PAW asked 11 alumni and faculty members with different perspectives on the events of 9/11 to respond briefly to the question: With the passage of a decade, what is the most important lesson to be learned from Sept. 11 and its aftermath?

By Christopher A. Kojm *79

Chris Kojm *79 is chairman of the National Intelligence Council, which provides intelligence analysis to the president and senior policymakers on national-security issues. He was deputy director of the 9/11 Commission and president of the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, a nonprofit organization ­dedicated to education about the 9/11 Commission’s ­recommendations.

From the standpoint of the intelligence community, the most important lesson from 9/11 to this very day is the importance of information sharing. The 9/11 Commission identified 10 key instances in which the sharing of intelligence between agencies could have made a critically important difference in disrupting the 9/11 plot. Its recommendations were aimed at improving unity of effort across the intelligence community and across the U.S. government, particularly the sharing of all terrorist-related information. 

Since that time, the culture of the intelligence community has changed in significant and positive ways. Promotion to senior assignments now depends on joint duty — working in a position outside one’s home agency, and learning how to make the whole equal more than the sum of its parts. As the director of national intelligence has said, no one had to order agencies to work together in the effort leading up to the May 1 raid in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden. The mission required close collaboration among many partners, and it happened seamlessly.

While information sharing has improved dramatically since 9/11, important information in many cases still is not shared in a manner so that all who work in a pertinent community of interest can collaborate in addressing common problems. The WikiLeaks episode further complicates the challenge of information sharing: How do we share effectively, and yet minimize the risk of massive and damaging unauthorized disclosures?

The sense of mission and purpose in the intelligence community is clear. The unfinished work of information sharing, however, still remains before us.

By Mohsin Hamid ’93 

Mohsin Hamid ’93, who was born in Pakistan, is the author of the novels Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a finalist for the 2007 Man Booker Prize.

For me, the most important lesson of 9/11 and its aftermath has been that tribalism remains ferociously alive and well in the 21st century.

Patriotism, religious communitarianism, and ethnic and racial solidarity have led human beings to slaughter one another throughout history. But in 2001 it was possible (at least for me) to believe that our allegiance to unitary, exclusionary tribes was on the wane, that people with multiple, complex facets to their identity were less likely to regress into groups that could easily back violence against each other.

I was wrong.

The United States brought war to Afghanistan and Iraq. Terrorists brought slaughter to America and Europe — and, of course, to Pakistan and India and many other places as well. Israel invaded Lebanon, Russia invaded Georgia. Congo and Sudan and Somalia tore themselves apart. Drug gangs ravaged Central America.

The past decade has seen enormous violence by states and non-state actors alike. Warriors have been on the march, proudly, their tribal affiliations indicated by uniform, facial hair, or tattoo.

Meanwhile, the tribes these warriors kill and die for are becoming weaker and weaker. Climate change, mass migration, nuclear proliferation, new drug-resistant infectious diseases, regulatory capture by the finance sector: All of these powerful forces act beyond the control of any one nation, any one tribe.

Of my 40 years, I have lived about 16 each in the United States and in Pakistan, and most of the remaining eight in Europe. I’ve called Lahore, Palo Alto, Princeton, Manila, Boston, New York, and London home. One of my passports suggests I’m British, my diplomas and birthday cards suggest I’m substantially American, and on most days I wake up, write, and hang out with my wife and daughter in Pakistan.

I’m as tribal as anyone else, I suppose. But because I belong to so many, I’m constantly reminded of how ridiculous and harmful my tribes can be.

When I was at Princeton, I remember the school’s unofficial motto being “in the nation’s service.” Since then it has changed to “in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.”

That’s an improvement, but still problematic. I’d prefer “in humanity’s service.” We may get to a better world through our nations or our churches or our mosques or our temples. But it’s the better world I’d rather find ways to serve, not the tribes that divide it.

By Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80

Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80, the Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs, was dean of the Woodrow Wilson School until taking a two-year leave in 2009 to become director of policy ­planning for the State Department. 

