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Repairing the Community
 

REMARKS TO THE ALL-COLLEGE MEETING

John M. Connolly, Acting President; September 11, 2001

Good afternoon. We are all numb with shock at the unprecedented attacks this morning on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and other sites. The incredible cruelty of these acts and the staggering loss of life almost defy description. Our hearts go out to all the dead, dying, and wounded, and to all their families and friends.

In the wake of such insane destructiveness it is right that we come together as a community to share our disbelief, our pain, our shock and grief. It is entirely possible that members of the Smith community have been directly affected by the events of this morning, and I ask that any such case be reported directly to my office so that we can offer the appropriate support.

Although it is our primary purpose this afternoon to demonstrate our solidarity with one another and with everyone affected by these tragedies, it is also right that we, as a community of learning, take the first, tentative steps toward understanding the events of this morning. In many of the conversations I have had today with members of the community, there was mention of two other, comparable tragedies that gripped the nation as a whole: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November of 1963, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. I realize that both events took place before many of you were born, but their importance is hard to overstate.

I find it significant that on both of those occasions All-College meetings were convened here at Smith to share the grief and attempt to come to grips with the meaning of what had transpired. I asked the College Archivist to provide me with the remarks made on those occasions by the respective presidents of the College. After the Kennedy assassination President Thomas Mendenhall spoke movingly of how since the murder "we have all lived together in the shadow of a national, indeed, a world tragedy. The first news brought a universal, instinctive reaction of incredulity and unbelief. Such monstrous senseless waste could not happen! ...the shock of [the] reality was universal, rendering us all insecure and even afraid, as when a familiar landmark is swallowed up in thick fog." Mr. Mendenhall himself hearkened back to the bombing of Pearl Harbor 22 years earlier. For at that moment too, he said: "All Americans were simultaneously and without warning made to face a reality...which differed starkly from what they had blissfully been living. Such revelations of how thin the ice and how cold the dark waters below, how easily our self-satisfaction and security can be shaken are particularly hard for an assured and fortunate people to face."

Mr. Mendenhall also pleaded with his audience to be tolerant of the different ways that people might choose to deal with the tragedy. For surely there is nothing wrong, he said, with preferring to "take a walk instead of remaining half-mesmerized before the television screen . . . Here the mass media of our time have done us a dubious favor. While they give us all front-row seats with an often macabre immediacy, their compulsive frenzy to fill up every second so numbs our sensibilities that we sit drawn together not so much out of sympathy but rather through inertia."

In 1941, right after Pearl Harbor, Smith's President Herbert Davis struck another and courageous note. At the height of the national war-frenzy he cautioned the community: "Do not beat the drums too loudly, to rouse all the old fierce primitive passions; do not let us go into [War], delighting in the gleam of the beast of prey in the eyes of the young men. Do not let us abandon all values, and lose ourselves in easy emotions of rage or hatred." How much more do those words apply to us right this minute, where we as yet have no definitive knowledge even of who the instigators of this morning's heinous deeds were. And whatever nationality or race they turn out to have been, shame on us if we take that as license to condemn or hate an entire people or race. After all, did we condemn all Americans because of the actions of one Timothy McVeigh?

Mr. Mendenhall closed his remarks by citing a passage from one of my own favorite thinkers, the great Roman Stoic philosopher and emperor, Marcus Aurelius: very wise words for us to recall at this moment of national bereavement: "Can that which has befallen you possibly prevent you from being just, lofty, temperate, discerning, circumspect, truthful, self-respecting, free, and all else in which human nature finds its full reward? Remember then henceforth in every case where you are tempted to become dejected to apply this principle -- not, 'This thing is a misfortune,' but 'To bear it bravely is good fortune.'"

And speaking of good fortune, by a lucky coincidence we have on campus with us today an alumna of the class of 1964, Sally Katzen, who spent a number of years working in the Clinton Administration, most recently as Deputy Director of the National Economic Council. She also acquired a good deal of direct experience in the administration's anti-terrorist activities. (Sally, at that time a senior, was in the audience when President Mendenhall spoke in 1963.) She is going to speak briefly, and we will also have comments from two members of our Government Department, Professor Donna Divine and Provost Susan Bourque. After that our Dean of Religious Life, Jennifer Walters, will lead us in a few moments of reflection.

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