, some defended the administration’s decision at the time, but thought the outcome was lamentable. Nara suggested that the US, “went in with the best intentions, but it didn’t turn out as it… should have. And I think that they did only make the situation worse.”

Bartkus agreed with Nara’s sentiment. “I don’t know how much good it’s doing. Obviously, in an event like that, it’s probably the first response to do. But… I feel like it could’ve been a better plan… because we’re still there. Why? How many years later, sixteen years later?”

Rivera, who was in New York on the day of the attacks, said that “at that time, it was very much like a blood debt. You can’t kill this many people, and not take action. To my knowledge, we just threw something on the wall, and saw what stuck, and apparently Afghanistan stuck. And then it just dripped down to Iraq. In my opinion, once we got Bin Laden, we should’ve taken a step back.”

Others criticized the administration’s decision, arguing that both the consequences and justification were wrong. Chakravarthi claimed that the Iraq War had given “birth to what’s happening now with ISIS and more extremists,” and also didn’t think a war should be started without sufficient information. “If you have the right information, go for it. But if you don’t, there’s no justification for it.”

Rabiyatu Jalloh, a senior majoring in education policy, made the harshest critique. “We are not honoring those who died [in 9/11]. Killing other civilians – some completely innocent – in Iraq and Afghanistan is not helping anyone. There is no honor in that.”

“I think they [the U.S] need to get the hell out of those countries.”

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