A month after I arrived in Princeton, Shirley Tilghman inaugurated the 9/11 Memorial Garden between East Pyne and Chancellor Green. One of the names on the circle of flagstones commemorating the 13 Princetonians who lost their lives that day was my classmate Bob Deraney ’80; another was Josh Rosenthal *81, a Woodrow Wilson School graduate alum whom I had met in New York through close Princeton friends. Those memorial stones were taken from different paths across the Princeton campus, a powerful image of the many ways in which all our lives intersected at Princeton and beyond. That was so much of the horror of 9/11: Behind the headlines of an event that launched two wars and elevated global terrorist networks to a threat previously posed only by other states were the heart-wrenching details of the husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, siblings, and friends lost. Al-Qaida attacked symbols of American financial, military, and political might, but ended about 3,000 individual lives and darkened tens of thousands more.

A decade later we are slowly coming to see the impact of U.S. actions abroad in equally human terms. United States forces invaded Afghanistan to topple a Taliban government that was openly hosting al-Qaida and to attack al-Qaida itself, a justifiable and probably necessary response. But as our generals and soldiers in Afghanistan well know, long-term success in ensuring that Afghan (or Yemeni or Somali) territory no longer provides a sanctuary for terrorists depends on the existence of governments that are able and willing to provide security, basic services, and opportunity for their citizens. Our drones kill al-Qaida or Taliban commanders in the mountains of Pakistan, but the accompanying or accidental civilian deaths inflame the Pakistani people and drive the Pakistani government into an ever more defensive and hostile crouch. We supported Egyptian President Mubarak and many other Middle Eastern leaders for 30 years out of concern for stability across the Middle East and Israeli security, but as Secretary Clinton said in Doha this past January, the inability of Middle Eastern governments to provide for their people has brought us to a point where “the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand.” And everywhere, U.S. support for the security of Israelis increasingly is measured in terms of the daily impact on the lives of Palestinians.

When I studied international relations at Princeton in the 1970s, in the middle of the Cold War, foreign policy was about states and the management of state interests, whether conflicting or cooperative. States continue to play a central and critical role in the international system today and for the foreseeable future. But the most important lesson of 9/11 is the need to look beyond traditional geopolitics. In the 21st century, it’s about the people.

By Anthony D. Romero ’87

Anthony Romero ’87 is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. 

In the decade following the attacks of Sept. 11, the Bush administration, followed by the Obama administration, and often with the cooperation of Congress and the courts, restricted access to justice for victims of civil-liberties and human-rights ­violations and limited the availability of effective remedies for these violations. These efforts have denied victims of human-rights violations their day in court and shielded responsible officials and corporations from ­liability.

A strong judiciary is fundamental to the protection of our liberties. Over the past 10 years, on matters of civil liberties and national security, power has shifted away from the judiciary toward the executive branch. In the course of seizing greater power for itself, the executive branch often has sought — and received — the cooperation of Congress to emasculate the judiciary. Perhaps most surprisingly, federal courts largely have been willing accomplices in limiting their own power. A series of decisions in recent years has chipped away at access and placed a tremendous and often insurmountable burden on plaintiffs. Consequently, entire classes of people not only are denied access to justice, but may not even be aware of the injustices to which they are subject.

For eight years, the Bush administration sought to diminish access to justice in order to shift power to the executive branch. It frequently invoked unchecked executive authority and national-security concerns as reasons why the courts’ reach should not extend to the Oval Office or to other, undisclosed locations.

The Obama administration’s record on access to justice in matters involving national security has been mixed, at best. President Obama largely has taken the baton from President Bush on a range of issues, including military commissions, detention, state secrets, surveillance, and targeted killings.

A vigorous democracy demands checks and balances. When judicial oversight is weakened and access to the courts is diminished, our delicate system of checks and balances is disrupted. If the Obama administration continues to limit access to justice and to assert broad, virtually unchecked power on issues of national security, there is a great danger that it will enshrine within the law policies and practices that support a dangerous notion that America is in a permanent state of emergency and that core liberties must be surrendered forever.

