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Sociologists Reflect on the Events of
September 11

Editor’s note: From various sources, we have collected sociologists’ essays, speeches, lectures, and reflections on the September 11 terrorist attacks. We share several of them here for your consideration.

The Challenge of Terror: A Traveling Essay
Risk, Trust, and Technology in the Aftermath of the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001

An abbreviated lecture given September 15 by Michael R. Hill, Iowa Western Community College

The fatal facts of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, are now well known to us, and they will undoubtedly form an indelible chapter in the national history of the United States....During the past few days, each of us has tried to understand this heinous event, to come to grips with it emotionally, and each of us has responded in understandably human ways: with disbelief, despair, and great sadness. Collectively, we empathize with grieving families personally unknown to us, we offer prayers for our nation’s leaders, and we watch with hope and admiration as the rescue and recovery teams continue their awful work. Many among us, understandably, have also given voice to fear, helplessness, and uncertainty, on the one hand, and to outrage, anger, and vengeful resolution, on the other. Directly or indirectly, the treachery of September 11th touches all of us.

My goal tonight is to outline a few outstanding sociological aspects of this awful event. I am a sociologist, and it is as a sociologist that I talk with you this evening about the realities of terrorism, risk, trust, and human vulnerability. The realities and configurations of the world in which we live are sometimes perplexing and sometimes threatening. The events of the past week underscore the fact that the situations we face today are always changing and always challenging. My obligation as a sociologist is to focus and organize my thinking about the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, to convey to you my sociological understanding of these events, and to draw out for you — as far as I am able — some of the things that this tragedy can teach us. First, we have all of us, together with everyone we know, responded intensely to this catastrophe. It is an event all of us know about. None of us have ignored it. We have all talked and thought about it, and we have all listened to other’s ideas, feelings, and responses to it. In the midst of asking what can we do about these horrible events, it is worth noting that we have already done a remarkable thing: regardless of the specific form and content of our individual responses during the past week, we have all responded. I take this as evidence of our collective human capability to comprehend and react to tragic and threatening situations. It is true that we are sometimes uninformed and unfeeling about the widespread misfortunes of others at home and abroad, but our immediate and sweeping responsiveness to the extraordinary events of last Tuesday convince me that our collective potential for grasping and responding to the human consequences of mass devastation is reasonably intact. If we can respond as quickly and unanimously as we have to the massive destruction of life in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, we can, I think, also learn to respond in concert and with empathy to future acts of terrorism, wars, mass starvation, epidemics, and other large-scale human sufferings in other lands as well as our own.

Tuesday’s terrorist attacks present numerous questions, and some are easier to address than others. How were the attacks possible? This is an instructive question with which to begin, sociologically speaking. The horrible human and physical tolls taken by the attacks in such a short time span were possible only in our hyper-modern era, and were contingent upon the technologies for building ultra-tall skyscrapers and for constructing large passenger jets. These technologies are not responsible for the attacks, but their simultaneous invention and implementation resulted in a technologically dense situation that was—and remains—vulnerable to terrorist exploitation.

The hyper-modern world in which we live makes constantly increasing use of ever more complex technologies for transportation, manufacturing, military defense, policing, communication, entertainment, banking, agriculture, education, medical treatment, scientific investigation, and so on and on. All of these technologies are vulnerable to subversion. When two or more technologies are collectively subverted, as they were last Tuesday, the results are likely to be extraordinarily devastating. It is one thing to highjack an airplane, it is quite another to utilize that plane as a flying suicide bomb to destroy a vulnerable target. Fortunately, in a sense, the terrorists struck targets that are more symbolic than structurally integral to the day-to-day functioning of American society as a whole. Had they instead destroyed three or four strategically located nuclear power plants, for example, or a nuclear weapons depot, the resulting Chernobyl-like catastrophe could have been decidedly more cruel and injurious to our social system. Our various technologies present us with enormous opportunities and capabilities, but, if thwarted and misused, they can also result in far greater damage and disruption than we experienced on Tuesday.

