Thoughts on the events of September 11, 2001: “Beyond Words”
Remarks for the Memorial Service at Plattsburgh State University,
September 11, 2012
By Douglas R. Skopp
Colleagues, Students, Friends, it is an honor and a privilege to speak again to you today….. Eleven years ago today, we were dismayed by terror on our doorstep. Two of our alumni, Robert Sutcliffe '84 and William Erwin '92, perished alongside thousands others in the collapse of the Twin Trade towers in New York City. I knew and taught both Robert and Bill. Two remarkable, energizing young men whose loss diminishes us all. We gather here to commemorate them and all the other innocents lost that day. We honor the courage of those who rushed to their aid. And we re-dedicate ourselves to the resolve to look more deeply into our hearts and minds as we struggle to blend justice with mercy and compassion. Eleven hundred years ago, yes, eleven hundred years ago, a Japanese poet wrote,
“Is there no way to make the past the present,
To wind and unwind it like a ball of yarn?”
Today, still, much as we would like to undo what has been, to re-wind it in a way that would relieve of us of the reason for our grief, to reshape the past in a way that undoes injustice and restores what we have lost, we cannot. What is done is done. Our only hope now is to remind ourselves of what happened, and then to learn with open hearts and minds, in the hope that we will find our way toward compassion and the calm that comes with wisdom. We do this first through words, shaping our promises to those who can no longer hear them and to those of us who have the responsibility to fulfill them, and finally, most importantly, by doing what we can to show we truly have learned whatever lessons we can from the past. We all have a responsibility to do whatever we must, in order to make a future worthy of those we have lost. So, we begin this process with words.
Words may soothe, but better would be if there were no need for soothing. Words may help us heal, but better would be if there were no need for healing.
Still, words may help us recall our loss and soften our fears. Best of all, words may help us celebrate the sacrifices of those whose courage cost them—and us—so much that day that we are infinitely in their debt.
All across America today, and beyond, somber words are expressing heartfelt, sincere sympathy with the families of those who, only eleven years ago, were killed or injured in the attacks in New York and at the Pentagon and for those who heroically stopped another plane in Pennsylvania from its intended target. We express through our words our heartfelt appreciation for the courageous sacrifice of so many who rushed to aid the victims and for the courage of those who persevered in the grisly tasks of clearing the debris. We tell of our gratitude to those whose lives will never be the same because of what they saw and felt as they tried to help.
We are here today to show that WE ARE ONE with all those, everywhere, who, like us, bear the pain of eleven years ago, in that sunlit morning transformed into chaos by chaotic minds. Not for nothing was this called Terror. A synonym for merciless death. Yet, out of that tragedy came great courage and the most godlike expressions of human spirit.
So we know that we cannot be silent, that we must show the loved ones of those we have lost our deepest sympathy. We must tell those whose courage still sustains us and gives us hope of our deepest gratitude, But how can we say what truly cannot be said? Must every generation have its “hour of terror” that “comes to test the soul,” as the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, warned?
Today, in every town and city of our nation and beyond, people of good will express words of sorrow, appreciation, resolve. But we must do more.
To see what we must do, I look to the past, to my study of history. It is the mirror that reflects our present and foreshadows our future.
The past is littered with the shards of anger and the rubble of revenge. Each age has piled up its own share. The ruins of our past continue to tumble down upon us. The history of humankind—or rather, human-un-kind—shows how easily we can bloody ourselves with our own hatred, become our own enemy, our own terror. Yes, this history must be told.
This is not the whole story, however. There is another history, too, written brightly over the ages: a shining history of human compassion, creativity, love and wisdom. In it, with joy and courage, men and women everywhere, of every age and culture, of every religion and nation, every hue and inclination, across time have worked to make a future gleaming with hope. Everywhere, young hearts and minds have striven to break free of the world’s perils. They have found common strength in their willingness to do what is right and good. And this history, especially this history, must be told, too.
If we are honest, in the mirror that is our past we can see both our human-kinds. The Latin poet, Terence, tells us, “I am human and nothing human is alien to me.” The good we can do, alongside the bad. The beautiful we can create, alongside the devastation. What has born fruit. And what has dashed hope. What has benefitted and what has harmed the least, the most vulnerable among us. All this must be told.
Early in the last century, before wars he could not have imagined, Hermann Hesse, in his novel, The Glass Bead Game, wrote, "To study history means submitting to chaos and nevertheless retaining faith in order and meaning.” He cautioned, “It is a very serious task… and possibly a tragic one." Yes, all serious tasks are possibly tragic. Studying the history of those September attacks and “retaining faith in order and meaning,” is certainly serious and may be especially tragic. The immeasurably greater tragedy, however, will be in not doing it. And in not learning from it.
