The silence, itself, was the most noticeable. In the days after the attacks, there was a ban on commercial air traffic. The campus where I worked was under a well-used flight path for these planes, and for the better part of a week, we had no jumbo jet flyovers. Where I had become used to having to talk over/wait for plane noise to subside during conversations, I no longer had to do so.
My students were often silent. Silent because they didn’t know what to say. Silent because they were too distraught to say anything. Silent because they didn’t want to seem aloof or unconcerned by discussing less pertinent or more trivial matters.
Noise became an issue over time. As the initial shock of the attacks wore off, commentary from all sides – educated or not; partisan or not; relevant or not – seemed to flood the airwaves and the conversations on campus. Students at least appeared to be more engaged in activity and involved in the discussions in the halls and lobbies of my buildings. Quiet hours were stretched because of the need for students to discuss, react, de-stress, and manage their emotions after classes were over.
To me, the juxtaposition of silence and noise is important. The attacks silenced over 3,000 people in explosions and crashes that could be heard for miles and felt – literally and figuratively – around the world. They resulted in first a silence of disbelief followed by a cacophony of voices standing in unity for the victims and divided about what ought to happen as a result.
The large-scale remembrances and vigils held across the country were held in small scale on my campus. There were songs and speeches followed by periods of quiet reflection. Rallies and retreats. Noise and silence.
Even today, ten years later, I often find myself in silence trying to discern from the noise the best course of action – for me, for my family, for my country. I’ve come to believe that both silence and noise are necessary components, but it took 9/11 to help me realize it.
Matthew Pistilli is a Research Associate for Information Technology at Purdue Academic Technologies at Purdue University.