By Michael Meese *90 *00

Michael Meese *90 *00 is a colonel in the U.S. Army and a ­professor at West Point. 

The most important lesson from the decade after Sept. 11 is that our nation can and does produce extremely talented leaders who selflessly commit to meet the nation’s needs.

At West Point, where I am a professor, most of the 1,250 cadets who reported in this summer were entering third grade on 9/11. For most of their lives, their nation has been at war; in response, they competed vigorously to attend West Point out of a sense of responsibility and service. They want to contribute to something bigger than themselves, and they know that — to borrow President Teddy Roosevelt’s phrase — “the best prize that life has to offer is to work hard at work worth doing.”

I also have spent 30 months out of the last decade serving in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan with remarkable leaders from West Point and Princeton and from other backgrounds. Today’s exceptional junior officers routinely confront significant uncertainty in a multidimensional battlefield, which may include fighting against a resolute enemy, providing humanitarian assistance alongside NGOs, or partnering with local governors to establish the rule of law — and these all can happen on the same day. Today’s officers thrive on those challenges and are comfortable reaching “outside their lane” to the aid worker on their right or the diplomat on their left to accomplish the mission.

Finally, I have taught a six-week Woodrow Wilson School graduate course on military decision-making. I have been impressed with the large number of Princeton students — those planning careers in the State Department, the Defense Department, the United Nations, on Capitol Hill, with the media, and with nongovernmental groups — who want to learn more about the military and national-security decisions. Like the cadets and junior officers, they come from varied backgrounds, but all are committed to improving national-security policy because they have recognized how important the decisions to defend our nation can be.

In each of these roles, I have grown increasingly confident that, as tragic as they were, the events of Sept. 11 have brought out the best in our young men and women who serve in the Army and in other professions.

By Robert Klitzman ’80   

Robert Klitzman ’80 is a professor of clinical psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Mailman School of Public Health, and is director of Columbia’s masters program in bioethics. This essay is adapted from a piece at

Ten years ago, my sister Karen ’84 died at the World Trade Center. The world changed that day — along with my life, the lives of my family, and the lives of countless others.

After majoring in sociology and Russian studies at Princeton, and taking classes in history and other departments, Karen joined Princeton-in-Asia and taught English in Macau and China for two years. She then studied international and public affairs at Columbia, and believed in trying to make the world a better place. We remain baffled why terrorists killed her, and how we should best commemorate her on the 10th anniversary of that awful day.

I try to think what she would have said.

I think she would have felt that we should recall today how the events of 9/11 at one point brought us together, and prompted the world to support us. Both domestically and internationally, the 10th anniversary comes at a time of great strife. As a world and as a country, we now are fiercely divided — over how to repair the global and national economies and how to end the longest war in American history.

But after 9/11, we all stood together. I think Karen would have drawn on her Princeton education to urge us to remember and learn from that time, and realize that we gain more by acting together than by fighting each other. We face menacing problems, but should avoid making them means for immediate short-term gains for particular groups or countries and instead seek long-term goals and solutions. We should see that we once again confront severe threats to our future, from within and without, and are strongest and most effective when we respond together. Some might say that this view is naïve, but I think she would have disagreed.

“We in China think that America is still the greatest country,” a woman from Beijing told me recently. “We think of America as being able to solve any problem and achieve anything it wants.” Other countries still look at us, more than at any other nation, as the land of opportunity and hope.

I think Karen would have encouraged us to use 9/11 as a chance to join together against current threats, and to see ourselves more clearly. She would not have wanted to have died in vain.

By Julian E. Zelizer

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton. 

After the tragedy of 9/11, many Americans expected that the forces of partisan polarization that dominated Washington would start to subside.

In the days that followed, there were efforts by both parties to demonstrate their good intentions. Democrats and Republicans participated in the familiar ritual of promising to handle the crisis in bipartisan fashion. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton announced Sept. 12 that it was important to be “united behind our president and our government, sending a very clear message that this is something that transcends any political consideration or partisanship.” Republi­cans also promised political peace.

