Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Where We Were

Many thanks to the Karoline with a K, one of my fellow BSU Campus Bloggers, for posing a very good question this week. Reacting to the news of Osama bin Laden's death, she asked her readers to recall where we were when we heard about the September 11, 2001 attacks, and where we were when we heard this week's news about bin Laden. I started to answer on the blog's comment form, but soon realized that I had much more to say, though I did not quite know what at first. Here, then, is how I remember the earlier date and how I think about this week's stunning development.

Where Were You?
(Updated May 7, 2011)

Good question -- thanks for asking. On the two dates, nearly a decade apart, I was in two locations, about 600 feet from each other. On the morning of September 11, I taught two sections of the same class, in room 208 of the Science Building at BSU (then BSC). In between, I went to my office a few feet away, and a former student -- closer to my own age -- stepped in to tell me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I thought of the plane that crashed into the Empire State Building in 1945. I tried to look it up when I went back in for my second class, and I mentioned it to my students. The internet did not work, but I did not think much of that, nor of the actual incident. Somehow near the end of that class we learned the real story and why the internet was not working. As most people in the Northeast remember, it was an incredibly clear and beautiful day, with birds singing and flowers blooming. The chaos going on a couple hundred miles from us was hard to reconcile with the tranquility around us.

I eventually learned that a student in the first section had lost an aunt -- part of a group of TJ Maxx managers who were on one of the flights. I never saw that student again, and the rest of that semester was very jumbled. I remember being glad to be done with a semester in which I thought I did not really get much teaching done.

Within a day or two, I remember attending a moving interfaith service here in Bridgewater. I also noticed that people held doors for each other and -- even in Massachusetts and Rhode Island -- people drove courteously for a couple of weeks. I also remember noticing all of the support that poured in from around the world, in part because this was not just an attack on the USA. Years later, I found murals commemorating the attack in Managua, Nicaragua of all places. The outpouring of grief was global, and it should be remembered that the majority of bin Laden's victims have been Muslim, from many countries around the world.
From my Remembrance Page
The story for May 1, 2011 is much shorter. I did not hear the news of Bin Laden's death until early Monday morning, just before 5 a.m., when I heard it from the BBC feed on WBUR. (I often know whether I've gotten up early or "slept in" by whether I'm hearing British or American accents reading the morning news.) I was relieved to hear the news, but not jubilant. I spent much of the day trying to sort out exactly why this was, aside from a general aversion to killing, because in this case I understood that this might be the best outcome, and certainly a long-awaited one.

Looking at other comments on Karoline's blog, I thought that the difference might be generational, that those of us who clearly remember the freedoms, bounty, and optimism we enjoyed up until September 10, 2001 would likely be more reflective and less ecstatic. I have no sense of bin Laden's death being some kind of "rewind" button for the last decade. Not only are all the dead still dead, and all the wounded still wounded, but our culture and our laws have changed in ways that will not be undone by this death. And even after the the last Al-Qaeda follower vanishes -- if such a thing could ever be verified -- I think those changes are still with us.

Then I started to read what some other people had to say. First, I noticed that a young friend had posted this quote:

‎"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."
- Martin Luther King Jr.

We later learned that the attribution to MLK was erroneous, but what is very interesting to me about this quote is that it circulated rapidly in the day immediately following the death of bin Laden. This tells me that the initial glee -- however understandable -- may not be quite right. And people of all ages were soon uncomfortable with it. Writing in the Boston Globe, Kevin Cullen captures this perfectly, at least from my perspective. He acknowledges the grief, the relief, the sacrifice, and the other real and valid causes of the emotional reaction many have had. He then asks his readers to think very carefully about those reactions in the context of what we have seen on the "Arab street," particularly in light of the changes in Arab youth movements of the past three months. Cullen then suggests some very positive steps we can all consider, including an opportunity to show support for the troops on the May 22 Run to Home Base.

Just as Kevin Cullen captures what I see as my generation's ambivalence, Mary Brophy Marcus, in Turning Point for Millennials, explains why college-aged people may experience the demise of Bin Laden very differently.

Finally, I found it odd -- anachronistic, really -- that the Navy used the name "Geronimo" for the operation to find bin Laden. I was reminded of playing "cowboys and Indians" in my back yard four decades ago, before many of us knew any better. The blogger Seeing Things responds cogently in his article with a title that expresses his incredulity: Geronimo? Really? as in, "They could not come up with anything better than that?" He explains how similar terms were used routinely as late as the Vietnam War (when we were using them in my neighborhood -- hmmm). The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) then issued a very compelling statement in which its leaders -- including highly decorated veterans -- explain the many ways in which this selection of code words is offensive. The NCAI is careful to be proportionate in its criticism, but also calls on President Obama and the rest of us to consider the great sacrifices that Native American citizen-soldiers have made, particularly in the past decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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