What did the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks mean to you? As far as I can tell, this is a question that every American is theoretically supposed to be able to answer in a touching way (i.e., not, for instance, “Well, my mutual funds were pretty adversely affected,”). On Sept. 12, 2001, indeed, everyone had something quite compelling to say. Since then, however, we have been maneuvered — and I will leave individual readers to assign blame for this themselves — into the most disgusting political atmosphere imaginable. It has come to the point where many more people, including myself, have been able to say that, well, actually, those terrorist attacks didn’t affect them much at all. Here at Yale, Sept. 11, 2001 — or more precisely, the political aftermath thereof — has affected our campus in a disheartening way. And the rift has shown itself in the most curious of places — in the observance of the day of the terrorist attacks only three years later.
To begin, we start with the Chaplain’s Office including the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies as a “sponsor” the campus vigil. This is an organization that claims to be nonpartisan — and, indeed, I cannot deny that its roster includes some Democrats, including Attila the Hun Zell Miller — while having as its president Clifford May, the former spokesman for the Republican National Committee. This is an organization whose list of core beliefs are of the type of diatribes that cause me to fear another four years of Republican control in Washington. An organization that, recently, prominently displayed on its Web site an article by May himself that, in rhetoric that could only be described as a sop to its conservative base, asked of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose Jihadist organization recently claimed responsibility for bombings in Baghdad, “Shouldn’t we do whatever is necessary to defeat him [in Iraq]?” Without dragging myself into a debate about “that war,” this is precisely the type of rhetoric President Bush used to justify an unjustifiable invasion of Iraq — and makes DDF’s claims of nonpartisanship a farce. The Chaplain’s Office is mistaken if it believes the involvement of DDF in a vigil will not further divide an already divided campus. Moreover, does it not seem the height of absurdity to suggest that a vigil needs sponsorship anyway — what’s next, golden arches at the entrance to Cross Campus for every anniversary of this tragedy?
But the absurdity didn’t end there. I hate to characterize the alternate vigil sponsored by the Yale Coalition for Peace as absurd, but, indeed, my first response at hearing that there would be a counter-vigil was, “Only at Yale.” Vigils are the embodiment of peace, no? Peace: that concept now foreign to us that entails understanding and unity. This is something I have not seen on this now-polarized campus in years. Even if we can’t explain precisely what form it takes, the tension on this campus is palpable, I think, to most of us both academically and socially. But indeed I should revise my previous statement: to find a counter-vigil in this country today, you needn’t be frolicking in a bastion of liberalism such as this one — the hijacking of Sept. 11, 2001 as a Republican cause has made the almost oxymoronic idea of a counter-vigil a necessary reality.
Every year, as our visions of the Twin Towers grow fainter (you will pardon my metaphor, but I am pretty sure fancy and heartwarming metaphors about the tragedy are required in any Sept. 11-related writing if you don’t want to get investigated by the CIA), the scope, duration and participation in the vigils on our campus dwindles. Is it really, as everyone claimed in articles printed in this paper, a question of time? I would argue it is not. It is too late to avoid the politicization of the Sept. 11 attacks, as the coordinators of the counter-vigil hope. For many Americans today, any Sept. 11-related paraphernalia — and today in America that means vigils, flags, “Support the Troops” bumper stickers — is a deterrent from all those involved. It was a bitter mistake to invite to such an apolitical event an uber-politicized group like DDF. With DDF on campus, we didn’t get a vigil — and the existence of a counter-vigil is enough to prove that.
But, more importantly, regardless of reckless administrative decision-making, why did no one attend either of these vigils? The answer lies in the deep national divide that is reflected even more strongly, if perhaps not as viciously, on a campus like Yale’s where everyone has an opinion, and a well-developed and informed one at that. I would venture that around here, only a very few people have truly made their peace with Sept. 11 — or more precisely, its aftermath. I returned to campus this fall — and these sentiments have been echoed by a number of my classmates — to find a lethargic, disheartened student body. The Sept. 11 attack seemed to have stifled us, and nowhere was this more evident than in the paltry showing at the vigils for the attacks themselves.
The light-hearted claims of “liberals this” and “conservatives that” have always been heard in these Ivy-draped walls, but never with the nastiness I see today. And while the rhetoric is there, there is also the apathy. Indeed, what are we going to do about this mess? When will we again have a real vigil, a peaceful vigil, like the ones in which we participated only three years ago? Whoever took it away from us, I think that we still have time to reclaim our peace, at least here at Yale if not nationally. I hope that we will.
Jessamyn Blau is a senior in Morse College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.