By David Hoyt
“I have never spoken publicly about this before,” began President S. Georgia Nugent at Sunday’s 9/11 Personal Reflections discussion in Peirce Pub. “My husband, Tom Scherer, was in Tower Two … when the planes hit.”
Nugent’s story of her husband’s escape from the World Trade Center kicked off an event that featured reflections from several faculty members and students, including Professor of International Studies David Rowe, Professor of Religious Studies Vernon Schubel, Ryan Motevalli-Oliner ’12 and Tess Waggoner ’13.
For many students, Nugent’s story was the most gripping. Save a brief phone call from Scherer after he had evacuated, Nugent and her husband were out of contact for three days.
Once they reunited, Scherer provided the details. He had been in the Morgan Stanley offices on the 59th floor of the south tower, about 20 stories below where a United Airlines 767 impacted the building. While helping an ill coworker escape, Scherer “was able to take the elevator down to 33, but from there on down, it was a combination of escalator and stairs -and not very easy, trying to support a woman,” Nugent said. In the train station underneath the complex, Scherer realized he could not fight the crowd to reenter the building. “So, as the doors began to close,” Nugent continued, her voice breaking, “he stepped into the subway car. That was the last subway that left the World Trade Center. … This meant he was spared much of the trauma. He was never outside the buildings, witnessing the horror that was happening.
“But it was not quite over for us,” Nugent said. The couple’s apartment was in Greenwich Village, right across from St. Vincent’s hospital.
“This is going to be the hardest part,” she said. “St. Vincent’s was the hospital to which the wounded from Ground Zero were to be brought. But, of course, they never came. … But St. Vincent’s became the place where families came, seeking and hoping.” Nugent said she remembers a wall of posters and flyers that said things like, ‘Have you seen my brother?’ Or, the most heartbreaking: ‘Have you seen my daddy?'”
In the aftermath of the attacks, Scherer was also evacuated from a midtown Manhattan office due to an anthrax scare.
Nugent and her husband were not the only members of the Kenyon community who continued to be affected in the wake of the attacks.
Schubel (who converted to Islam in the 1990s) and his wife, Assistant Professor of History Nurten Kilic-Schubel, who also practices Islam and is from Turkey, had to choose a name for their son, born in April 2002. “We knew he was being born into a world where being a kid with a Muslim identity might be different after Sept. 11 than it was before, Schubel said. “We had to decide: do we give him … an American name, or do we give him a Muslim name because we want him to be proud of the fact that he’s connected to that 1,400 years of history and art … and we decided to do that.” Their son is named Mehmet Ali Schubel. Schubel said he has not “sensed an iota of Islamophobia from the kids he’s in school with, or from the teachers [at Wiggin Street Elementary].”
Motevalli-Oliner shared a story about how 9/11 affected his family’s patriotism. “We didn’t have any bumper stickers on our car,” he said, “but my dad knew I had an American flag … and [he said] ‘Ryan, can you give it to me?’ … So he duct tapes it to our antenna, and it was a new thing – first time we had anything on our car.”
Nugent also mentioned the sudden prevalence of American flags. In the days following the attacks, she said, “almost every car had an American flag either pasted on its windows or flying from an antenna. … I grew up in the Vietnam era, and there had not been a lot of flag-waving in this country for three decades. And despite the fact that my car was carrying a survivor of this event, I didn’t find that display of flags uplifting. I found it a little frightening. I worried about it. Patriotism can so easily shift into jingoism.”
Waggoner alluded to some of the negative after-effects of terrorist attacks in her talk. During the First Gulf War, Waggoner’s family, which is of Egyptian descent on her mother’s side, suffered harassment. Waggoner ended her reflection by reminding the audience that “it’s very important not to let fear overwhelm dignity or liberty at any point.”
Even as the attacks were happening, Schubel said he was also worried about the potential abuse of innocent Muslims by overzealous patriots. As he watched the footage of the carnage in New York, his “first thought … was: ‘Oh god, I hope it wasn’t Muslims,'” he said. Schubel said he feared a repeat of the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, when the media jumped to the conclusion that the attack (actually perpetrated by homegrown terrorist Timothy McVeigh) was the work of Muslim extremists. Muslim extremists did commit the 9/11 attacks, but Schubel’s larger fear about negative effects on innocent Muslims proved well-founded, he said, as shown by the recent controversy over placing a mosque at Ground Zero and other incidents.
Rowe provided a change in pace from the deeply personal reflections of the other participants by giving a mini-lecture on the political ramifications of 9/11. Rowe said fear is corrosive to the state and that actions caused by this fear, such as abuses of prisoners at Guantnamo Bay, have left “a stain on the American body politic.” It is also corrosive to overemphasize 9/11 as part of the American identity, as that “casts us in the role of victim,” he said. “The Supreme Court … served as the last bulwark against a creeping illiberalism that was coming into American politics,” such as the overreaching of the executive branch.
After the five scheduled participants had spoken, the floor opened to the audience. Joseph Wun ’14 shared “Leap,” an essay by Brian Doyle about “a couple [who] leaped from the south tower, hand in hand.” New Yorkers Angela Bryan-Brown ’14 and Sydney Watnick ’14 shared the perspective of those for whom the attacks hit close to home, and Tyann Jacobs ’14 shared that she “feel[s] like her whole life is defined by [9/11]” because of its effect on her Arab-American half brother.
To some degree, at least, Scherer’s experiences also continued to define his life. “For many years after 2001, Tom would take 9/11 off as a day off from work,” Nugent said. “And he would do things like kayak on the Kokosing. I think it was just, you know, to appreciate being alive.”
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