Professor Joe Goldblatt
My dentist suddenly said “I will be right back.” As I lay in his chair awaiting my new filling I did not suspect anything was wrong until I heard a loud gasp from his reception area. A few minutes later he returned and said “An airplane just crashed into the World Trade Tower in New York.”
My dental chair was nearly 200 miles away from New York city, however, perhaps due to the population density of the north eastern part of the United States, both the dentist and myself felt as though we were also under attack. I quickly removed my dental bib and told the dentist that I needed to return to my University where I had recently been appointed Dean of a large business school.
During the short journey from the dentist’s office to the University I rang the President of the University and asked what I should do upon my arrival at my office. His secretary responded that they too had just received the news and at this time there were no immediate plans. I then telephoned my wife who was working at a local library, my sons who lived in New York city and Washington, DC to confirm that they were safe. My son in Washington, DC was studying at a University that was less than five miles from where the third airplane had struck the US Pentagon.
When I walked into the University building I saw my students rushing for the exits, some of whom were convulsed in tears. I quickly made the rounds of the classrooms and noticed that the lectures had been suspended and all students and staff were now staring in disbelief at televisions as they viewed in horror the second airplane striking Tower 2.
I immediately asked the staff to escort their students to the cafeteria where those who wished could watch the unfolding events by being among those who could support them emotionally and psychologically. Most of the students decided to go home and once all of the classrooms were emptied I returned to my office and turned on my personal television to witness the further unfolding tragic events of 11 September 2001.
This week I viewed the excellent BBC documentary entitled “9 / 11: Inside the President’s War Room” and to my surprise, although it has been two decades since this nightmare became a reality, my stomach rapidly became nauseous as I along with millions of other viewers remembered exactly where we were and what we were doing on that fateful day.
In my case, I was responsible for the education and welfare of 1000 post graduate business students, including many from international countries such as Korea, Iraq, Iran and Morocco. The makeup of the student body complicated things because as a result of new federal legislation being imposed to limit citizen’s rights as a way of providing immediate protection. As a result of these new tight restrictions my international students became very fearful about their future in America.
I had pre – arranged a “Welcome” event for the students to bring them all together in the University gymnasium for entertainment and socialisation and this event was promptly cancelled. However, a few weeks later I decided the event should proceed as it would bring the students back together and allow me to reassure them that they were all most welcome in our University.
During the planning for this event a local pyrotechnics expert offered to provide a free indoor fireworks show during the event to create a celebratory atmosphere. To receive permission for this display I needed to contact the risk officer for the University and when I visited his small office I noticed a gigantic hazardous materials (HazMat) white suit and helmet that was hanging in the corner. The risk officer explained to me that the suit was necessary because the building where my students were being educated was built upon underground tanks that once contained poisonous chloride that was used in the manufacturing of chemicals on this site prior to it become a place for learning. Despite the danger of potential chloride leakage from malfunctioning pyrotechnics, he approved by request with the caveat that he must be on site to supervise and could stop the event at any time he felt that there was an unsafe activity taking place. I agreed and the event proceded without any problems.
Shortly after the successful welcome event was conducted one of my students became critically ill. He was from Morocco and had no local family so I visited his bedside on multiple occasions while he was in the intensive care unit and then regularly communicated his condition back to his parents. One day his doctor rang my office to sadly announce that this student had suddenly died. I immediately returned to the hospital and stood by his bedside while silently reciting the Jewish prayer for mourners.
A few weeks later a group of Muslim students asked to meet with me. I learned very soon after becoming a Dean that when one student requested a meeting it might be a minor problem, however, when a group of students wanted to see you it could spell big trouble.
