New York University: Knowledge from Tragedy: NYU Research Post-9/11

For many NYU scholars—some of them New Yorkers who witnessed the destruction of the World Trade Center from the vantage point of our Greenwich Village campus, just two miles north—research has been an essential tool for better understanding the September 11 attacks and their aftermath. Over the past two decades, numerous faculty have studied 9/11’s impact on our physical and mental health; examined how to improve our nation’s security and preparedness; evaluated New York City’s infrastructure and resilience; analyzed the legal and policy consequences of the attacks; and captured painful and inspiring stories through art.

On the occasion of this anniversary, NYU News gathered a small sampling of projects that show how our researchers in diverse fields—whose efforts may carry personal as well as professional significance—rose to the occasion to generate knowledge and contribute to New York City’s recovery.

The psychological impact of the attacks

Research by Silver’s Carol Tosone explored how the World Trade Center attacks affected the practice of therapists. After surveying Manhattan clinicians, she described the construct of shared trauma, which involves the dual impact of trauma on clinicians exposed both through their personal experiences and their work with survivors.
Steinhardt researchers Beth Weitzman and Tod Mijanovich conducted a nationwide survey of youth and their parents before and after September 11 to examine psychological distress among American youth related to the attacks. They found that young people experienced more emotional distress after 9/11, and that those exposed to physical threats at school were especially vulnerable to the psychological effects of disasters.
A special issue of the journal Traumatology, published in 2011, focused on reflections of NYU faculty, students, and administrators who were at the university on September 11. The articles offer insights into what the campus community experienced, as well as professional analyses on the impact of the event.
Steinhardt art therapist Marygrace Berberian developed and facilitated a curriculum for post-9/11 recovery for children. The intervention culminated in a large installation of artwork across from Ground Zero, including self-portraits of more than 3,100 children from around the world.

Health and dangerous exposures

Research on 9/11 firefighters and EMS workers led by Anna Nolan and her team at the Grossman School of Medicine identified 30 chemical compounds that may help protect these first responders from losing lung function. These so-called metabolites are made when the body breaks down fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, and include protein-building amino acids and mega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish and olive oil. The findings suggest that drugs, dietary changes, and regular exercise can protect people exposed to toxic chemicals created by fire and smoke.
An investigation by Leonardo Trasande and his team at the Grossman School of Medicine found that children living near the World Trade Center who likely breathed in toxic dust have elevated levels of artery-hardening fats in their blood, an early indicator of future heart disease. The study, which analyzed blood tests from over 300 kids, is the first to identify long-term cardiovascular health risks in children from toxic chemical exposure on 9/11, but offers hope that early intervention like diet and exercise can alleviate some of the health risks.
Research involving the School of Global Public Health’s Jack Caravanos examined lead and other environmental toxins in New York City following the attacks. One study found only low levels of lead in dust in lower Manhattan, likely due to the extensive cleanup of the area, but also identified several “hot spots” of environmental lead elsewhere, including one in Staten Island that may have been connected to debris from the World Trade Center.
A study led by the College of Dentistry’s Karen Raphael evaluated more than 1,300 women in the New York metro area both before and after the attacks to see whether symptoms consistent with fibromyalgia—a disorder marked by widespread pain—increased. She found that rates of fibromyalgia-like pain did not grow significantly after the attacks regardless of direct exposure to events, nor did prior depression predict the onset of this pain, suggesting that exposure to major stressors or prior depression are unlikely to be major factors in the development of fibromyalgia.

Skyscrapers, infrastructure, and downtown Manhattan’s recovery

The World Trade Center Evacuation Study, led by the School of Global Public Health’s Robyn Gershon, examined factors that helped people to quickly and safely exit the towers during the attacks. The study found that evacuees with lower levels of preparedness were more likely to report fear of working in tall buildings, stress, anxiety, and flashbacks compared to evacuees who had more emergency training. The findings helped lead to the first changes in New York City’s high-rise fire safety codes in more than 30 years.
The ability to rapidly restore transportation, power, water, and environmental services is critical after a disaster. This became the focus of work by Wagner’s Rae Zimmerman, who evaluated New York City’s infrastructure and user needs before, during, and after September 11. Her research found that the capability of service providers to respond to needs for transportation, energy, communication, water, sanitation, and waste removal after the attacks was influenced by the flexibility of the initial infrastructure design and existing functions to respond to normal system disruptions and to other extreme events.
A 2015 report by the Rudin Center found that the rebuilding of the World Trade Center will generate an enormous economic return for the Port Authority and the New York region.
Preparing for future threats

In 2002, NYU established the Center for Catastrophe Preparedness and Response with funding from Congress. The university-wide center, focused on improving the nation’s preparedness and response capabilities to terrorist threats and catastrophic events, coordinated and disseminated research and generated policy recommendations related to homeland security. Resulting research included reports on facial recognition technology, modeling to help hospitals prepare for disasters, and emergency medical services as the “forgotten first responder.”
Soon after 9/11, the U.S. was faced with the potential for biological and chemical attacks, an area of focus for several researchers who are now part of the Tandon School of Engineering. Kalle Levon worked on the environmental detection of bioagents using funds from the Department of Defense and DARPA; Vikram Kapila conceived of a wireless sensor network to connect hazard-detecting sensors in New York’s subway stations; and Kurt Becker conducted research on the inactivation of biological and chemical agents, such as anthrax, as well as on sensing and quantifying trace concentrations of explosives.
Since many experts believed the next terrorist attack would be online, 9/11 was the impetus behind the creation of the Offensive Security, Incident Response, and Internet Security (OSIRIS) Lab, part of Tandon’s Center for Cybersecurity and led by Nasir Memon. Memon spearheaded a partnership with NYC Cyber Command, which leads the city’s cyber defense efforts, to run cybersecurity simulations to practice protecting the city’s systems from malicious attacks.

