Remembering 9/11, 20 years later


Carter Chadwick

The American and Californian flag fly over the San José Fire Department Station 21 on Sept. 19. Out of the 415 emergency service workers who died on Sept 11., 343 were firefighters according to the New York City Fire Department.

“Some things you just remember, [and] they stop you in your tracks,” upper school history teacher Karen Haley said.

On a couch in her home in Dallas, Texas, Haley, a retired U.S. Army captain, sat frozen as her television displayed dozens of images of the chaos that ensued following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. 

The 9/11 attacks were a series of planned airplane hijacking attacks that struck the South and North Twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Nineteen terrorists associated with al-Qaeda, an Islamist extremist group, seized four commercial planes originally intended to arrive in California. 

Two crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, leading to their collapse, and another flew into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense. Civilians aboard the fourth plane, which was headed toward Washington, D.C., fought back against hijackers to crash the plane in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Leaving 2,977 individuals dead, 441 of whom were first responders, 9/11 marked the greatest single cause of death from foreign attackers on American soil.

“No one thought that would be their last flight,” Haley said. “So I do think that then, and now, you’ve got to recognize that life is precious. Count those small moments because they could easily evaporate, and then just actually appreciate what you have.”

In response to the attacks, the government founded the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) two months after 9/11. Following the subsequent attempted hijacking such as the 2006 transatlantic aircraft plot, the TSA established stricter guidelines regarding aerial travel. Airport security now limits the amount of liquid allowed in a carry-on bag, requires individuals older than 12 and under 75 to remove shoes when passing through security and scans carry-ons for weapons.

“It has been so long, some things we now [just] take for granted,” said History and Social Science teacher Matthew McCorkle, who teaches “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” in his Modern International Affairs (MIA) elective. “We just consider it normal that the TSA does this sequence of things to you, so understanding where that came from is really important, such as day-to-day security procedures or the way we now rely so much on second signal intelligence rather than human to human intelligence.”

The U.S. also responded with military force, invading Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001. 

No one thought that would be their last flight, so I do think that then, and now, you’ve got to recognize that life is precious. Count those small moments because they could easily evaporate, and then just actually appreciate what you have.”

— Karen Haley, upper school history teacher and retired U.S. army captain

“I really hope civilians will understand that everything is fine until it’s not,” Haley said. “Somebody else saying, ‘I’ve actually got to retaliate with greater magnitude,’ and then you’re in the midst of an international conflict, which usually means that lives will be lost. It’s really tragic.”

On top of structural overhauls in security and the origins of the War on Terror, 9/11 inflicted a deep wound on the American psyche. English teacher Elizabeth Schimenti, who grew up in a suburb of New York City, a 45-minute train ride away from Grand Central Station, recalls the panic and uncertainty following the attacks. At age seven, Schimenti remembers her mother packing the family station wagon with crackers and water and teaching her fourteen-year-old brother how to drive. 

“She said, ‘If anything happens, I want you to take your brother, your two sisters, and I want you to drive them. I want you guys to drive to Canada,’” Schimenti said. “Several of my classmates’ parents, and my brother and sisters’ friends’ parents worked at the Trade Center or in New York City. Some of them died. And I just remember the days following that tragedy just being so full of sorrow and questioning.”

The attacks also spurred xenophobia and Islamophobia toward individuals of Middle Eastern descent. The name Osama and the indication of being a Muslim became triggers of discrimination when applying for job positions, even for the most qualified of candidates for a job. Born and raised in the United States, Osama Solieman began searching for jobs after graduating with a Master’s in Management Information Systems with a 3.97 GPA—but was only contacted by a few employers and only received more offers upon changing his name to just the first initial. 

According to a 2013 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report, Abercrombie and Fitch fired female employees for wearing their hijabs, while a Sikh employee was harassed by his management, who called him “Bin Laden” and suggested that he had joined al-Qaeda to become a terrorist. 

In the aftermath of 9/11, Sikh Americans were regularly targeted and attacked, falsely assumed to be the perpetrators of this horrific act of terrorism. While horrific, this anecdote does no justice in conveying the prejudice I felt on a daily basis.

— Simar Bajaj ('20)

Even within the Harker community, deemed a “hyper-liberal” space in the Bay Area by Harker alum Simar Bajaj (‘20), undertones of xenophobia continued to radiate within the school.

In his TedxHarkerSchool talk titled “Breaking the Locks: Why I Cut My Hair After 17 Years,” Bajaj recalls feeling confused after receiving an outpour of “happy birthday” wishes from classmates, despite his birthday not being due for another couple of months in late December. Apparently, an anonymous user had created a fake Facebook profile under Bajaj’s name, listing his birthday as Sept. 11. 

“In the aftermath of 9/11, Sikh Americans were regularly targeted and attacked, falsely assumed to be the perpetrators of this horrific act of terrorism,” Bajaj said during his talk. “While horrific, this anecdote does no justice in conveying the prejudice I felt on a daily basis.”

The increase in discrimination against Muslims prompted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to create a database code called “Process Type Z”, which recorded the sharply rising Islamaphobia in workplaces. Yet despite the violation of Title VII of 1964, which prohibits the employment discrimination of people in relation to their color, religion, race and sex, attorneys were reluctant to work on the employment discrimination cases that arose for Muslims, referring to them as frivolous lawsuits difficult to win.

Despite the attacks bringing a plethora of negatives on the mental state of Americans and wide racial and religious discrimination, the aftermath also brought out unity.

“Recognize and honor how it did bring out many aspects of the better side of humanity when the first responders came to the scene,” Schimenti said. “Neighbors helping neighbors in the way that we see here in California with the wildfires.”

During the school meeting on Friday, upper school history teacher Dr. Chuck Witschorik asked students and faculty to take a moment of silence in remembrance of 9/11.

“Those who lost their lives 20 years ago in New York City, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 11, 2000, we honor the memory of those who died that day,” Dr. Witschorik said during the meeting. “We recommit ourselves to strive for peace, justice, and inclusivity for the nation in the world.”

The 9/11 Memorial and Museum located in New  York also recently created a 20th Anniversary page dedicated to sharing the history and lessons learned of the event and inspiring future generations with memories of fortitude, strength, and resilience.

Provided by Pew Research Center

Twenty years after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and following the longest war in American history, the Taliban took over the country on Aug. 15.

According to the Pew Research Center, though the majority of the American public supports Biden’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from Afghanistan, only 26% say the administration has done an excellent or good job, and fewer than half of Democrats remain positive about Biden’s decision. 

“It’s an easy punching bag to attack Biden right now, but when you look at the choice to withdraw, that’s really the culmination of a series of political decisions and really American public interest,” McCorkle said. “It’s just that everyone now in hindsight criticizes the nature of the withdrawal, and of course, it was the wrong choice, but not unreasonable.”

A previous version of this article misquoted upper school history teacher Dr. Chuck Witschorik’s speech during school meeting as “10 years ago” instead of “20 years ago.” The article has been updated on Sept. 13, 2021, to reflect the correction of this error.

This article has been updated on Sept. 20, 2021, with a more relevant feature photo taken this past weekend of the fire department’s commemoration of 9/11.