Four male international students from Morocco entered my office and I noticed they were carrying a wrapped gift. I told them that I had been concerned for their welfare due to the xenophobia being experienced in the United States and that I would not tolerate any discrimination or Islamophobia in my University. The spokesman for the group said “We appreciate that Dean. In fact, we have come today to tell you that because of wheat you and Mrs Goldblatt did for our brother Mohammad, you are much more than our Dean. You are now our brother.” Then they presented me with their gift. As I opened it they explained that it represented a Moroccan tradition of remembering the dead by affixing their photo to a mirror so that when an individual looks into the mirror they see both their face and the face of their loved one, forever.
As we sadly commemorate the twentieth anniversary of 9 / 11 September 2001, I shall never forget the way the world ground to a halt for several weeks and then months. During all of the chaos of the first week of the tragedy one of my dearest friends died following a long illness. Her husband called and asked me to serve as a pallbearer at her funeral. The funeral would take place in Texas in two days time and it would require me to travel by airplane.
To my surprise, I was able to book an airline flight and although the crew appeared to still be in shock, I was able to attend the funeral. As I departed from the cemetery following the burial, I noticed that a small bird had entered my car and was perched upon the front passenger seat. I used my hand to try and shoo the bird away, however, the bird refused to move. This tiny bird raised its beak, looked me in the eye, and as if my friend had been magically reincarnated, seemed to say to me “I am here. I shall always be here.”
Eventually, as I drove away the bird flew out the window. However, as I returned the rental car to the airport I began to think about the possibility that in fact, every living thing has a story that we have inherited and must tell to future generations. Perhaps this bird was reminding me to pay attention during this difficult time of increased uncertainty because I would become a storyteller for future generations to help them cope with future tragic events such as the one I had just experienced.
One of academias’s greatest storytellers is Michelle Gelfand who is a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Maryland in the United States. Gelfand recognises the importance of recording and analysing life histories as she has examined cultural differences throughout the world. One of the cultural phenomena that she has researched is how human beings respond to disease, epidemics and pandemics.
According to Gelfand, for thousands of years large percentages of the population were wiped out by diseases. The plague known as the “Black Death” in fact killed at least 75 million people during the fourteenth century. In recent times 35 million people have died of AIDS. in 2016 there were 200 million cases of Malaria recorded throughout the world.
Human beings needed to find ways to survive these epidemiological threats. One way we do this is by restricting the range of permissible behaviour. Gelfand describes the polar opposites of cultural behaviour as looseness and tightness as norms within society. When there are outbreaks of disease, certain cultures such as Singapore and Japan quickly tighten their regulations as a way of avoiding contamination. Professor Gelfand found that since the 1940’s, tighter countries have indeed been more burdened by infectious disease than looser ones.
We may also find that many religious traditions have extensive and detailed probitions such as the ban on drinking alcohol as well as coffee and tea for Mormons, as a way of keeping their believers pure and healthy. Gelfand compares this belief in the Almighty with the same accountability that security cameras now often bring to public spaces. They are there to help keep us safe.
As I remember this week the unforgettable events of 11 September 2001 and tell this story to the current generation, I wonder how we may remember the Covid – 19 pandemic and how we shall tell this story now and in the future in order to help others. I strongly believe that in the case of 11 September, as admitted by then US President George W Bush, there was no indication of an iminent terrorism attack and therefore the US Government was not prepared. Similarly, this is one of the grave lessons we have learned from Covid – 19. Our lack of preparation has caused much chaos, confusion, illness and death.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh Scotland. To read more about his views concerning world events visit www.joegoldblatt.scot
As we look to a future where we may be asked what lessons we have learned from this recent disaster that was caused by disease, perhaps we should remember that over and over again, from the “Black Death” through the current pandemic the heavy price we pay for our lack of preparedness is one that may perhaps be reduced or even avoided in the future by remembering and re – telling over and over again these same stories, just as the little bird who appeared in my car reminding me that we are here and we must pay attention. Therefore, when the next catstrophe suddenly and forcefully disrupts our lives, we should remember that we too may soon be right back to where we started unless we learn from the past and use this certain knowledge to better prepare for an always uncertain future.