“Where were you Sept. 11?”
The tragic events of that day in 2001 have become a landmark event for our generation. For our parents, the question is, “Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?” For our grandparents, the question is, “Where were you when Pearl Harbor was bombed?”
Each generation’s calamity is so shocking, most people will remember what they were doing the exact moment they heard Kennedy was assassinated or the Trade Towers demolished.
Sept. 11 happened two weeks before classes started at Cal Poly in fall 2001. By the time students returned to campus for the new school year, many were over the initial numbness, but most were still trying to deal with the experience.
Classes started Tuesday; our first issue of the Mustang Daily hit streets Wednesday. The cover is usually gray with text and photos, but this one was stark black. One photo in the center showed a man carrying the American flag.
When discussing how to cover Sept. 11, our first instinct was to find someone who was there, someone who lived through it firsthand. We also searched out foreign exchange students who were in the Middle East, but Cal Poly had none there at the time.
Since those interviews were hard to come by, we wrote the obligatory articles about how the university community was coping; how people could get help if they were feeling down or depressed; and how prepared local agencies were for terrorist attacks, especially since nuclear power plant Diablo Canyon, a possible target, on the coast just miles from campus.
The paper also tried to answer the question on everyone’s mind, an issue talked about in almost every class, whether it was a calculus class or bowling – “why do they hate us?”
This was the first time most Americans heard about Afghanistan or the Taliban. Many Mustang Daily news stories and editorials focused on educating people about the unknown.
Sept. 11 did introduce students to the efforts of Maliha Zulfacar – an ethnic studies professor who fled Afghanistan years before the attacks when the Taliban took over. She was very willing to share her story and work on spreading awareness. Since Sept. 11, Zulfacar has been involved in rebuilding Afghanistan and has been a wealth of information for students and Mustang Daily journalists.
The fiery difference in opinion about what America should do next to avenge the attacks played itself out in the Daily’s editorial pages. While the news angle wore itself out pretty quickly and gave way to homeland security on the national level, letters to the editor bounced back and forth for weeks. Most students called for peace and discouraged others from taking their anger out on people of Middle Eastern descent. Others wanted to attack certain Middle Eastern countries while some blamed the attacks on past and present U.S. foreign policy.
Many students were concerned about defending the country against future attacks and the possibility of escalating violence with more violence – issues that remain at the forefront of international politics five years later.
The Sept. 11 attacks signaled a new era in the world, even right at home. I began my senior year at Cal Poly that fall and could tell a difference from past years among students walking around campus. Fall is a time of reconnecting with friends after summer break; a time to get back into the fun routine of college life; a time to show off new clothes, hair cuts and electronic toys.
That fall, the air on campus was quiet. It was obvious that something was wrong, but it wasn’t. It was just that things had changed.
Michelle Hatfield was news editor of the Mustang Daily from 2001 to 2002. She’s currently the higher education reporter at The Modesto Bee.