In Post-9/11 World, the Definition of Terrorist Gets Blurry

How will those who were kids in 2001 shape future policy based on that day?

I was half listening to the news, and they were talking about those would-be terrorists who were recently arrested, when I realized that I didn’t flinch, or even pay that much attention. It made me realize how desensitized we’ve become to even the word terrorist. I’m thinking that right now, if you’re reading this, you don’t even know which would-be terrorist I’m referring to, there are so many …

Within an hour of that moment, I saw a commercial that went something like this: “SEPTA and PATCO have teamed up with local security officials to make sure your ride to work or school is safe from crime and terrorism.” This was said with the same cheer as “Keep your arms and legs inside the car” at an amusement park. The video was traditional footage of lots of “normal,” clean, polite Americans riding public transportation and having nice, polite conversations with one another. Every gender, color and age was represented, behaving in perfect harmony, of course.

My oldest daughter, Allison, is on co-op for the next six months, and working out of 1818 Market Street. One day two weeks ago, she was in one of the meeting rooms, one wall of which is windows, practically floor to ceiling. An airplane flew outside, too low, so low that everyone in her office ran to the window, pointing and staring in amazement. She wondered why they weren’t running in the opposite direction, why they weren’t evacuating the building. The people she works with are all a decade older than her, and she believes she was the only one who was truly afraid. Allison said they were all saying, “Wow.” And she was thinking, “Holy shit.”

Allison was in fifth grade when 9/11 happened. She was a school safety officer, complete with the bright orange sash and silver badge. At lunchtime on September 11, 2001, she met up with the sixth-graders to go to their posts. Like many teachers across the country that day, the sixth-grade teacher made the mistake of putting the news on the classroom’s television, and then, once the enormity of the situation truly sunk in, shutting the TV off.

If I were a sixth-grade teacher, I don’t know what decision I would have made that day myself. But, shutting the TV off allowed the 11- and 12-year-olds room to speculate, to imagine what would happen next, and guess what conclusion they collectively came to? Public buildings across the country were going to systematically blow up, including (and probably especially) their school.

I was still teaching at Rutgers-Camden in 2001. My husband was still alive and working in South Philadelphia. Rutgers was evacuated pretty quickly, and our security and medical personnel loaded on buses headed for NYC to assist Rutgers New Brunswick medical and security. Being led down the stairwell in my office building, I was left to only imagine the next event myself and became convinced that Philadelphia was next, that one of our historic buildings would be the next target. I remember having to try over and over to get a cell connection, but once I did I insisted that my husband come home; I drove straight to my children’s school and retrieved them, too; my only focus was gathering my family and getting everyone home, the only place I was confident that would not blow up or be hit by a plane.

We spent the rest of the day and night with my husband and I taking turns watching the news upstairs or being with the kids downstairs with Nickelodeon blaring.

My students at Drexel are roughly my older children’s ages. When we pick topics for in-class debates and such, privacy and government security issues often come up. We cannot debate the topic because they are all in strong agreement that the government should impose any and all security and screenings necessary to keep us safe.

My daughter Hayley, 18, is right in line with my students, saying she only thinks about terrorists when she is traveling, and when she gets scared, she just looks around at all of the security and feels better.

Terrorism is the systematic use of terror, though terrorism has no legal definition. A terrorist must, then, be the person who executes this terror. Terror is a stronger term for fear. When I was a child, I don’t think I even knew what the term meant, but I would’ve certainly honed in on “terror.”

My son was only three when 9/11 happened. I asked him what he thinks about when he hears the word terrorists, and if he is ever afraid of terrorists, if he ever feels in danger. He said that yes, sometimes if he is alone or only with one friend, and leaving the school when no one else is around, or walking through our local park, he thinks about “how easy it would be for a terrorist to grab me and take me away.” I had no idea that for him, terrorist had taken on the same meaning as “bogeyman.”