The period of good feelings did not last long. One of the most striking aspects of 9/11 was that even a tragedy of this scale could not tame the partisan forces that shape American politics.

Partisanship flared over one of the most important measures that Congress had to deal with in the fall of 2011: airport security. The administration proposed that the federal government take a larger role in guarding airports, but only if the president granted Congress the power to exempt airport security workers from civil-service protections. The GOP insisted that the government needed flexibility when hiring and firing workers so that it properly could handle security concerns. Democrats opposed the president’s plan on the grounds that, in their minds, President Bush was trying to use national security to weaken unions; Republicans charged that Democrats were holding up the legislation to please organized labor.

This was just a taste of what was to come. During the 2002 elections, national security became part of the campaign. In one of the most notorious cases, Republicans launched an attack against Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, a moderate Demo­crat who had lost his limbs in Vietnam and who challenged President Bush’s homeland security efforts. In one devastating ad, supporters of his Republican challenger, Rep. Saxby Chambliss, flashed images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein before attacking Cleland for his positions on homeland security. (Chambliss won the election.)

Beyond national security, 9/11 had no effect on the ability of the parties to find agreement on almost any issue. In most respects, Capitol Hill looked very similar to how it had looked on Sept. 10.

The persistence of the partisan wars even after 9/11 serves as a powerful reminder of how deeply rooted the forces of partisanship in Washington are. Historians and political scientists have pointed to a number of factors, ranging from the 24-hour media, to the decline of centrist voters in congressional districts, to the dynamics of campaign finance and gerrymandering, as the forces fueling the tensions between the parties.

To a political historian of post-World War II America, none of this came as a surprise. Nonetheless, watching the way many of the nation’s leaders handled the aftermath, it was jarring to see just how quickly these political forces reasserted themselves, and the level of ferocity, even as most Americans were trying to recover from one of the most devastating moments in the nation’s history.

By Mark Quarterman *87 

Mark Quarterman *87 is senior adviser and director of the Program on Crisis, Conflict, and Cooperation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He worked at the United Nations for 12 years, most recently as chief of staff of the Commission of Inquiry into the assassination of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan.

It is interesting, looking at Sept. 11 a decade later, how less pivotal the event appears today than it did at the time. In the aftermath of the attack, it seemed as though the world had changed dramatically and irrevocably. For Americans, or at least our policymakers, the “global war on terror” pushed ahead of other foreign-relations issues, and it appeared that a new international paradigm, not to mention a new global nemesis replacing the Soviet Union, had arrived. To a significant extent, the Bush administration judged friends and foes according to this paradigm. For the years following the attack, the United States’ relations with the rest of the world were mediated through the lens of counterterrorism.

This was understandable for many reasons. Sept. 11 was the worst foreign attack on United States soil in the country’s history. New York City and Washington, D.C., bore the brunt of the attacks, and the loss of life and resulting personal tragedies cannot be minimized. The lives lost in the resulting 10 years of war demand acknowledgement as well.

However, as has become clear over the past decade, a number of fundamental trends under way before the terrorist attacks persisted. In too many situations, U.S. leadership was missing, due to distraction or conscious inattention. Climate change continued apace and was not dealt with seriously. The seeds of the financial-system collapse of 2008 were sown during this period. The inexorable shift of power from a U.S.-dominated unipolar world in 2001 to the current multipolar system in which China and other regional centers of influence exercise power likely was hastened by U.S. policy decisions. Global economic power continued its march toward Asia, away from the United States and Europe.

Was Sept. 11 the foreign-policy pivot point for this era? It was not for the rest of the world, as evidenced by the fact that it did not lead to the establishment of an international system, like that of the Cold War, in which other countries had to find a place. Its effects were much more limited. Even from the U.S. perspective, with a decade of war, three years of economic distress, and a bruising and depressing battle over the country’s fiscal future, I do not believe that Sept. 11, 2001, can be seen as a turning point that led us into a new future.

