Call That a Vigil?
Harvard’s remembrance of 9/11 should have focused on lives lost, not politics
On the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, people across the nation stopped and put aside their weekend plans to commemorate the destruction and loss of life from the most infamous terrorist attack in recent memory. Here, however, the Harvard community seemed to use the anniversary primarily as a means of decrying post-9/11 discrimination in America and the subsequent foreign policy of the Bush administration.
Despite their good intentions, the day’s organizers seemed to conflate remembrance of the tragedy with commentary on the political aftermath of the event itself. This, in our view, was an unfortunate mistake. While the rest of our nation, and, indeed, many others across the world, united to honor the lives of those killed in New York City, Arlington, Va., and Shanksville, Pa., Harvard instead chose to use the anniversary as an opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to multiculturalism and tolerance. Regardless of these values’ obvious merits, this was neither the time nor the place to emphasize them. Rather, the anniversary of 9/11 was an opportunity to honor the memory of the dead alone, and the political statements and interpretations—no matter how much we may agree with them—only detracted from the respect that should have been afforded such remembrance. The victims were innocent individuals who deserve to be remembered as people whose lives were stolen; their memory should never be minimized in favor of emphasizing America’s alleged mistakes. We regret that the University seemed to choose the latter over the former.
A deviation away from strict remembrance and, what’s more, a politicized interpretation of the “post-9/11 world” risks making a ceremony inappropriate. As one attendee pointed out in a piece published in The New Republic, an interpretive dance performance this past weekend whose “ ‘narrator’…prefaced the next segment by telling us it would be about post-9/11, George W. Bush, Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and war crimes” set the tone for a day devoted to remembering America’s mistakes rather than America’s tragedy. By the same token, Harvard’s hours-long seminar on Islam in America and the fact that a passage from the Koran stood out as the only religious text read at the vigil suggests that organizers were above all determined to demonstrate their, and Harvard’s, own steadfast commitment to multiculturalism. Again, while this action has its place, it does not belong at the center of such a commemoration, much less does Harvard itself.
If anything, we suspect that Sunday’s vigil will have an inverse effect for many onlookers. The decision to focus so much attention on the role of Islam in the heart and minds of Harvard’s trendsetters and bureaucrats can in part only cement the association between Islam and September 11. While a separate debate has been ongoing, and should continue, about religious pluralism in America and the continuing threat of Islamic extremism, this anniversary was not an appropriate moment for Harvard to celebrate its position on this debate. The tremendous national unity that is provoked by remembrance of 9/11 exists as one of the great positives of such a commemoration. Religion naturally has a role in any ceremony that revolves around national unity, but in a pluralistic sense that involves many faiths and does not focus on one.
Of course, commentary and interpretation of how September 11 changed America in profound ways has formed an integral part of our national dialogue over the past 10 years. Overall, our reaction to the event has been more significant than the actual terrorist event itself. From the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our changing attitudes to security and civil liberties, and relations with the rest of the world—particularly the Islamic world—the aftermath of the United States’ worst terrorist atrocity has shaped our experience of the 21st Century, especially for young people. But the tenth anniversary of this scarring event, the worst we have faced since Pearl Harbor, deserves to stand alone as a moment of reflection on the trauma, carnage, and death of that day.