Vendulka Kubalkova is a professor at the University of Miami (UM) College of Arts and Sciences whose research and teaching interests include theory of international relations, post-Soviet studies and religion and civilizations and culture in world affairs. Kubalkova earned a Juris Doctor from Charles University in Czechoslovakia with a concentration in international law and a doctorate in international politics from Lancaster University in England. She founded the Master of Arts in International Administration program at UM and has served as assistant provost and chair of the department of international studies.
What does 911 mean to UM students?
America will stop this weekend to remember the twentieth anniversary of the tragic events of Tuesday, Sept. 11 2001, eerily abbreviated as 9/11 when 9-1-1, as we all know, is the universal American emergency phone number.
There are certain events in your life that you will not only never forget, but will remember where you were when they occurred: the first satellite Soviet Sputnik in orbit, the first person to step onto the moon, assassinations of various world leaders, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and countless other tragedies will remain stuck in the minds of those who lived through them forever. Over time, these events have become increasingly common and visible. The modern media makes once isolated regional tragedies visible wherever you are on the planet, at times faster than what the actual eyewitnesses can see. Of course, many of today’s undergraduates were not born at the time of the 9/11 attack and many graduates were too young to understand the depth of what happened. So, as somebody who has lived through many global catastrophes, what is my message to today’s students about the significance of 9/11?
I watched the events of 9/11 unfold on TV. The morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, was immediately internalized, etched into my memory. A colleague at Florida International University phoned me, urging me to turn on the TV quickly. If he had not called — if I had happened to have the TV on — I would have thought I was watching some Hollywood-produced movie. It was too surreal to be true: planes crashing into skyscrapers, which Hollywood studios could no doubt manage to engineer. However, this was a live broadcast; this was not Hollywood entertainment. Terrorist attacks are meant to be terrifying and I was terrified.
I had the same feeling of terror during another historical event at the height of the Cold War, when 500 Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks and 200,000 soldiers arrived in my hometown of Prague in the middle of the night in a perfectly executed airlift. They were real tanks, not just images on a tv screen; tanks were everywhere, making roaring noise and spewing black clouds of exhaust fumes. Horrifying as it was, as it turned out, it would be viewed historically as only a “local” event, now almost forgotten: only around 100 people were killed and others injured, compared to the 2,977 lives lost and countless wounded on 9/11.
Hundreds of thousands of Czechs left the country. I left to study abroad for several semesters in the UK and refused to work for the Czech KGB, the Soviet spy intelligence agency. I did not have the stomach to work for those who occupied my home. I became undocumented, stateless for a decade, forever in exile. But in retrospect, the Soviet massive invasion is now just a historical footnote that changed personal lives but not the course of history.
Now, the media think tanks and Americans ask for the meaning of 9/11. It was the deadliest foreign terrorist attack in the United States. The World Trade Center was a symbol of globalization and America’s economic power. The Pentagon was the symbol of the might of the U.S. military. The attack was a declaration of holy war on the United States, the opening salvo of a campaign of violence that would usher in a new historical era in an attempt to undermine the world order of nation-states designed by the “West.” Although not of the same size and scope as 9/11, terrorist attacks have become a part of daily life world wide since the fall of the World Trade Center.
In one of many scholarly pieces coming out now about 9/11, Harvard Professor Steven Walt asks how 9/11 will be judged in the long run, in 80 years, on its 100th anniversary. Epoch-making or nothing?
This is an unfair question. In all likelihood, none of us will be here in 80 years, not even the youngest undergraduates. What will the world look like as it deals with global climate change, pandemics and shifting world powers? Will the world lapse back to Thomas Hobbes’ “Bellum omnium contra omnes,” a Latin phrase meaning the catastrophic “war of all against all,” with peaceful human civilization impossible? No matter what the world looks like, it will be made up of people with various world-views.
My message to our students?
To me, 9/11 is a 9-1-1 emergency call. The University of Miami offers more than 180 majors, yet only a few focus on the dramas of the world, much less the “big picture.” And yet, the knowledge of what is happening in the world must be part of the literacy of the university-educated elites who will replace us. Most students will not study what is going on in the world as a part of their major. A significant number of our students freely admit that they learn about the world only from Twitter and Instagram. Some ignore it all together. Is that enough? What can we do about it?
There is a long tradition of entrepreneurial spirit at UM. In the early years of the Master of Arts in International Administration (MAIA), we had a successful program in conjunction with Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Influenced by the World Wildlife Fund, a global conservationist organization based in Switzerland, we began advocating that we adopt and preserve not just endangered species like chimpanzees or manatees, but our planet as a whole, also endangered. We called our project “Adopt the world: learn about it.” Rather than write usual term essays, UM students worked on teaching modules to assist teachers at schools in “adopting the world.”
Now there are more possibilities. As the world changes, so does our knowledge of it. That knowledge is not just of the U.S. or Eurocentric; it is global and it entails embracing world-views not always the same as ours. There are postcolonial perspectives we have to know about. The collaboration between UM faculty and a number of graduate students played a crucial role in creating a new section of the International Studies Association (isanet.org), the largest worldwide professional organization for international studies, with over 6,500 members. The new section covers more than just this hemisphere, it is supported in 54 countries with over 500 signatories from all over the globe. Why not create a noncredit student club, open to all students irrespective of their majors? We could connect it to and draw resources from the new Global IR Section of ISA: get group access to its website, plan joint activities with other South Florida universities already involved in the project and invite prominent members of the academic community from across the world to learn from them. We can call it (as we planned in MAIA), GLOBE UM, UM GLOBE or just “Adopt the World: Learn about it”. We would no longer need to rely on Instagram or Twitter or ignore what is happening in the world.
I see 9/11 as an emergency call to students who believe international problems aren’t their problems. Whatever career path they will pursue they will realize it. It is an emergency call to us all.