By Kim Lane Scheppele

Kim Lane Scheppele is the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School and University Center for Human Values, and director of the Program in Law and Public Affairs. 

Immediately after 9/11, much of the world came together in shock and horror. International organizations jumped in to ensure coordinated action to confront the threat. The U.N. Security Council passed key resolutions to require all U.N. member states to take common steps to stop terrorism, and regional organizations — from the European Union to the African Union and from the Organization of American States to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — lent their support. The result? Global security law was born out of the resolutions, action programs, and framework decisions of international organizations, and these mandates were pressed down to the country level. States overwhelmingly complied. Internationalists were delighted. The global system responded effectively to fight terrorism.

Ten years later, the results of this global security law are mixed. The worldwide effort to track terrorists, to freeze their assets, and to share information about security threats through the world’s intelligence services no doubt has contributed to the safety of the terrorist-target states. But this safety has come with a high price. Nations took advantage of the opportunity created by the panic over terrorism to criminalize vague political threats; to create massive new domestic surveillance programs; to freeze bank accounts without due process; and to constitute new security forces, special courts, and detention regimes that aided domestic repression. A decade of anti-terrorism policy has empowered presidents, prime ministers, and dictators everywhere while sidelining domestic parliaments and courts. As global security law rose, important principles of domestic constitutional law took a hit, pushing fragile democracies into the abyss of autocratic government and even damaging the constitutional commitments of stable democracies.

When the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center occurred, the world had just seen the biggest boom in democratization ever recorded. According to Freedom House, the number of democratic countries had nearly doubled between 1987 and 2001. But by 2011, Freedom House had measured five straight years of decline in the number of democratic states worldwide and an associated decline of freedom even in democratic states. While there are many causes of this decline, the global anti-terror campaign is one important contributor.

By looking the other way as states around the world restricted freedom at home to combat terrorism, international organizations aided and abetted a worldwide crackdown on constitutional government. The most persistent legacy of 9/11 may well be a global decline in democracy and in the protection of human rights.

By 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.

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.

By Jeff Smisek ’76

Jeff Smisek ’76 is the president and CEO of United Continental Holdings Inc.

When the devastating events of Sept. 11 occurred, I was general counsel of Continental Airlines. That day stands out more than any other in my time in the airline business, not only because of the grief we felt, and still feel, for the lives lost in the attacks, but also because of the resilience and strength my co-workers displayed in overcoming the challenges we faced in the hours, days, and weeks afterward. The extent of my co-workers’ strength was the greatest of the many lessons I learned from the events of Sept. 11.

Now that I’ve joined the United Airlines team, I’ve come to appreciate even more the significance of that day. United was attacked directly: Two of the flights that terrorists hijacked — Flight 175 and Flight 93 — were United flights. We at United will never forget the people we lost in the attacks. I am proud of the way United co-workers banded together to handle the airline’s operational challenges after Sept. 11, even in the face of such an enormous loss.

The attacks taught all of us about the vulnerability of the U.S. airlines as businesses. In the weeks following the attacks, demand for air travel dropped precipitously, U.S. airlines were forced to downsize operations and capacity significantly, and we were forced to furlough tens of thousands of employees. While that steep drop-off in demand eventually abated and demand recovered, the Sept. 11 attacks were the first and most significant in a decade-long series of crises that have plagued the U.S. airlines.

Our industry has undergone important changes as a result of Sept. 11. The customers’ travel experience is very different from what it once was, with the introduction of the Transportation Security Administration and new security screening. Moreover, because of the devastating financial impact, almost all network carriers went bankrupt, and we’ve subsequently seen industry consolidation (including the merger of United and Continental), an intense focus on reducing fuel consumption and operating our carrier efficiently, and an increased emphasis on “de-commoditizing” the business — allowing customers to pick and pay for the bundle of services they wish to consume.

While so much about our industry and the way we travel continues to evolve following the terrible Sept. 11 attacks, the resilience my co-workers displayed that day — and the grief we feel for the co-workers we lost — continues to shape our culture to this day.