The world changed: Georgetown after 9/11

September 8, 2011

“I walked past the business [Career Education] center and saw the crawl on the bottom of the television screen that said ‘Flight 77 missing.’ And I did a little bit of a double take.”

Tara Allison [neé Speisman] (COL ‘05), then a newly-arrived freshman, had been released from ethics class earlier the morning of September 11, 2001 because a plane was headed for Washington. At noon, the University had released an email broadcast canceling all classes.

When someone from the bookstore asked if she was okay, Allison responded that she thought her dad was on one of those planes. A former American Airlines employee who worked in the Career Education Center escorted her to his office, where she tried again to reach her mother on the phone.

“Nothing was confirmed at that point,” she said. “But I felt like I was in a movie with television screens and voices coming at me from all sides.”

Having finally reached her family and declined to talk to University psychiatrists and priests, she returned to her dorm room and packed a bag. She encountered no traffic on Interstate 95 on the drive from D.C. to her home in Irvington, New York. Driving across the Tappan Zee Bridge around 7:30 p.m., she could see smoke rising up in lower Manhattan.

On September 13, Robert Speisman’s obituary appeared in the New York Times: “Speisman, 47, of Irvington died on AA 77.”


On the afternoon of September 11, the University set up counseling services in Copley Formal and New South to help students cope with their immediate reactions to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon earlier that morning.

“Grieving is a solitary process,” Charles Tartaglia, then-director of the Counseling Center, told Blue & Gray at the time. “But you can be with them while they’re grieving … It cuts down some of the sense of isolation.”

Living in Washington, Georgetown students felt particularly close to the tragedy. “Being invincible college students, rather than going back to our dorms, we went to the Leavey rooftop, and we saw the Pentagon burning,” Allison recalled. “Smoke was pretty much all you could see.”

That afternoon, soon-to-be inaugurated President John DeGioia met with student leaders to discuss plans for addressing the needs of the student population as the University attempted to anticipate the concerns of an entire community during the unexpected tragedy.

Student associations set up information tables with blood drive registrations, buckets to donate money to Red Cross, and pamphlets detailing ways to cope with tragedy. The University temporarily implemented more stringent security policies. According to Blue & Gray, security was notably increased at places of worship on campus. Police also closed Healy Gates and monitored all other entrances to campus.

The University community tried to make sense of the attacks during the “Day of Dialogue” events held in the ICC Auditorium on September 12 and 13. Then-College Dean and event organizer Jane McAulliffe said there were between 50 and 100 students in attendance at the event at any given time during the day. “It was an effort to move immediately to get faculty and students into the conversation,” McAulliffe told the Voice at the time. “We are blessed in having such extraordinary faculty expertise in areas relevant to this whole situation. Our first thought in trying to respond to [the terrorist attack] was to try and draw on that.”

On September 12, 2011, the University resumed normal operations. “Activities schedules [continued] as normal, but people are coming to them changed,” Tartaglia told Blue & Gray at the time. “Some people are just scared. They don’t know if they’re safe. Their whole world has changed.”


Immediately following the World Trade Center attacks, Georgetown’s Campus Ministry began planning what would be the first of several interfaith services. Yahya Hendi, head of the University Muslim Chaplaincy, was in attendance at the first service, held in Sellinger Lounge in the Leavey Center.

Students and faculty filled the area around Uncommon Grounds, from the Leavey Program Room on the right to the Conference Center on the left, to the windows in the back. “That area, I have never seen it packed for any program like I have seen it for that interfaith service,” Hendi said.

Every faith community—Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Catholics and Hindus—held its own service later that evening. DeGioia also spoke briefly at each service, Hendi recalled. “That was also a very powerful moment,” he said.

The next evening, students gathered in Dahlgren Quadrangle for a candlelight vigil in remembrance of the people who died in the attacks. Students shared prayers from several faith traditions.

“It gave a chance for the entire religious community and Georgetown as a community as a whole to show solidarity in their grievances in this matter,” John Halliwell (SFS ’04), a Muslim student who spoke at the vigil, told the Voice at the time.

According to Halliwell, the event was an opportunity for Muslim students in particular to demonstrate their grief as a community. “We are going out to show this event is just as saddening and outrageous to the Muslim community as it is to every other community,” he said.

As the public learned that Islamic terrorists were responsible for the attacks, some Muslim students expressed concern for their safety. Some felt the brunt of Islamophobic sentiment manifested in personal attacks. Some students even approached Hendi with stories of being harassed within Georgetown’s gates. Others related attacks on their hometown mosques.

Hendi thinks Muslim students might continue to feel underlying Islamophobia even today. “Even if you have not gone through the experiences, you still feel the anxiety of it, feeling that you could be the next target, feeling that you could be the next person attacked or told to go home, or someone pulling your scarf if you’re a Muslim woman who covers her hair,” Hendi said.

However, Hendi said these incidences were few and far between.

“Muslims felt very much included, protected, catered for,” he said. “From my experience at Georgetown University, the stand that President DeGioia took—and so many deans—was very helpful to send a message that American Muslims are part of the fabric of America, and Georgetown Muslims are part of the fabric of the Georgetown community.”