There are, however, very few people who would turn back the technological clock, assuming that such a thing were possible. Most of us would not want to return to a world without penicillin, X-rays, refrigeration, or telecommunications, for example. Every technological and scientific advance holds the promise of greater efficiency, greater productivity, greater comfort, greater knowledge, ad infinitum, but it is also the case that the more complex we make each technology, the more vulnerable it becomes to catastrophic failure, on the one hand, and to misuse and sabotage on the other. This is a reality we cannot avoid. Improved technologies per se are by no means absolute guarantees against future terrorist attacks or criminal sabotage; ever increasing technological development is a condition of hyper-modern life, not its salvation.

The terrorists themselves apparently utilized shockingly low-tech resources to take over the planes. That is to say, they accomplished nothing more technologically sophisticated than purchasing a couple of dozen airline tickets, possibly manufacturing a few phony ID’s, and using knives to overpower the crews on each plane. The knives were apparently smuggled past the security systems that were installed to detect them. Communications between the terrorists, in the days prior to the hijackings, escaped the notice of surveillance technologies designed to identify plots of this type. The lesson here is that sophisticated technological systems can be surprisingly vulnerable to Stone Age violence. And further, we must always remember that there are those to whom every new security system is simply another challenge to be overcome…

Trust is required because the present-day world is a risky place. Every time we board an aircraft, ride in an automobile, or take a walk, we take a risk. The present-day world, like the Stone Age and the Middle Ages, is filled with risk. Our world neighbors in Ireland and Israel have long lived with the daily threat of terrorist bombings. In many countries today, the threats of starvation, war, and genocide are excruciatingly real. Life everywhere is fragile, vulnerable, and risky. Perhaps, as a society, many of us have been too sheltered from the day-to-day realities of risk and human vulnerability, and this may in part help to account for the enormity of the shock we felt collectively last Tuesday when the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed before our eyes on television screens across the country. Risk is always with us, however:

• Some risks are essentially ageless: Will someone purposefully inflict injury on me, rob me of my wealth, or intentionally destroy my home? Will my lover betray me, will my employer cheat me? We have learned through centuries of experience that these inherently human risks cannot be avoided, and that without taking such risks ordinary life as we know it is impossible.

• Some present-day risks are technologically based: Will yet another multi-million dollar space shuttle launch be undermined someday by the material failure of yet another 10-cent rubber gasket? Will the brakes on my car fail as I head down a steep mountain road? If we are to live in the hyper-modern world, and enjoy the benefits of technological advances, then we must steel ourselves to the fact that these systems sometimes malfunction no matter how carefully we try to design and/or maintain such systems. And finally

• Some risks occur at the interface of human and technological systems: Will some unknown Homer Simpson fall asleep at the controls of a nuclear power plant? Will the pilot of my airliner have a heart attack or a mental breakdown and lose control? Will the driver of the semi-trailer loaded with gasoline and headed in my direction see the red stoplight signal and avoid crashing into my car? We can try to prevent such problems, that is why airline pilots are required to have periodic medical examinations, and it is why we license nuclear plant operators and legislate special rules for the drivers of trucks loaded with hazardous materials. But, we know from experience, that human factors cannot be totally controlled.

Such risks as these are part of our human condition today, we cannot avoid them. We can and do take prudent steps to reduce risks, but we can never eliminate them entirely, especially in those cases where others are intent on wrecking havoc or harm. To be human today is to continue to accept risk in all its forms and to act with maturity and humanity in the face of risk, and we appear, I think, to be well up to that challenge.

In summary, I can provide only a tentative sociological synopsis of where we are now, where we stand as a society, in light of the terrorist attacks of last Tuesday. It seems reasonable to conclude that we definitely live in a hyper-modern, technologically interdependent and complex world where people on occasion do terrible things as well as wonderful things, where things can go horribly wrong and joyfully right, and where people sometimes make mistakes but often perform flawlessly; that we live in a world in which we have not lost the capacity to respond immediately and collectively to terrible tragedies. And, finally, that we live in a world where we necessarily encounter risk, and where we must exercise trust in the face of risk….


Comments at the Princeton Memorial Service (September 16, 2001)
Marta Tienda, Princeton University

Over the past few days we have all been stunned by a profound sense of loss, grief, and, yes, anger about the cruel and devastating acts that took the lives of countless innocent victims.

And we have been moved by the pleas of fellow citizens searching for their loved ones. We have all asked why? We thirst for understanding and guidance about how to respond.

