Current Issue

Sept. 14, 2011

Vol. 112, No. 1


Thoughts on a tragedy: Lessons learned in the decade since 9/11

Published in the September 14, 2011, issue

After the ‘end of history’

By Tom Viscelli ’02

Courtesy Tom Viscelli ’02

Tom Viscelli ’02, a former Army officer, ­development professional, and adventure ­motorcyclist, lives in Kabul and works to develop business connections between the ­international community and Afghan ­entrepreneurs. 

Those of us in the Class of 2002 were young when the Berlin wall came down, lived our adolescence and teenage years through the “end of history,” and were ready to graduate from college and enter the world as adults when history started right back up.

We were getting ready for the beginning of our senior year on the morning of 9/11. Outdoor Action trips had returned, teams were at practice, and the campus was in that quiet lull before the start of the semester. In the year after the towers came down, we thought about what had happened that day, we wrote about it, but only rarely did we do anything about it.

Illustration: Francesco Bongiorni

I have seen many American reactions to 9/11 up close. I was “boots on the ground” shortly after we invaded Iraq, renovating schools and mentoring neighborhood councils. I applauded Gen. David Petraeus *85 *87’s efforts to bring the techniques we used to the Army as a whole, and did what I could to educate my soldiers and others. As a civilian, I returned to the national mission, this time in Afghanistan. The context was different, but the goal was the same: Help the local people stand up, create their own modernity, and join the global community.

What I’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan more than anything else is the importance of well-educated leaders dedi­cated to achieving that global community. Our diplomats are at their most effective when they are educated about history and dispassionately curious. International-development professionals can achieve phenomenal results when they back up good intentions with critical thinking. Military officers combine the same good intentions, critical thinking, and historical understanding with a bedrock pragmatism born of life-and-death decisions.

Princeton can be a fertile field for these leaders. Society benefits when its leaders have a world-class education, and leaders in every sphere benefit from experience in the “service of all nations.” My class and every succeeding class have known only a world informed by 9/11. The more we think, the more we write, but most importantly, the more we do to build that global community, the more we shape the lessons that future Princetonians will learn from that tragic day.
Post Comments
4 Responses to Perspective

Peter Suedfeld '63 Says:

2011-09-13 09:23:43

Let me quote: "The Constitution is not a suicide note."

Leanne Tobias *78 Says:

2011-09-13 11:09:30

Chris and I attended the Woodrow Wilson School at the same time, so I especially appreciate his wise words. In this piece, Chris has drawn lessons from September 11 that will allow us to move forward together more powerfully and effectively. Chris's advice on information sharing and coordination within and between groups is relevant in numerous settings, ranging from the family, to the workplace, to companies and government agencies, and between allies.

John Mason '66 Says:

2011-09-27 09:30:02

The sad events of September 11 have been used to underwrite the war in Iraq, with its fiction of WMD's; the erosion of civil liberty, under the peculiar use of "homeland" to refer to our country; and the use of torture by Americans, with expressions of contempt for the Geneva Convention. It is painful to contemplate.

John McKenna '57 Says:

2011-09-27 13:51:07

Because I teach theology, I refer my comments about 9/11 to God with Moses in the Exodus tradition of Israel's history among the nations in God's creation. Moses, it is recorded, had five objections to the Voice interacting with him in the event of the Burning Bush in Horeb. They were: 1) Who am I to go? 2) Suppose I do go and do what you have commanded me, they will want to know your NAME. What shall I tell them? 3) They will not believe me? 4) I do not speak well! 5) Send somebody else! I think as God's servant and Israel's prophet, Moses embodies with his objections the history of Israel among the nations as witness to the Living God the Lord is as the Great I-AM He is. Listening to all the questions and conjectures about God from those who survived and witnessed the event of 9/11 in our nation's history, I heard many of the same objections to Him. I believe we need to understand that He as the One He is as the Great I-AM He is will not be who He is without us, and thus I seek to understand why the event occurred just as Moses and Israel has to seek to understand why the Voice in the Burning Unconsumed Bush is who He is yet among us, who He is as our Savior and Judge. I trust PAW readers will want also to seek Him in these times!
Tell us what you think about
Enter the word as it appears in the picture below
By submitting a comment, you agree to PAW's comment posting policy.
CURRENT ISSUE: Sept. 14, 2011
Web Exclusives
VIDEO: Thirteen stars
A tour of Princeton's Sept. 11 Memorial Garden, next to Chancellor Green