Amber clouds hovered over University Yard Saturday night as the GW community united to commemorate the third anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11.
Three years after students awoke to terrorists crashing planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they gathered on the Quad for a vigil organized by sophomore Stan Dai and junior Cassandra Waite. The two students, who are fellows with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan foundation that raises awareness of terrorism issues, are planning four more events this year.
Student Association President Woodard, a GW freshman at the time of the attacks, told the crowd of more than 400 students that he turned on his television to witness planes crash into the World Trade Center. Later, while on campus, he heard the thunderous noise of a Boeing 757 airliner slamming into the Pentagon.
“Some events that are so powerful, they remain with us,” said Woodard, who made the first remarks of the memorial service just after 8 p.m. “It was only three years ago, but I was right there.”
University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg spoke to candle-holding students in front of a silhouette design of the New York City skyline, including the Twin Towers and the words “9/11/2001: I remember.”
“The message I’d like you to take away is that we all need to look after each other, care and love each other a little more,” said Trachtenberg, who was at the Pentagon when it was attacked.
Sharing the perspective of the U.S. government during the attacks, Thomas J. Kuster Jr., deputy assistant secretary of defense for force planning and employment, addressed the crowd at the vigil.
“I was in the B-ring of the Pentagon when the plane hit the C-ring,” said Kuster, who was giving a briefing that day.
Kuster called terrorism an “attack on civilization” and urged students to be aware of the security threats they face.
“Any of you standing here today may be the next victim,” he said.
Nine GW alumni died in the attacks. A candle was lit in memory of each former student who perished three years ago.
Freshman Elysa Merlin said after the vigil that “the tragedy is one our generation will never forget.”
Susan Chen, a freshman, said she feels her generation is slowly forgetting about the attacks. The 400-student crowd for this year’s vigil was smaller than in previous years.
“I was expecting a bigger crowd, but it was very nice,” Chen said.
“Students seem to think the war is over, but it’s not, because terrorists still want to kill us,” said Waite, who worked with Dai, the SA and GW officials to organize the memorial service.
She added that September 11 shaped her interest in international affairs, which is her major, and also motivated her to apply for a fellowship with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Thirty-four students from 22 universities across the country participate in the program, which is open to sophomores, juniors and seniors. This year’s program began in early August with a two-week trip to Tel Aviv, Israel, to teach students about the firsthand causes and effects of terrorism.
“The type of insight we got is something you can only get from these types of people,” said Dai, who listened to lectures from experts with his peers.
Dai and Waite said they also experienced Israeli culture, visited popular tourist sites like the Wailing Wall and the Churches of St. Peter. But the experience went further than sightseeing: they said they visited Israeli military installations and participated in a live-fire training exercise with members from Israeli counterterrorist teams.
“It was interesting to see how their population behaves,” Dai said. “Almost every American knows exactly what a 12-year-old girl looks like, but every Israeli knows what a 12-year-old girl looks like when she’s been blown into pieces no bigger than a macadamia nut.”
Intense security followed the students on their trip, and Dai and Waite said they traveled on a bus protected by armed security officials. Israeli intelligence contacts also informed students of the safest times to visit sensitive areas.
“I was scared, but I still went,” Waite said.?”People were like, ‘Oh you’re going to die,’ but I felt pretty safe. We always had armed guards with us.”
Officials from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies said the fellowship is entering its third year.
“This year, we only selected 34, compared to last year’s 50,” said Gina Grandinetti, the foundation’s manager of Campus Programs. “This group is coming from the most competitive schools, the top tier in the nation.”
The fellowship students will meet once again in Washington in January for a four-day seminar focusing on the U.S. role on terrorism.