Louis W. Leonini, class of 2005, was on campus twenty years ago as the events of September 11, 2001, unfolded. The account below is what Binghamton’s campus felt like to him before, during, and after the attacks of that day, and his reflection on it after twenty years. The names used in the article are fictional to protect the privacy of those involved.
Last day of innocence:
Oneida Hall, Monday, September 10th, 2001. High of 72, morning wind gusts created a crisp Binghamton morning. Slight precipitation around noon, some sun in the afternoon, but mostly Binghamton overcast. It was better weather than expected, and we were warned by the upperclassmen not to get used to it. The forecast for the next few days looked promising, so we didn’t have to break out the sweatpants and down jackets just yet, but boy did we have to adjust to the overcast. The weather put many of us in a depressed mood sometimes in and of itself, but the real struggle was getting used to the pressures and challenges of everyday college and dorm life. I hadn’t even been in the dorms for a month and was still adjusting to life with two roommates, learning the boundaries and rules that would keep us civil. We got along well enough, but we were very different people. Johnny was a fellow Staten Islander with whom I had gone to high school. We weren’t friends then but became closer when we both knew we would be attending college in Binghamton. We requested each other as roommates and were gifted with the company of Liam, a guitar player who liked Slipknot and Korn. Johnny and I were more Wu-Tang and Mobb Deep, with some Top 40 nonsense tracks from Mary J. Blige, Mya, Ja Rule, and Jennifer Lopez thrown in for the benefit of the ladies when they were around. We cringed at them, but we played them anyway. We agreed on one thing: System of a Down was good. Their song “Suicide” topped the charts, so we listened to it on Liam’s speaker.
Rebecca, the woman who would eventually introduce me to my college sweetheart, stopped by and sat on my bed. This became a daily occurrence. I was the only one on the floor who made my bed, so it became the floor’s bench. We were on a woman’s floor, so while we had to go up and down the steps every time we needed to use the showers, the benefit was that we somehow became the room everyone liked to hang out in. Rebecca, Christine, and others at various times would come in just to “visit the boys.” Rebecca was a regular from day one. She was from New Jersey, so she gravitated to us Staten Island folk because she had less in common with the upstaters on the floor. She was extroverted, and we were instant friends. She asked if we watched The Agency (a show about the CIA, funny enough) and if we knew anyone who was going to Walmart. She had just gotten her New Jersey fake ID and wanted to buy everyone beer. Mike stopped by and gave us the surprise news that he had his car that week and that he parked off-campus. It was a hike to get to Bunn Hill Road, but the promise of beer at the end motivated us. While at Walmart, I picked up some coffee because I hated the cafeteria coffee so much. Boy, did I get teased about that one.
The car ride back was us debating whether to drink in the neighboring suite. I texted Christine and asked what she was doing. She was saving herself for Tuesday, since Icehouse was doing 25-cent draughts, and in any case, we all knew we would wind up at Uncle Tony’s for Wednesday mug night. We kept it classy and only had a couple of beers. It was Monday after all, and we had morning classes. Liam smoked in the nature preserve. Johnny and I ordered pizza and set our alarms. Rebecca tried to give me advice on how to get out of the friend zone with Christine. Johnny tried to hint that he wanted to get to bed. Liam came back and played guitar for everyone. We went to bed, finally. I remember feeling anxious. I was not very good at dorm life, and classes were hard. My heart raced, but I remembered thinking about something Nana used to tell me: “You’re as good as any, and you’re better than most.” I was shy, so she used to hype me up by saying things like that. “I’ll get through this”, I thought. I slipped into sleep early on Tuesday morning.
