Teaching and Learning

Teaching 9/11 in the Age of Pandemic and Protest

9/11. How does one teach this subject? Perhaps most faculty aren’t faced with such a task, it being too outside their curricula. This is certainly not the case for me. Teaching criminal justice with a specialization in policing, I am confronted with this challenge every semester, most acutely in early fall after the humidity of August breaks, leading to those few weeks of blissful September weather that descend upon the New York area. The clear blue skies, 70-degree temperatures, and city streets buzzing with activity as the masses have made their return from summer vacation. The first Tuesday after Labor Day is the real start of the new year in New York. September in the city begins in full, and the cascade continues: parades, the U.S. Open, back to school, primary elections, San Gennaro, and the U.N. General Assembly. Tucked away in there is a date that is becoming more and more an event in our rearview mirror, relived through fuzzy TV images and tributes to ageing responders and affected family members regarding something that occurred a generation ago.

During one of my policing lectures in the early days of spring 2020, I was discussing events from the year 2000 when a student remarked in a way that only a young person would: “2000…that was like so long ago, I wasn’t even born then.” This prodded me to reflect on 9/11. The early 2000s don’t feel that long ago from where I stand, nonetheless, I understood this student’s perspective.

For me 9/11 isn’t some distant historical event. I was a 26-year-old NYPD officer who was working in Manhattan at the time of the attack. I am both privileged and unfortunate for having experienced firsthand the enormity of 9/11 in its spectacular horror. Consequently, when students become aware of my relationship to 9/11, the questions range from the merely curious, “Where were you?” to deeply personal and inquisitive, “What was it like for you seeing that?”

I cannot say that I’ve come to a conclusion on how best to address 9/11 in class, but I think I’ve come to a place where students understand its importance in the context of policing. This requires that I depersonalize it so to speak. One cannot understand policing and public security in America in the 21st century – the emphasis on militarization, technology, and restrictions on movement – without an understanding what came before. To accomplish this, I must pull a trick, replace them with me in the 9/11 equation. I do this by first introducing attributes of major terrorist attacks in the U.S. during the decades leading to 9/11, with a focus on those in New York City, of which at least five have occurred south of Canal Street – where our college is located. Next, I describe in intimate detail the events surrounding the first WTC attack in February 1993, an event that few recall, and too many are unaware. This leads to what anchors the lesson, a gut-wrenching, deeply emotive film of two brothers, posthumously referred to as the “Twin Towers,” one NYPD the other FDNY, the former the source of documentary filmmaking prior to 9/11. This video depicts the officer and his colleagues traversing many familiar parts of the city, engaging in high-profile and dangerous operations, executing warrants, assisting the sick and injured, the subject officer even rescuing a family trapped on a sandbar when he was a young child – uncommon heroism – with his adoring family beside him as he’s honored. The sights and sounds are so familiar to a city resident that the mind fills in the smell from images of wafting air.

I don’t need to tell you how that story ends, but when the film is over, the telltale signs of difficult to restrain emotion indicate that this has been a success. I then allow a few moments for the students, and me, to gather ourselves. And with that, the lesson on policing in the 21st century at the only institution of higher education physically damaged on 9/11 begins.

Direct emotional connection aside, I believe what matters most in teaching this significant piece of history is to convey that it wasn’t some event that occurred in some distant past. It shapes the world that we inhabit, the places we frequent, and even the air we breathe. I am reminded of this every time I pass a police subway checkpoint, go through a metal detector, or see officers on our city streets donning military gear or carrying radiological detectors on their duty belts. All unfortunate necessities that even our students who have no direct experience with 9/11 come to understand.

So, as September begins the year anew in New York, a new semester begins. This one, however, is unlike any that has come before as we negotiate many uncertainties and unknowns. How the dual ruptures of 2020, pandemic and protest, affect higher education, criminal justice, and our way of life is something that we will hopefully figure out, and work to heal from, together. In the meantime, I will continue to do my best to keep the relevance of 9/11 alive for today’s criminal justice students since this history isn’t just something that happened long ago, it makes us into who we are today, and will continue to do so, even 20 years from now.

An updated version of this essay can be found in the September issue of ACJS Today.

One Response to Teaching 9/11 in the Age of Pandemic and Protest

  1. Adele Kudish September 22, 2020 at 4:21 pm #

    Hi Jason,
    Thanks so much for this touching and personal (as well as instructive!) piece. It’s a shame that our students won’t be able to experience the freedom of walking into the college without going through a turnstile or to have militarized police officers be a shocking and unusual sight…

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