On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I had just left a television interview and was driving down Stadium Drive in Kalamazoo on my way to visit a prospective donor in my role as president of Western Michigan University. Then, I heard the news from New York City.
I quickly turned around and headed home to see Carmento. I am sure that most of us had similar thoughts on that terrible day; we wanted to make sure that those closest to us were all right. The attacks seemed senseless, random. What might happen next?
For people of my generation, the attacks on 9/11 have a place on the list of earth-shaking events, such as the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and the Challenger tragedy. We will always remember not just the event itself, but exactly when and where we heard about it.
For most of today’s college students, I would imagine that 9/11 is at the top of such a list.
Recent days have been filled with commentaries about how 9/11 and its aftermath have changed our nation. Many people were touched directly by the deaths on that day; more have been impacted by the loss of life among brave members of our military in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even those of us who have not suffered personal losses must deal with a heightened sense of insecurity in our day-to-day lives. Certainly, no one who
spends much time in airports is likely to doubt the extent that 9/11 changed our routines and expectations.
However, it is also important to remember that, in fundamental ways, 9/11 did not change what we value as a society and as a university. We were reminded again that engagement with the world around us is better than isolation; knowledge is better than ignorance; love is better than hate. We were reminded of the sometimes tenuous, but ultimately lasting, bonds that hold us together.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we were concerned about the possibility of violence against community members who shared the heritage or religion of the attackers. Fortunately, I believe there was a widespread recognition that targeting people solely because of their religion or ethnicity is a behavior that veers perilously close to that of the perpetrators of 9/11.
Today, Ground Zero has begun to heal, with towers rising and a memorial to those lost. However, the sense of unity and purpose that helped bring the nation together in the wake of the attacks has now frayed. Most recently, economic turmoil has soured the national mood and raised our anxiety level.
We as a university must remain dedicated to our basic principles. In a sometimes irrational world, we must retain our belief that knowledge and understanding will prevail.
As Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated on one of those seared-in-memory days for my generation, said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Let us move forward in that spirit.