The day it happened:
Oneida Hall, Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. It was 9:30 am, 62 degrees and sunny, and Johnny’s first alarm went off. We had the same class that morning, so we agreed my alarm would always be two minutes after his to help us remove any excuses to sleep more. Johnny eventually gets up and puts on cable news. I hated cable news, but Johnny liked to know what was going on. In general, political discussions on campus were limited to campus publications, opinionated professors who simply couldn’t help rambling on about their beliefs, and the few students who studied Political Science, or maybe History. Johnny and I found history and politics interesting, but even for us, those topics didn’t dominate most of our discussions. Whenever our discussions got political, the topic was generally whether or not Michael Bloomberg could pull off an upset win in the New York City mayoral race, or whether George Bush was good or bad for Israel. Generally, however, the topics were about women we were attracted to, classes we needed to take, the fate of New York sports teams, and discussions about a video of Aaliyah dancing right before she died in a plane crash that was making its way across the internet.
I was not actually listening to the news. I had become very good at tuning it out so I could focus on getting ready. I’d use the shower first, I thought, then come back down.
“Fuck!” Johnny said.
“What?” I said.
“A plane just hit the Pentagon! Dude!! A plane crashed into one of the Twin Towers! We are under attack!”
Rebecca walks in. “Guys! Are you fucking watching this shit?”
“Yes,” we all said in unison.
Johnny was visibly angry. I went from stunned to anxious, then exceptionally angry. The towers fall. I’m livid.
Hours go by as we are locked into watching the news. Marni comes into the room. She thinks it’s Muslim terrorists. Something called Al Qaeda. “Who?” we wondered. She tried to explain, but our eyes were locked on the screen. So many people dead. Why? Who would want this?
Johnny looks out of the window, then promptly closes the shades.
“Lou, whatever you do, don’t look outside.”
“There’s a bunch of people outside with signs.”
“Protestors? They’re protesting that we got attacked?”
I looked outside and saw protest signs and one woman stomping on an American flag. At first, I couldn’t process their reaction. Did they not see the news? Was I misinterpreting their reactions? I turned red with rage. Johnny gave me a beer and told me to sit down. He joked not to enlist just yet, since we didn’t know who we had to kill. I realized going outside and engaging in any conversation with the protestors would not end well for anybody. I gulped my beer, and sat down, not saying a word.
It occurred to me that a family friend worked near the towers. I tried calling. Cell phone service was down, texts weren’t going through, and even if they did, I didn’t have his cell phone number. I wound up getting through to his house line, and he was okay. His building had been evacuated after the first plane hit. I don’t know why, but I called my parents and told them I was okay. The day was anxious; I think I just wanted to let them know I wasn’t in NYC for any surprise reason. I don’t know. I think I just wanted to hear their voices and make sure they didn’t go into the city that day.
Classes were suspended. BU’s President announced that the administration had told all its departments to be understanding of any circumstances that would require us to miss class in the near future. Grief counseling would be available for free, and all essential services would remain open despite classes not being in session for the time being.
Eventually, it was dinner time. We were out of beer since we didn’t know what else to do to calm our nerves, and we have no idea how to process what has happened. President Bush, whose whereabouts were not shared for security reasons, got the word out that he would be addressing the nation. I don’t remember if they had confirmed that it would be from the White House or not, but I wanted it to be. I thought “Fuck these motherfuckers. Show them we don’t back down!” An address from the White House would indicate, at least to me, that we were going to punch back. Johnny agreed. So did Rebecca, Christine, and Liam.
It was 8:30 pm. Our TV was blasting. Somehow, all the women on the floor fit into our room, one by one. They watched the screen. Someone said something. Johnny screamed out “SHH! Your President is about to speak!” And speak he did:
“Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve, and the search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts…we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”
CNN then reported word that it was Al Qaeda.
“Fuckers,” said Marni, as her suspicions were confirmed.
“Oh no, we are going to war. What do you guys think?” said one of the women.
“You know what I think?” Liam said … and he then blasted Drowning Pool’s song “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor.”
I remember it feeling oddly good. It’s revenge time, I thought. Best to serve it cold. And that song was cold.
Things were very weird at first. System of a Down was not being played anymore on the radio. The world seemed to stop. Everything was news, and everything seemed very careful. The country was in shock, so the networks were offering up milquetoast content not to rock the boat. Things would eventually return to normal, but the initial shock did not wear off for some time. Stories of fathers and mothers that died in the attacks trickled through. Some students left school never to come back. Others dropped out to enlist in the armed services.
