Tribute in Light is an art installation of searchlights placed next to the site of the World Trade Center to create two vertical columns of light in remembrance of the September 11 attacks. Originally a temporary installation, it has continued to mark each anniversary.
To observe the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Insight asked two Smith professors to consider the struggle of ideas reflected in the collective social and moral conversations that took place in the aftermath of the terrible tragedy. What follows is their examination of the legacy of ideas since then, in the cultural lens of the profoundly personal, political and philosophical.
/ Published September 9, 2011
September 11, 2001, was a beautiful Tuesday morning, the fourth day of classes of the fall semester. The gruesome news and images from Manhattan and the Pentagon were surreal and appalling, perhaps particularly so for New York natives like myself.
On September 5 of that year, as Smith’s first interim president since 1939, I had told the ebullient opening convocation about my eminent predecessor, Elizabeth Cutter Morrow. I had joked that all she had to face in the first month of that school year was the start of World War II, and I added: “We are fortunately not in a world war today. There are of course conflicts, even terrible ones, all around the globe; there is exploitation, racism, oppression of every sort, in this country and others.” Six days later, the events of 9/11 marked the beginning, not of a new world war but certainly of a new and precarious world order—or disorder. They were also the catalyst of a process of unhinging in this country. A tremor ran through the nation, and we have to this day not recovered from it.
Many of our students and alumnae are from, or live in, the New York City and Washington, D.C., areas, and some had family members killed or injured in the attacks. For me, it took a while for the enormity of the terrorist actions to sink in. At Smith, the immediate reaction to the tragedy included sorrow and anger, the latter emanating from both on and outside the campus. A senior at Smith, an international student from Pakistan, took part in a panel discussion on CNN shortly after 9/11. In response to a question from the moderator, she had said—quite correctly—that while international students were fortunate to be able to study in the United States, by the same token the U.S. was fortunate to have them here. The public response was horrifying. One irate viewer telephoned a death threat to the college. A virulent xenophobia had begun. Meanwhile, on the national scene President Bush began to fumble the overwhelming international support for our nation when he threatened, in his speech to the nation on September 20, 2001, that any country that was not “with us,” would be regarded by the United States as “against us.” Could we have foreseen that our distrust would extend to France and Germany, two of our closest allies?
On campus we were headed into a rocky year. The months that followed brought an unusual number of ugly incidents—anonymous notes, chalkings, death threats and the like—which targeted students of color and other minorities. Some of these wound up before the campus judicial board, and a particularly troubling one reached the local courts. The spirit of joy that had marked the opening convocation—and the unity in the air on the afternoon of September 11th—had soured. Although the Smith community pulled together beautifully at our unexpected second convocation in John M. Greene Hall on the afternoon of 9/11, I am convinced that that day also marked a turning point for the college. The terrible events had already put us psychologically on a course of heightened emotion that would lead to a third and perhaps even more painful all-college meeting in April 2002, when many students vented their rage at one another and the administration.
Meanwhile, nationally and internationally the year and the years to follow 9/11 were to be no less rocky and no less marked by irrational violence. Perhaps the United States had no realistic choice but to invade Afghanistan in order to rout the Taliban and al-Qaida and thus prevent follow-up attacks. But contrast what has grown into a 10-year conflict, having no clear end in sight, with the surgically precise Gulf War action by President Bush Sr. in 1991. In any case, this nation surely did have a choice about the invasion of Iraq in 2003. For whatever reasons, the Bush Jr. administration decided in the immediate aftermath of the Twin Towers to attack Saddam Hussein, however senseless that was as a response to an assault from an altogether different source. That invasion has, in my view, been a complete disaster for the U.S., costing thousands of American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives and a trillion dollars or more, causing long-term damage to the economy and forfeiting the entire raft of worldwide goodwill this country had garnered on 9/11.
What are the lessons? I think the shock of 9/11 literally unhinged us, at Smith and nationally. We lost our moral compass as well as our sense of proportion and felt justified in lashing out. A few days after the 9/11 attack, in a faculty panel discussion in Weinstein Auditorium, Michael Klare of the Five College Peace and World Security Program suggested, as a sensible response, pursuing the terrorist network as an “international criminal conspiracy” and not as a “war.” By staying within established international law and avoiding vigilantism we could have been no less effective against al-Qaida while at the same time setting an important example of how a great power can, even in the face of enormous provocation, pursue justice and not mere vengeance. This kind of view was mocked by members of the Bush administration and could never garner much popular support in an unhinged nation—so we lost an important opportunity. We are still paying for it. Will we be smarter the next time? Have we regained our balance?
John Connolly is the Sophia Smith Professor of Philosophy and director of the Smith Ethics Program. His research interests include the philosophy of mind, Wittgenstein, contemporary German philosophy, philosophical hermeneutics and issues of academic freedom and tolerance. Having recently spent more than a decade in college administration, he has returned to teaching full time. On September 11, 2001, Connolly was serving as acting president for Smith.