Institutions of higher learning have an important role in promoting understanding,

• not in the terms of reason, in this instance, for these were not reasonable acts;

• not in the terms of retaliation, for repeated wrong-doing has never corrected errors, however grotesque and unconscionable; but rather, in the terms that will help all nations comprehend that we are one world with deeper commonality than our apparent differences convey.

It is a tall order to invoke forgiveness while we are hurting in ways few among us could even fathom before Tuesday. The rhetoric of attack and war only fuels feelings of rage and the urge to retaliate far and wide.

• We have reason to be disgusted; but that is no reason to hate.

• We have reason to want retribution, but never to respond in like terms.

Bringing perpetrators of evil to justice need not indict and crucify others for mere likeness. Such acts are equally cowardly and inappropriate.

As a nation we have been challenged to rise to a new occasion that will be etched forever in our hearts and memory; we are challenged to illustrate once again

• that we are a world leader;

• that we will not stoop to the trenches of evil and human destruction;

• that the word “United” in our name stands for the strength of our character to become and act as one for greater global purpose; and

• that we can and we will lead by example and action to make world security a global priority.

We can find consolation in each other and the collective mobilization of good will. I find consolation in the outpouring of compassion and humanitarian support from fellow citizens throughout the country. Age, race, sex, religion, or any other socially constructed differences are trivialized by our shared values and current distress.

I find comfort knowing my 11 year old deposited his allowance into a jar collecting contributions for relief to NYC victims; I find comfort in the words of friends and colleagues from many other countries who were moved by the horrendous events to send their condolences, their love, and their solidarity as we cope with our grief and seek constructive solutions to prevent similar catastrophes elsewhere.

Let us all find consolation and strength in the symbols and acts of unity that we have witnessed, and the courage to lead the way for world peace and security through example.

In doing so, we can find inspiration in the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses. Come, my friends, ’tis not too late to seek a newer world. For my purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset; and ‘tho we are not that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are; one equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. Juntos venceremos; no caminamos solos. Together we shall overcome; we do not walk alone.


Not in Our Son’s Name
Among the victims of the attack on the World Trade Center was the son of Orlando Rodriguez, an ASA member and the incoming chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department here at Fordham. The authors of this statement, Phyllis and Orlando Rodriguez, are respectively, a teacher of the home bound and incoming chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Fordham University. Gregory Rodriguez, their only son, was 31 and head of computer security at Cantor Fitzgerald. Phyllis and Orlando circulated the statement late last week and a related story, “Grieving voice pleads for peace,” by Juan Gonzalez, based on an interview with Orlando appeared in the Daily News on Tuesday, September 18, 2001 (page 26).

Our son Greg is among the many missing from the World Trade Center attack. Since we first heard the news, we have shared moments of grief, comfort, hope, despair, fond memories with his wife, the two families, our friends and neighbors, his loving colleagues at Cantor Fitzgerald / ESpeed, and all the grieving families that daily meet at the Pierre Hotel.

We see our hurt and anger reflected among everybody we meet. We cannot pay attention to the daily flow of news about this disaster. But we read enough of the news to sense that our government is heading in the direction of violent revenge, with the prospect of sons, daughters, parents, friends in distant lands dying, suffering, and nursing further grievances against us. It is not the way to go. It will not avenge our son’s death. Not in our son’s name.

Our son died a victim of an inhuman ideology. Our actions should not serve the same purpose. Let us grieve. Let us reflect and pray. Let us think about a rational response that brings real peace and justice to our world. But let us not as a nation add to the inhumanity of our times.

Phyllis and Orlando Rodriguez


Public Response to a National Tragedy: NORC Gauges the Nation’s Reaction
From NORC’s website (www.norc.uchicago.edu), sent by Dean R. Gerstein.

For several decades, NORC, a national organization for research at the University of Chicago, has gauged the American public’s response to tragic events. Most notably, NORC conducted a national survey in the days following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963—an effort that documented the sense of grief and loss many Americans experienced at that time. In light of September 11, 2001’s unprecedented attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, NORC, once again, is gauging the American public’s response to national tragedy. The current NORC study, Public Response to a National Tragedy, differs from many opinion polls being conducted by avoiding topical issues such as opinions regarding the appropriate Government response to the attack. Instead, Public Response to a National Tragedy focuses on Americans’ behavior and communications following the tragedy; psychosomatic and affective responses to the tragedy; and political attitudes such as confidence in American leadership and institutions as well as overall assessments of America’s democratic system following the tragedy.