More frequently, in interviews and in his capacity as head of the Muslim chaplaincy, Hendi has encountered common misconceptions about Islam—mainly surrounding the true nature of jihad, the status of women in Islam, and Shari’a law. Out of this public dialogue, he said, there actually grew a greater collective understanding of the religion and a more vibrant interreligious dialogue on Georgetown’s campus.

The subject was revisited at a panel discussion about the impact of 9/11 six months after the attacks. History professor and Associate Director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding John Voll said that while he found Muslim-Christian relations at Georgetown to be remarkably amicable, the aftermath of 9/11 revealed prevalent ignorance about the Islamic faith on campus.

“My experience has been that I found not so much prejudice as ignorance,” Voll said at the panel. “Many non-Muslims among the students, faculty, and staff still know remarkably little about Islam and Muslim life. Questions about jihad and Islam’s ideas of violence that were raised most of the time arose out of a context of lack of information rather than a condition of prejudice.”

Both Voll and Hendi identified the attacks as a turning point in interreligious dialogue on campus, manifested most tangibly in University-hosted interfaith services and academic discussions.

“It forced Muslims to become more engaged and more engaging with their own faith and with others too,” Hendi said. “So at this time they were doing more work with the Jews and the Christians and the Catholics and the Protestants. … This is what I heard from the students.”

While Allison transferred to Fordham University for the rest of the semester, she returned to Georgetown the following January. When she came back, she found the campus’s response to the attacks was characterized by a momentary dissolution of ideological barriers. “The reaction to 9/11 was bipartisan,” she said. “It encompassed everyone regardless of cultural, religion, political party. It was a giant community of remembrance and respect and I appreciate that.”


Former Secretary of State and current Georgetown professor Madeleine Albright went to work downtown on September 11, though fear of another attack loomed over her day. “The office that I had at that phase, I had an amazing view of the Washington Monument,” she said in a recent interview. “I think we all spent all day watching to make sure it was still standing.”

But this kind of tragedy was not entirely new to Albright. Born in Europe, she lived in England during the air raids of World War II. “As a child, I actually would come out in the morning from the air raid shelter and see buildings destroyed,” Albright said. “As much of a shock as 9/11 was, I had seen buildings smoking and falling down.”

But Albright understood that 9/11 was a crude reminder of U.S. vulnerability—one that had a huge impact on the American psyche and altered the national debate with respect to policy as well as philosophical priorities.

“Here we are this huge country between two oceans and all of a sudden it showed our vulnerability,” she said. “I think it actually broadened the debate in many ways. It changed a lot of discussion about what was important to us and what wasn’t. I think academically there has been … more and more discussion about different subjects, and what are the threats and opportunities.”

The reverberations of 9/11 were visible not only in personal grief, but also on a national scale, as the United States dealt with the implications of the unprecedented attack. “9/11 smashed a hole and threw a lock at this illusion of invulnerability that the U.S. had been living in,” Dr. Alan Lipman, founder of the Center for the Study of Violence and clinical psychologist at Yale University, said. “You’ve got an immediate fear of what has happened and what will happen next.”

Though Albright said debates about security versus liberty are as old as the Republic, she warned, “I think that what I’m most concerned about now, especially as we look at the tenth anniversary, is that we can’t be ruled by the fear factor.”


Although the memory of 9/11 has perhaps faded with 10 years of distance from the attacks, a campus and a country must come to terms with its persistent legacy—hopefully to learn from the tragedy.

“The thing I’m really hoping for is that we consider who we are,” Albright said.

On Georgetown’s campus, Albright noticed students becoming more civically engaged. “The thing that happened as much as anything is that all of a sudden there was a great desire and movement for two things,” she said. “There were a lot of students that decided they wanted to enlist and then others who decided they wanted to do more public and community service.”

Then-freshman Allison noticed a different shift in focus on Georgetown’s campus as the the world came to realize the threat of terrorism. “Nobody would take a terrorism class before 9/11,” she said. “After that you couldn’t get into a terrorism class.”

Allison herself went on to take many more terrorism classes—obtaining masters degrees in Homeland Security and Security Studies from the School of Foreign Service. In 2010, she married an Afghan and Iraq war veteran.

“I obviously made some sacrifices in my personal life for the husband that I chose,” Allison said. “I kind of walked away from the D.C. intelligence community. Whether or not I go back to that, I feel that the work that I did at Georgetown and on my own has really helped me to understand what happened leading up to 9/11 and what needs to be done. And with that understanding I am a more educated and less judgmental person. I feel that it’s given me a sense of understanding, which may be the closest thing I ever get to a sense of justice.”

To Allison, that 9/11 might not be acknowledged is a stirring prospect. In fact, she believes that the 9/11 Commission Report should be required reading.

“The first opening weekend of the NFL season happens to fall on 9/11. And I think that a lot of people’s focus is on that,” Allison said. “It’s unthinkable. It’s forgetting.”

Additional reporting by John Flanagan

Clarification: Tara Allison told the Voice she remembered walking into the “business center” to get help the morning of 9/11. She actually walked into the Career Education Center, according to center director Mike Schaub. The article has been changed to reflect the accurate name.

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