University of Missouri professor puts 9/11 in perspective for students who weren't born when attacks happened

Roger McKinney
Columbia Daily Tribune

Victor McFarland was a high school senior in Spokane, Washington, on Sept. 11, 2001.

He had heard something about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center before arriving at his school.

"People thought maybe it was an accident," McFarland said of the talk in the halls. "We were watching on TV. It became clear with the second plane it wasn't an accident. It's part of the image that's fixed in my mind."

He started studying Arabic and the history and culture of the Middle East in college, including traveling to Saudi Arabia and Syria. 

He said he was among many Americans for whom the attack spurred an intellectual interest in the Middle East. Some joined the military and others joined the Central Intelligence Agency, he said.

Victor McFarland, University of Missouri associate professor of history.

He was among those who saw that the information received by most government and media sources about the Middle East was distorted, he said.

"Most were interested in the history and the culture and much more deeply interested in the religion," McFarland said. "We wanted to know more about the Middle East and Islam."

There was a lot more cultural exchange, he said.

Now an associate professor of history at the University of Missouri, McFarland teaches about the Sept. 11 attacks in a few courses to students who weren't yet born when the events unfolded. They only know what came after, he said.

Society is living under conditions of much greater government surveillance because of that day, he said. And there are the inconveniences added to flying post 9/11.

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The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, was similar in that it was shocking, McFarland said.

"Almost all of us had the feeling life was never going to be the same," McFarland said of 9/11. "Pearl Harbor took Americans into war that involved millions. It was impossible to be an American and not have your life directly affected."

In contrast, the U.S. in response to the terrorist attacks launched what President George W. Bush at the time termed a "global war on terror."

The administration didn't require most Americans to sacrifice, McFarland said.

"It's produced a strange disconnect in the post-9/11 era," he said.

For most Americans, life didn't change much. For some Americans and most in Afghanistan and Iraq, life changed dramatically, he said.

The Bush administration put the nation on a war footing. The president had an approval rating of around 90%, which is hard to imagine for any president now, he said.

"The political mood after 9/11, there was such a brief moment of tremendous bipartisan unity," McFarland said. "The Bush administration from the beginning chose to respond by defining the enemy as terror."

One of the undergraduate courses McFarland teaches is American Foreign Relations, 1945 to present.

"It's a very broad class," McFarland said, adding that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and resulting actions come near the end of the course. He discusses the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and a change in relations with the Middle East.

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His students are interested, he said.

"A lot of students want to learn," McFarland said. "I think they're very curious about what changed. Many are students from a Middle Eastern background or who have family members in New York City. There's a lot they know in an intellectual way. They want to know where I was."

They're interested in the climate in the country in the days after the attacks, he said.

"They only know the way the world has been after 9/11," McFarland said of his students. "For them, the United States has always been at war."