On the anniversary of 9/11, and in light of the many recent stories about completion of the 9/11 memorial for Flight 93, I was reminded about my experience in reporting research on this tragedy, when I should have probably given a warning so that members of the audience might have avoided my talk.
Of course, it is well known that Flight 93 crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, killing all onboard, and inspired much writing and even movies about the heroic efforts of those onboard to stop the hijacking. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I was struck by the reported use of wireless communications, cell phones and in-flight phones, in this disaster, as well as at all the crash sites, such as calling their families to say “goodbye”. So much was reported that I worked with a student to collect as much publicly available information as possible about the use of wireless phones at all the crash sites during the 9/11 tragedy. Our paper was published* and is available online on SSRN.
I spoke about my study at a few conferences and events in the year following 9/11, and for the first and last time in my career, I experienced individuals leaving during my talk in tears. I hadn’t appreciated the degree that discussion of the events on 9/11 would be so upsetting to individuals who had lost friends or family or had personally experienced events on that day. Perhaps academics can distance themselves from events through their studies. Study of the events was one way I felt I could respond, as an academic.
But I am reminded of those upset by my talks in the aftermath of 9/11, well before the concept of a trigger warning or safe space was a public issue. Perhaps this is a different issue, and in every case, the circumstances are often very different, but if I were to do a talk today, in an analogous situation, I would probably make an effort to warn students, who might not want to listen. I don’t think that would be coddling, but an opportunity to avoid exposing any individual to unwanted reminders of something that could be traumatizing.
*Dutton, William. H. and Nainoa, Frank (2002), ‘Say Goodbye … Let’s Roll: The Social Dynamics of Wireless Networks on September 11th’, Prometheus, 20(3): 237-45.