Law and policy post-9/11

The Reiss Center on Law and Security at the School of Law focuses on contemporary questions in the field of national security, including many that have arisen in the context of the “Forever War” that stemmed from September 11 and the evolution of power and legal authorities in the executive branch. In 2020, the Center published the War Powers Resolution Reporting Project, the first publicly accessible, searchable database analyzing the contents of more than 100 reports submitted by presidents to Congress, providing insights into the balance of powers between the branches with respect to how U.S. armed forces are used abroad.
The Reiss Center on Law and Security also created a Terrorist Trial Report Card, a database that tracked the cases against alleged terrorists since 9/11, detailing the charges, convictions, plea bargains, and sentencing for federal terrorism prosecutions. In addition to the data collected in each of the 11 iterations of the report, released from 2005 to 2011, the Terrorist Trial Report Card included analyses of the effectiveness of the “War on Terror” and the evolution in the Department of Justice’s prosecution of these crimes.
The NYU Review of Law and Security, founded by the Reiss Center, published articles, updates on the Terrorist Trial Report Card, and transcript excerpts from major dialogues convened by the Center. Each issue centered on a timely topic in national security and counterterrorism, ranging from Al-Qaeda to the legal questions surrounding Guantanamo and the challenges of prosecuting terrorism.
In The Matador’s Cape: America’s Reckless Response to Terror (Cambridge University Press, 2009), Law Professor Stephen Holmes explored the causes of the “catastrophic turn” in American policy at home and abroad since 9/11. Holmes detailed Washington’s inability to bring “the enemy” into focus since 9/11, describing the ideological, bureaucratic, electoral, and emotional forces that distorted the American understanding of, and response to, the terrorist threat.
Politics Professor Bernard Manin examined the history of emergency powers going all the way back to Rome—and argued that constitutional democracies should not use these measures to deal with terrorism. In an essay, he suggested that emergency powers only work well when implemented as temporary measures to deal with temporary threats, but with terrorism as a long-term problem, a different response was called for.
American culture after the attacks

NYU Abu Dhabi sociologist John O’Brien spent over three years conducting ethnographic fieldwork with a group of young Muslim teenagers coming of age in post-9/11 America. His book, Keeping It Halal: The Everyday Lives of Muslim American Teenage Boys (Princeton University Press, 2017), illustrated how the teens faced anti-Muslim discrimination, but much of their lives centered around “normal” teenage problems, like music and dating.
In a new book, Terrorism in American Memory: Memorials, Museums, and Architecture in the Post-9/11 Era (NYU Press, 2022), Steinhardt’s Marika Sturken writes that the terrorist attacks were the primary force shaping U.S. politics and culture in the post-9/11 era. Her earlier book, Tourists of History (Duke University Press, 2007), argued that Americans have responded to the national trauma of September 11 through consumerism and kitsch, and explored the contentious debates about memorials and celebrity-architect designed buildings at Ground Zero.
In “On The Actuarial Gaze: From 9/11 to Abu Ghraib,” Steinhardt’s Allen Feldman considers the larger impact of circulated images. His analysis of pictures and video stemming from 9/11 illuminates the visual structure of catastrophes.
In Tolerance and Risk: How U.S. Liberalism Racializes Muslims (University of Minnesota Press, 2021), Liberal Studies’ Mitra Rastegar examines representations of Muslims in the media and writes that sympathetic representations cast Muslims as as a population with distinct characteristics, capacities, and risks.

Catalyzing creative expression

In 110 Stories: New York Writes after September 11 (NYU Press, 2002), Ulrich Baer gathered a range of voices that convey the shock and loss suffered in September 2001. The lineup of 110 renowned and emerging writers captured the shape and texture of a city in crisis, and what its inhabitants absorbed in the aftermath of a few unforgettable hours.
Distinguished Writer-in-Residence Jonathan Safran Foer penned the novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), which centers on a nine-year-old boy whose father died in 1 World Trade Center. The book—which was later made into a film—was among several that formed a new genre of writing shaped by the attacks.
Covering Catastrophe: Broadcast Journalists Report September 11 (Bonus Books, 2002), co-edited by journalism professor Mitchell Stephens, is an oral history of the events of that day in the words of more than 130 television and radio journalists, ranging from network anchors to local reporters from Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
The 9/11 attacks inspired the composition of many artistic works, including a poem by Creative Writing’s Deborah Landau entitled “Manhattan Fragments 2001-2002” and a musical composition by Steinhardt’s Faye-Ellen Silverman named “Reconstructed Music” (2002), which she began writing three days after the attacks.

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