The survey design facilitates meaningful research by using questions parallel to those used in NORC’s survey following the Kennedy assassination as well as questions taken directly from the General Social Survey (GSS), one of NORC’s national flagship studies. This design feature allows for two points of comparison when assessing America’s response to the recent tragedy: national response during a national tragedy occurring 38 years prior and recent national data collected during normal times. Like the survey conducted following the Kennedy assassination, NORC’s study of response to the Pentagon and World Trade Center attacks began almost immediately following the tragic events.


Predictions (Made on September 15, 2001)

Students of human affairs can hope to make two different kinds of predictions: unconditional predictions based on statistical regularities, and if-then predictions based on causal regularities. In the first category, demographers compare favorably to weather forecasters when it comes to anticipating, over large populations, how many children will be born tomorrow, how many people will be injured in automobile accidents, and so on—just so long as they remember which day of the week and year tomorrow is, making appropriate adjustments for weekly and seasonal cycles.

The second category brings us instantly onto controversial territory; at issue is not just the validity of any particular causal connection but a set of assumptions concerning the nature of social processes, causality, and knowledge of both social processes and causality.

I write out predictions in the two categories not because I know the answers better than anyone else, but for precisely the opposite reason. Most of us learn more from discovering that we were wrong, then inquiring into how and why we went wrong, than from being right. I am hoping (a) to encourage colleagues to lay out their own contrary predictions, (b) to identify errors in my own knowledge and reasoning, (c) thereby to identify errors in the public discussion of what to do about terrorists and (d) perhaps to stimulate more creative and constructive thinking about alternatives to dividing up the world into Us and Them as a preliminary to dropping bombs on Them.

Unconditional Predictions
It will turn out that:
(1) More than four suicide crews set off to seize airliners on Tuesday, but only four succeeded in taking over their targets.

(2) Participants in the effort were never, ever in their lives all in the same place in the same time.

(3) All were connected indirectly by networks of personal acquaintance, but not all had ever met each other, or knowingly joined a single conspiracy.

(4) Because of network logic, all were therefore connected to Osama bin Laden and a number of other organizers or sponsors of attacks on western targets.

(5) But no single organization or single leader coordinated Tuesday’s action.

(6) Some participants in seizure of aircraft only learned what they were supposed to do shortly before action began, and had little or no information about other planned seizures of aircraft.

(7) Instead of emerging from a single well coordinated plot, these actions result in part from competition among clusters of committed activists to prove their greater devotion and efficacy to the (vaguely defined) cause of bringing down the enemy (likewise vaguely defined).

Contingent Predictions
(8) Bombing the presumed headquarters of terrorist leaders will a) shift the balance of power within networks of activists and b) increase incentives of unbombed activists to prove their mettle.

(9) If the U.S., NATO, or the great powers insist that all countries choose sides (thus reconstituting a new sort of Cold War), backing that insistence with military and financial threats will increase incentives of excluded powers to align themselves with dissidents inside countries that have joined the U.S. side, and incentives of dissidents to accept aid from the excluded powers. (10) Most such alliances will form further alliances with merchants handling illegally traded drugs, arms, diamonds, lumber, oil, sexual services, and rubber.

(11) In Russia, Uzbekistan, Lebanon, the Caucasus, Turkey, Sudan, Nigeria, Serbia, Algeria, and a number of other religiously divided countries, outside support for dissident Muslim forces will increase, with increasing connection among Islamic oppositions across countries.

(12) Bombing the presumed originator(s) of Tuesday’s attacks and forcing other countries to choose sides will therefore aggravate the very conditions American leaders will declare they are preventing.

(13) If so, democracy (defined as relatively broad and equal citizenship, binding consultation of citizens, and protection from arbitrary actions by governmental agents) will decline across the world.

Am I sure these dire predictions are correct? Of course not. I write them out both to place myself on record and to encourage counter-predictions from better informed colleagues.

Charles Tilly, Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science, Columbia University; ct135@columbia.edu