Faculty reflect on how Sept. 11 changed teaching, careers

Just 36 hours after terrorists attacked the U.S., James Feldkamp sat on his balcony overlooking the Chesapeake Bay sipping a cold beer, eating a cold McDonald’s hamburger – his first meal in a day – and thinking the world would never be the same again.

As a special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Feldkamp was part of the terrorism task force responding to leads from a makeshift emergency crisis center in Norfolk, Va. With the phones ringing off the hook, the team tried to make sense of the rumors pouring in over the next year.

Their first priority was to stop another attack.

“Usually in the FBI, terrorism is kind of a unique niche because we investigate crimes. So you rob a bank, then you’ve committed a violation. We hunt you down, we prosecute you,” Feldkamp, an adjunct professor of sociology, said. “What you try to do with terrorism is you try to prevent terrorism.”

Ten years later, Feldkamp teaches a sociology of terrorism course at GW, which tasks students with thinking like a bad guy.

When the two-time Congressional candidate and Navy reserve commander crafted a syllabus from a pile of about 20 books in 2005, the Department of Homeland Security was just three years old. Since then, his class has evolved, as the field of terrorism studies expands.

“Everybody will always ask, are we safer? And that’s the question,” Feldkamp said. “I don’t know if we’re safer, but I think people are more aware.”

Theory likewise became practice for alumnus Daniel Kaniewski when he entered the White House as special assistant to the president for homeland security in 2007.

Now the assistant vice president for Homeland Security and the deputy director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at GW, Kaniewski developed an interest in the intersection of counterterrorism and first responder policy while studying the psychology of terrorism and working as a member of EMeRG as an undergraduate.

During his time at the Homeland Security Policy Institute, Kaniewski said he has been able to more deeply analyze the underlying issues that drive homeland security policy through regular meetings with senior government officials.

“For students, learning about 9/11 is imperative, because it is the history of the attacks that underpins the homeland security policies and governmental institutions that exist today,” he said. “Without a firm understanding of the history, it’s impossible to understand the reasons that such policies and institutions exist.”

Kaniewski, who was serving as a homeland security fellow to a member of Congress on 9/11, remembers walking toward the Capitol dome amid an eerie silence to deliver a previously- scheduled press conference on military readiness.

“Being in the press gallery felt like we were on the moon,” Kaniewski recalled in a speech to the GW community on the seventh anniversary of the attacks. Outside the soundproof, windowless room, the Pentagon was on fire.

Watching the events unfold on television wasn’t enough for political communication professor Sean Aday.

From his office in the Media and Public Affairs building, Aday dashed to the White House after hearing a rumor that the structure was on fire. His next stop was the National Mall, where he too could see smoke rising from the Pentagon.

The next time he held his introductory course on media in a free society, “teaching was a little odd,” Aday, who joined the University just one year before 9/11, said.

In the immediate aftermath, he restructured his class to include an extended section on journalism and wartime – a change that persists to this day.

“Before Sept. 11, I had come out of an American politics tradition in political communication research,” Aday said. “But then very quickly in 2002, 2003, my entire line of work started shifting toward media and foreign policy and war.”

Aday conducted several studies on media coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and on public opinion toward media and government post-9/11. He also created a class focused solely on media and war in 2007.

As his interest in media and international affairs intensified, Aday took his studies out of the classroom and made several trips to war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq for media and government capacity training projects.

“Professionally, it was a really exciting time,” he said. “At the same time, it was of course a double-edged sword. It was very depressing. The type of work you’re doing, you know, traveling to war zones, is hard on your family, it’s hard on you.”

Now as director of GW’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication, Aday continues to explore the legacy of 9/11 under an academic lens.

“It just seemed like we have work to do and I like to think that it was good work,” he said.

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