Today, we are facing war: a long war, a world war and a war in which many Americans will die. Last week, that was the fear shouted from the headlines and whispered across campus. Now, it already seems certain that it is our rallying cry.
An appalling number among us clamor for immediate bombings and insensate revenge, and two-thirds of Americans support military action at the cost of civilian life in Afghanistan or whatever country might harbor the terrorists. Our president and his cabinet seem to be soberly avoiding such rash responses, but nonetheless there is public and official talk of “ending states” and winning wars against evil.
Today, as students, we can only hope that our leaders exhibit more restraint than our populace has and the action that they choose to take is more carefully considered than our national rhetoric. But this is a war that we are going to inherit, and we students must bear that inheritance in mind.
Pearl Harbor was our first association. But what began as crude patch for the hole in our vocabulary has now been fortified into a piece of policy. Last Tuesday, we were describing how we felt; today, we are describing what we will do.
In some ways the analogy is hopeful: World War II was our great war, the enemy was clear, and it was a war we won. But calling this “Another Pearl Harbor” demands the awful question: What will be our Hiroshima?
All last week, we came together across our campus and across the country in vigils and in prayer. We tried to take a moment not to point, not to speculate and not to blame. But while we prayed and tended to our wounds, the government and the media went right along parsing the terror, assigning the blame and preparing to exact revenge.
Then Sunday night Yale came together in Battell Chapel under a different herald: A panel of six faculty members gave its thoughts on Tuesday’s events and their aftermath, and each speaker stretched in earnest to find new words and a more nuanced understanding for the world we live in now.
The question — neither asked nor answered — that informed the entire dialog was: What is our role? How do we, as a university, respond? Our parents’ jobs are simply to keep doing their jobs. So too with generals, presidents, writers and firemen. But our job as students is to prepare for the world, a world that just quaked beneath our feet. Our temptation is to find new vocabulary and assume a new position quickly, so we can get on with our lives.
But we must make a commitment to meet the challenge that always stands to the University: to ask questions and face uncertainty relentlessly, as a community of scholars and as a training ground for leaders.
Sunday’s forum was the first institutional attempt to keep us from slumping back into our routine. The next attempt and those that will follow must come from us the students. And we must always resist the urge to find a typological explanation for what happened.
It would be a mistake to assume the model for understanding this new terrorism and this new war exists out there someplace in history and that as soon as the right analogy is found, all the pieces will fall into place. This is not Vietnam, it is neither of the World Wars, and we are not in the last days of Rome. Until we accept we are not at the end of history, it will be far too easy to step backwards.
Through the smoke of anger and the wreck of fear, which surround us so completely, we are almost ready to re-enter a reality familiar to our grandparents: one at war where bombs explode, where the threat is always there and where we fight back tooth for tooth and life for innocent life.
While those responsible for the murders will be found — and probably killed — we who are not making or carrying out those decisions must bend our voices against rash military action, against war and most of all against the narrow, muddy view of the events that Americans are expected to accept.
Last Tuesday showed us a world much larger than the one we always thought to exist; now we must began to map those uncharted territories. We have lived quiet lives. We have passively accepted injustice, cruelty and the global impact of our culture and lifestyles.
We have waited for something to happen, for something to shake us out of our torpor. It has, and we must fight hard and fight now for the chance to choose what we are going to do about it.
Yale and Yale’s students must choose now, along with everyone else, whether to step forward into the beckoning, unexplored future ready to see a complexity beyond the perennial “Us and Them” and beyond the Cold War’s “Good and Evil.” From the destruction, we must build a new way to see the world with Tuesday’s wide-eyed perception and where there is more than a binary choice: war or terror, safety or freedom, horror or horror.
Otherwise, we choose to retreat into smoke, close our eyes and swing our fists and wring blood from broken glass.
Blake Wilson is a senior in Branford College. He is associate editor of The New Journal.