It is not enough to say that the terrorists were men determined to do evil, contradicting the beautiful essence of the religion they claim to have served. We must go beyond those judgments, no matter how valid. We owe it to those whose lives were lost, to those who mourn them, we owe it to all of us to ask WHY what happened, happened.
The first step in that direction is still hard. Clearing our heads, opening our minds, seeking understanding, rather than jumping to conclusions that heap and blame and plunge us toward hasty judgment—especially in the aftermath of such cruelty and calamity, seeking truth is hard. It means allowing those we understandably might despise to have their say. To do this is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. In this case, it shows our adversaries a power that defies and quite possibly un-does their cunning.
The next step is perhaps even harder. We might have to admit that we have done something, even if unintentionally or unwittingly, that fueled our enemies’ hate. In no way does that minimize their responsibility for causing such harm. Let us be absolutely clear about that. Harm done to innocents can never be acceptable. But we must come to some recognition of our adversaries’ despair. If we do not learn that, how can we ever expect to live in peace with them?
What must unite us all is our belief that we can find truth, at least some truth that captures the event we hope to understand. This belief in truth is what gives us hope. It is what sustains this College, what sustains the best in education everywhere.
Every generation has had an opportunity to become wiser, has lived through a day that could not be imagined, a day that changed how everyone saw the world. My parents’ generation, had December 7, 1941: the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked the United States Navy at Pearl Harbor, “a day that will live in infamy,” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told us. My generation witnessed several unimaginable days, beginning with November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Two years later, Malcolm X was killed. Three years after that, in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy were gunned down. Horrifying images of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago illustrated the unimaginable, brutal repression of legitimate protest and dissent. Meanwhile, increasing day by day, our televisions brought the body bags and the horror from Vietnam into our living rooms. The day President Nixon resigned, in 1974, was certainly both unimaginable and inevitable.
Now we have another day that changed our world, another unimaginable day that will live in infamy: September 11, 2001
Were the attacks unimaginable? Were we so blinded to reality that we could not see the obvious? If that is so, then we must admit that we should have done more to prevent the terror than we did. And here I don’t just mean better airport security or tighter surveillance over terrorist cells or any other responsible precautionary acts. No, I mean, should we not have seen the consequences of our policies and practices in the Middle East and elsewhere, how we had turned a blind eye to tyranny for the sake of our material “needs”? Should we not have realized the shame and the suffering these policies are linked to in the minds of those who were willing give their lives to such a diabolical cause?
The evidence tells us that we could have, we should have foreseen the danger, tried better to comprehend its source, taken more care to find ways to resolve the problems that festered – that continue to fester – until bloodshed seemed to some to be the only solution. Wisdom is being willing to benefit from experience, no matter how painful.
Our wisdom will be measured in our success in doing whatever we can—in keeping with what we know to be ethically right and just—to transform anger into understanding and trust. Our wisdom must establish an ethically just world, one in which everyone enjoys the respect and opportunities we would want for ourselves. A world in which innocents are assured of their safety and tyrants assured of condemnation. Only this way can we un-do the anger that has catapulted us closer to chaos.
Where and when must we begin this wisdom? Here. Now. Where is there a better place than a university, a place of open minds and challenging ideas, to find the wisdom necessary to create a better world? That is what teachers and learners have been trying to do ever since the ancient Greeks loved wisdom—philo-sophia, the love of wisdom—and sowed the seeds for a world guided by reason and justice. What better time is there than now? Indeed, any delay is at our own peril.
At the first anniversary of the September attacks, in 2002, here beside our College’s pond, our Gospel Choir boldly sang:
“We would be one in building for tomorrow
A nobler world than we have known today…”
THIS is what must come beyond the words of our memorial ceremonies. If this day is to have any meaning worthy of those we have lost, our deeds, like the courage of those we honor today, must show our will to find ways to heal, to reach and hold each other, all peoples without exception, with respect; to show mercy in our justice and justice in our mercy. History shows us that this is a steep and long, narrow path, one that most before us have not dared. But it is the right path for all that.
The hope for a better future is here in this College, in an education anchored by the belief in the power of reason and the necessity of respect for others. It is in the goodwill we expect toward ourselves and the realization that if we expect it for ourselves, we must earn it by our deeds. We must also realize that others expect no less for themselves, too. In compassion, mercy and justice we can meet each other as equals. “We would be one…” This is not just our nation’s calling. It is humanity’s calling. Beyond words. With humility. With compassion. And with wisdom.