SPS Senior Vice Dean Dr. Steven Cohen reflects on his experience and the role of public management on the 20th anniversary of the tragic events.
Every New Yorker over forty years old, and some a lot younger, remember where they were on September 11, 2001. It was a beautiful, crisp late summer morning, and the sky was bright, clear, and blue as I sat in my office in Columbia University’s International Affairs Building, looking south toward the Empire State Building. I was listening to an all-news radio station when there was a bulletin about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. My first thought was to recall the prop plane that once ran into the Empire State Building, and I thought it must have been an error in navigation. I then heard about the second jet hitting the other tower, and it was very clear that our city was under attack. I left the building, went to a cash machine, and went to the Bank Street School on 112th Street to see if my two daughters were going to be released from school and if we would have to connect with my wife and leave the city to find safety. Like all the schools in New York City, an instant decision was made to keep the kids in school until there was more information. All the parents I met in the school lobby were scared and stunned, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
By the time I left Bank Street, and walked back to Columbia, Broadway was cloaked in a profound sound of silence. No one was speaking. I looked up and saw a fighter jet that I learned later was one of several already circling the city to protect us from feared attacks. Back in my office, I saw a large cloud of white smoke drifting north, which I later realized was some of the ash that mainly remained at what we came to call "ground zero." Later that morning, we learned about the jet crashes at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, where passengers took control of the plane from the terrorists and died likely protecting the nation’s capital. It was a day that provides a set of images I can replay at will, but one I and many others have spent two decades simultaneously trying to suppress while being determined to never forget.
This September 11th, like all those since 2002, must be dedicated to the victims and the families who suffered on that day and each day since.
All over New York City, emergency responders descended on the World Trade Center site to do what they could. Thousands of our neighbors and first responders died that day. But many thousands more were led to safety and the city responded as a single body in shock and horror, determined to keep each other safe and secure. Mass transit shut down and bridges were closed to motor vehicles while New Yorkers began to commute home on foot. Boats came to evacuate commuters and school children were not allowed to leave school until teachers were sure that adults would be home to care for them.
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani rose to the occasion and reassured New Yorkers with his words and deeds. To quell anti-Muslim sentiment, he visited a Mosque to help unite New Yorkers. It is still difficult for me to believe that the mayor who lifted our spirits in the hours after the attack is the same pathetic guy who continues to lie about the 2020 election, but for a few weeks he really was America’s Mayor. The mayor went on Saturday Night Live to help give us permission to laugh again. He appeared at Yankee Stadium and throughout the city to help New Yorkers honor the fallen and begin to rebuild.
I was teaching a graduate course in public management that fall, and my students and I decided to undertake a research project focused on the emergency response in the hours and days after 9/11. Eventually, I, along with my colleague Bill Eimicke and our student, Jessica Horan, co-authored a piece in the Public Administration Review entitled “Catastrophe and the Public Service: A Case Study of the Government Response to the Destruction of the World Trade Center” (Volume 62, September, 2002). In the article’s abstract, we observed that:
“The destruction of the World Trade Center resulted in a rapid response by government to evacuate the area and, in subsequent days, to bring the city back to a semblance of normalcy. This article provides a case study of government action in New York City during and after the World Trade Center catastrophe. What is most striking is the skill and intensity of government’s response to the emergency and the hard work, dedication, and bravery of New York City’s government officials. This article presents government and public service at its finest, under some of the most difficult conditions one can imagine.’’
In the days and weeks following the attack many of us struggled to process the facts of that day and to somehow find meaning and purpose in a world upended. As we observed in the Public Administration Review piece:
“For the first several months after the attack on the World Trade Center, it was difficult to speak about the attack. Analysis seemed somehow trite and inappropriate. Still, as students of public management, we decided to ask our graduate students to research and analyze government's response to the attack... We felt it essential to draw lessons from these events. While we resist the notion that a proper role of research is catharsis, we admit that we began this research as a self-conscious strategy to help our community deal with this terrible tragedy.”
Twenty years is a generation ago. The events of 9/11 led to wars, the implementation of increased security processes at airports and buildings, and the development of new organizational capacities in our police force (the NYPD) to combat terrorism. Dangers such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the floods, fire, and famine from climate change now occupy our attention and provide the same quiet sense of dread I remember on my walk back to campus on September 11, 2001. The world can be a scary place sometimes.
Loss and pain can lead us in many directions. We can curl up in a corner in fear, pain, and anguish. But we can also look to each other for meaning and purpose and a sense of community. At the World Trade Center site, there is now a moving memorial and a rebuilt tower. New York City in 2021 is not the place it was in 2001. We have the pain, horror, and historic memory of that day. But we have two decades of resilience and reconstruction as well. We came together as a community, and for a while, New York was even perceived to be part of America. This city where 40% of our population is born abroad and where diversity is hardwired into our demographic DNA was seen for a while as symbolic of America’s strength and determination.
It is hard for me to believe sometimes that a day so clear in my memory could be that long ago. The attack on Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust, JFK’s assassination, Martin Luther King’s murder, and 9/11 are also events that create a profound sense of before and after. Innocence and hope seem to be replaced by a sad sort of maturity or worldliness. But we return to thoughts of these horrors because the only way to possibly prevent these events is to never forget them. The price of remembering is to recall the pain and fear. The price of forgetting is to rob these events of meaning, and as moral beings, we cannot allow catastrophe to become ordinary and expected.
This September 11th, like all those since 2002, must be dedicated to the victims and the families who suffered on that day and each day since. It is a sad day, but as Joe Biden often says, there comes a time when some of the tears of grief are replaced by a smile caused by happier memories of those we grieve for. September 11th reminds us that there is evil in this world, but September 12th and all the days that follow remind us that sometimes human goodness, perseverance, and resilience can help overcome that evil.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any other person or entity.