We’re new to this: commemorating catastrophe at the 10-year mark.
Before it happened, we feared garden snakes, the boogeyman and first kisses. We loved America through hot dogs and fireworks. Bad news was all foreign, like lectures about hungry kids overseas. Or it was long past, pictures in history books of Civil War soldiers with funny moustaches.
That morning we got dragged to a TV, in a living room or cafeteria. We hated what had happened and who had caused it. We didn’t know what to think.
Now we are expected to. Ten years later, we are straddling adulthood. Who is qualified to memorialize? Not us, surely. We were too young to grasp it. But then again, we came of age in its wake. We grew to know our country and our world in its shadow. Our generation does not need to be reminded to remember. It is impossible to separate that day from our politics and ourselves.
Across dining room tables, parents shouted odd words in other languages. We looked up “Iraq” and “jihad” on the Internet. We learned to pick sides and talk politics. We tried to become Americans far too soon.
Then we ended up at Yale, a university that lies within New York’s orbit and is filled with New Yorkers. It has a special place in that old, grade school America. We made its presidents, its Nobel Prize winners, its diplomats and its tycoons. We made lots of its soldiers.
Ten years later, we are young Yalies and Americans. We lack the clarity of recent grief. But to commemorate the catastrophe in our own way, to stand up for what this country and university share, we will have to change. In the immediate wake of the attacks, a new solidarity bridged this campus and the nation. But today, that unity is gone.
To most of the rest of the country, we are the ivory tower. To us, most of the rest of the country is a flyover. We have looked down on America. Instead of helping to understand or interpret, too many scholars blamed and criticized. As the country reckoned, we turned inwards. We had no ROTC and sent few soldiers. Those who died in the foreign wars were, by and large, nothing like us.
Our academics spoke mainly to one another. They would rather assail an imperial America swept into bloodlust than help heal its grief. We condescended and paid the price. Now, when Yale tries to speak of the catastrophe, much of America has no interest in listening.
We are not yet ready for 10 years. It has come too soon. There is still little we can say or do to understand what happened: we were just learning algebra.
But this campus was here. That day it felt an America it did not need to censure. It recognized a nation rising in grief and quiet heroism. Then our university and others like it turned away.
As kids, we weren’t expected to understand the bad things. But now we’re Yalies. A lot more is asked of us. And we do know a lot about the mustachioed Civil War soldiers. We even know about the wars abroad, the face of “jihad,” and the geopolitics of terror. But somehow, on this campus, we’re still just as helpless as we were in front of those TVs. Yale has set us apart — from our childhood innocence and the national experience.
When America draws itself together in mourning, we should not pull away. Ten years later, the least we can do is remember. But the best Yale can do now is even simpler. It can return and reclaim what it once felt.