I wrote this column, slept and re-read it the next morning. After reflecting on the thoughts below, I think they are a necessary addition to the memorial vigil held on Cross Campus on Sunday.
I deeply respect President Levin and all the others who spoke on that night. Our president showed tremendous courage. He spoke knowing that someone (or many people) would criticize him for his remarks. For that, and his service to Yale, we owe him our respect. Nevertheless, I must disagree with the substance of his speech at the vigil.
Two nights ago, President Levin told us that all truth is relative: Nothing is definite, and all is instead “contingent” and “provisional.” Ideas are subject to continuous debate, reconsidered when new reason appears. Our core mission as a university is to tolerate all others for the very reason that we cannot know with “absolute certainty about what is right from wrong.” Any belief in “unique truth” leads to dogmatism, the root of both historical and contemporary suffering.
A generation defined by the collapse of the Twin Towers cannot, and should not, accept this interpretation of an innocent morning turned into a fateful day.
9/11 reaffirmed simple principles: Evil and Good exist, side by side. The men who hijacked planes — and murdered unsuspecting, blameless people of all backgrounds, faiths and nationalities — were Evil. No matter how much we tolerate and accept and welcome, that day was an excruciating lesson that man, at his worst, commits acts of heinous proportions. And we know, “with absolute certainty,” that those acts are Wrong.
President Levin rejected this simple truth. For him, there is only one truth: the inability for anyone to say definitively, “This is Good, this is Evil.”
A belief in truth does not automatically lead to blind dogmatism or hate. Man can walk a middle ground between no morality and a corrupt one. Tolerance of others is certainly part of true morality, but not all of it. Some people and some ideas are so wicked as to be intolerable.
How do we know truth exists? Reason cannot explain it. It lies in our hearts. We feel it; we believe it. Call the source God, spirituality or secular philosophy — the name does not matter. What does matter is that we cannot justify evil. We know, inside, in that special part we call “humanity,” that there is a difference between right and wrong.
The belief in no assured morality is itself a dangerous form of extremism. When society rejects Good and Evil, it loses its groundings, and mankind becomes something less than human. When universities reject any absolute truths, they cease to search for ultimate knowledge. Lux and Veritas is not just Veritas. We believe in more than the pursuit of facts.
Thankfully, 9/11 was not a lesson in Evil alone. The people of United Flight 93 fought back, sacrificing themselves to save others they never knew. First responders rushed into danger to pull innocents to safety, only to be entombed in the collapsing towers. This was Good. We can say it, without fear of being wrong, because our hearts tell us so.
These fundamentals are simple, but their simplicity does not make them any less true or easy to affirm. 9/11 restarted a national search for truth, beginning with a revitalized understanding of Good and Evil. In this process, our country made mistakes that we should acknowledge. But America’s imperfection does not mean she deserved little mention in Levin’s address, as sadly happened Sunday night.
America was attacked because we know there to be a right and a wrong. We know man to be free at his core, a moral conviction rooted in absolute, self-evident truth. This confidence in our beliefs leads us to value individual liberty, a liberty anathema to those terrorists who are our enemies. We do not, and cannot, tolerate those who reject these principles.
At the conclusion of the vigil, as students walked back to the library or their rooms, a group of girls softly sang the national anthem. Their song served as tribute to this country and the unchanging, absolute ideals that ground her, ideals that should also guide our studies here in New Haven.
Nathaniel Zelinsky is a junior in Davenport College.