Tuesday’s Sept. 11 memorial service took on a political edge when history and classics professor Donald Kagan accused Iraq war opponents of being unpatriotic.
Roughly 90 members of the Yale community gathered in the Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona lecture hall to commemorate the sixth anniversary of 9/11. The choice of Kagan, a vocal conservative, to keynote the memorial generated controversy in the run-up to the anniversary.
Attendance was down compared to last year’s memorial, which drew about 150 people. In addition to Kagan’s keynote speech, the event featured the Yale Police’s presentation of colors, a performance by the a cappella group Red Hot and Blue, and comments and prayers by University Chaplain Sharon Kugler.
The keynote address centered on the importance of patriotism and national unity, and Kagan decried those who support withdrawing troops from Iraq in the near future. Referencing a lecture he gave shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, he said Americans have a “moral responsibility” to support the government.
“The war [in Iraq] is not lost,” Kagan said. “[Yet] opponents have rushed to declare America defeated.”
Kagan’s political views made him a controversial choice to keynote the Sept. 11 memorial. Eleven days before the event, the Yale College Democrats declined to co-sponsor it, as they did last year, because they saw Kagan as a polarizing figure. In order to keep the event from appearing partisan, the event organizers asked the Yale College Republicans, one of the other sponsors, to follow suit.
Sept. 11 has been designated “Patriot Day,” and Kagan opened his speech by saying he intended to focus on the concept of patriotism. Citing America’s role in World War II, the fall of the Soviet Union, the conflict in the Balkans and the removal of Saddam Hussein, Kagan painted an image of the United States as a force for freedom in the world.
“America has been a beacon of liberty to the world since its creation,” Kagan said.
As an advocate for freedom, the U.S. has earned its share of enemies, so Kagan said it has a special need for domestic unity and patriotism.
“Few countries have been subjected to as much questioning … as our own,” Kagan said, “There should be a presupposition in favor of patriotism.”
Americans who have questioned the United States’ involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are unpatriotic, Kagan said, and are undermining the country’s efforts to win the wars.
After the event, members of the group reiterated their belief that Kagan was not the right speaker for the occasion. They objected to his linking the Sept. 11 attacks with the war in Iraq, and said the memorial was not an appropriate time for political debates.
“While we respect Professor Kagan as a historian and political thinker, we feel that his comments at the memorial were inappropriate for an event of this importance,” the group said in a press release Tuesday.
In an interview, Kagan pointed out that the “Patriot Day” designation suggests that Congress wanted Sept. 11 to be a day to discuss patriotism, which he said is impossible to do without bringing in politics.
“To have joined in a kind of common regret for all the loss and pain connected with this thing is a fine thing to do,” Kagan said, “but it’s not terribly interesting compared to the other part of the story which is what about patriotism? Is it important? Is it legit? What do we mean by it?”
Luke Palder ’09 and Laura Marcus ’10, who organized the Sept. 11 memorial, said Kagan was an appropriate speaker for the event because of his service as Yale College dean in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The decision to invite Kagan as the keynote speaker came after University President Richard Levin, University Secretary Linda Lorimer and Yale College Dean Peter Salovey announced that they were unable to attend due to scheduling conflicts.
“We felt pretty clearly that since Kagan had spent time literally as the voice of Yale College as dean, he certainly could be trusted to give a speech appropriate for the occasion,” Marcus said.
Students who attended the memorial were split as to the appropriateness of Kagan’s remarks, and many were not surprised by the political overtones of the speech.
“Kagan’s keynote address was both informative and lucid,” said Brent Muller ’11, a member of the Yale College Republicans, “but his conservative bias showed though in many instances.”
Yale College Democrats member Ariela Rothstein ’10 said she found his remarks offensive in the context of a Sept. 11 memorial.
“His speech was very political and was offensive to anyone who would disagree with the foreign policy after 9/11,” Rothstein said. “And I did not think it was an appropriate tribute to those who passed away on 9/11 and to their families.”
Sander Daniels ’05 LAW ’09 praised both Kagan and Kugler, whose remarks focused on the idea of moving forward in the face of a world at war.
“I thought Kagan gave an excellent speech, and the chaplain’s talk provided a very nice complement,” he said.
The event was followed by a “9/11 Reflections” discussion and presentation in Battell Chapel, partly sponsored by the Chaplain’s Office, which drew about 80 people.