Safwan M. Masri, EVP for Global Centers and Global Development

The morning was one of those lovely crisp days, when the exiting summer sharpens the air and the blue sky grows lighter, but I was focused on the mundane.  

As vice dean of Columbia Business School, a just-launched dual degree program had me headed “across the pond” to welcome its inaugural cohort and teach as part of our new enterprise with the London Business School. With a collection of dry cleaning in one hand and a carry-on bag in the other, I left home shortly before 9:00 with plans to drop off the cleaning, go to the office, and then proceed to the airport, not realizing that at 9:42 the FAA would ground all commercial planes bound to or flying over the United States–a first in history.  

The dry cleaner’s television was on. “Can you believe what’s happening?” she asked, her voice tremulous. I glimpsed at the screen, but didn’t register what she was asking, or why. 

I stepped outdoors and hailed a taxi. The driver barely acknowledged me. The volume on his radio filled our shared space, and as we traveled uptown, I grew increasingly alarmed at what I was hearing. A sensation of sliding backwards, pushed by the forces of acceleration, came over me; but I was actually tensely perched on the seat’s edge–leaning towards the radio, as if getting closer to the source of the words would make them cohere into something that made sense.

Once on campus, I made my way into the lobby of Uris Hall, where there, too, everyone was gathered around the news, TV screens broadcasting images none could bring themselves to believe. I turned to see the Dean, Meyer Feldberg. Catching his eye, we knew what had to happen next; we needed to provide a sense of security and comfort to our students, even while we worked to create it within ourselves. Together with my colleague Joe Miller, dean of students, we went around to every classroom to check in and reassure students as best we could. 

Sometime during this process, as the putrid sooty air snaked up and across the region, the stunning beauty and clarity of the earlier sky registered with me. It was the beginning of such discordance. How to explain the way that everything became destabilized that day? The perfect morning had become a backdrop for menace. The silence we kept together was how we suffocated the screams, the roar, the sounds of collapse. My careful attention to scheduling could not account for the way time worked that day. It refused to be strung into normal minutes. Physics is not my discipline, but Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity was proven: time passes at speeds dependent upon one’s frame of reference. The complexity and scope of the events on September 11 was vast enough to overwhelm, and demand that everything stop to accommodate a new reality. Even now, a generation later and thinking about Afghanistan, time is hard to fathom. We didn’t stop long enough, and trauma continues to be visited upon people across the globe. 

I think sometimes about how the earth carries the past within it; how geological formations and tree rings and fossils allow us to mark cataclysmic events in time. People contain these seismic moments too–dust in the lungs and cancers in the blood are reliquaries of sorts for many New Yorkers, especially the first responders. For me, the imprint of that terrible day comes down to a comment made by Joe as we travelled from classroom to classroom, noting the symbolism of a Middle Eastern Muslim comforting students in New York City on that fateful day. But in the hours, days, and weeks that followed, despite a lifelong pursuit of international cooperation, educational opportunity, and care for those less privileged, despite patriotic symbols, like a newly bought American flag for my car, I was concerned about the shift around me—and for others who looked as I do. I would be perceived, for how long I knew not, as a threat. I have to now live with this. 

The following day, students and faculty were massed on the lawn; a sea of black umbrellas under a gray and weeping sky. Meyer Feldberg led a moment of silence before we all planted a tree to pay tribute to our lost community members, in the northeast corner of the back of Low Library. Years later, Meyer would recount that he stood at the top of the stairs with his senior colleagues: “Me, a Jew from South Africa. My Senior Vice Dean, Awi Federgruen, a religious Dutch Jew. Safwan Masri, a Jordanian. And Jace Schinderman, a born and bred American. We all were and we have all remained intensely committed Americans.” At that moment, standing there together memorializing the lost alumni, we bore witness to the ties that bind us across the globe.