While the campus press was liberal even back then, the student body itself wasn’t as polarized as it is now, at least not initially. Feelings were nuanced in those first few months, and the campus even saw some unity for a brief period of time. There was a vote in the Student Assembly to display the American flag during all meetings that passed almost unanimously. While most people seemed okay with smoking terrorists out of their caves, opinions were split on the occupation of Afghanistan. Soon, however, emotions were ramping up, and discussions became difficult, with civil debate almost impossible. And if that wasn’t bad enough, I was also on campus for the buildup to the Iraq War in 2003. That was the final nail in the coffin, campus atmosphere-wise. You just couldn’t have a civil discussion anymore. I continued to write for Binghamton Review, becoming Editor-in-Chief in 2004. I would generally avoid war topics, however.
While we fit in plenty of time for fun in the coming weeks, months, and years after the events of that fateful morning, we often would hear that the world had changed. We didn’t feel it right away, but in retrospect, it did. The war drums were being beaten, and divisions seemed starker and took on more emotion. It was becoming increasingly hard to keep friendships across partisan lines. Arguments would descend into name-calling. Disagreements in class bled into your social life. How you felt about political issues determined whether or not many people would interact with you. I suppose I am not innocent in this respect. It’s fair to say that September 11th is when I came into my own politically. I don’t think I will ever forget any minute detail of that day. The faces of those protestors I saw on that day were seared into my memory, and I remember being on the opposite side of just about every issue as they were for the remainder of my time in Binghamton. My face is probably seared into theirs as well, given the intensity of our disagreements.
Johnny and I stayed friends, while my relationship with Liam became strained later on. Rebecca and I saw a lot of each other and continued to hang out because she ultimately introduced me to my college girlfriend, who had to endure dating the editor of the only “pro-war” publication at the time. Christine taught me how to appreciate wine, and then became preoccupied with her new boyfriend, so our time was limited to the occasional lunch. All of us would often remember that day together, and over time realized that we would never really be able to forget each other or what had happened. Our parents remembered where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated. We would remember 9/11.
If any of this language about stark differences, emotion, and a toxic campus climate sound familiar, it’s probably because you are living it in an even worse way. I have seen reports from Binghamton indicating that what I went through in that regard pales in comparison to the current campus atmosphere.
I have had the benefit of watching events unfold over the last twenty years since 9/11. What I can tell you is this: Nobody today has the same opinions or perspectives they did 20 years ago. With new information comes new understanding. None of my friends who wrote for this paper and supported the Iraq War still support it. Ditto for Afghanistan. While all of us disapprove of the way we exited Afghanistan, we also are relieved we left. Whatever the merits of the war in the first few years, it became increasingly untenable to keep fighting there. We couldn’t predict how this would unfold twenty years ago, but we let our college lives, our friendships, and our dating lives be dominated by it. It was a mistake.
I’m not saying to ignore the news or not to engage in debates, but like with any poison, it is about the dosage. Here is my warning: Tone it down. You are in college. Learn. Analyze. Let loose, even. Take in different perspectives, and listen to people. Just because someone only agrees with you 50 percent of the time does not make that person 50 percent your enemy. In twenty years, you may agree all the time, or you might convince someone of your position with thought and care, without descending into hyperbole and name-calling.
Heightened emotions over a long period of time cause anxiety for yourself and others. It’s harmful and detrimental to everyone’s health. Turn down the temperature. The fact is, you don’t have control over events and ideas like you think you do. And I promise you, if you keep yelling, screaming, and canceling people, you are causing irreparable harm to yourself and others.
You’ll regret it 20 years from now, I guarantee you that.
You’ve been warned. God bless, and take care.
CORRECTIONS: September 13, 2021
An earlier version of this article incorrectly changed the tense of “went” to “goes” in reference to Johnny’s alarm clock.
An earlier article incorrectly changed the phrase “you know” to the name “Yano.”
An earlier article erroneously cut the phrase “Best to serve it cold. And that song was cold.”
Image Credit: Anthony Quintano, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons