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The Indecency of Harvard’s 9/11 Commemoration

Harvard’s “Remembering 9/11” did no such thing. The events on the tenth anniversary of September 11 in Cambridge did little remembering of 9/11 and a whole lot of rehashing of the events in the post-9/11 world. Those people who did talk about 9/11 universalized it ad absurdum. Those people who talked about America’s response to 9/11, at home and abroad, spent little time memorializing the dead and a great deal of time admonishing Americans.

I arrived at Memorial Church on Harvard Yard a few moments after the Memorial Church and Lowell house bells tolled at 8:46 a.m., the time American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower. At the steps of the Church was a “Moment of Interfaith Prayer and Reflection.” There were maybe forty people there, no more, the majority of whom were not college students.

The final of the sermons charged us to be courageous. But it omitted the courage of the passengers of United Flight 93; the courage of firefighters who knew the mess they were charging into; and countless other acts of courage, big and small. The sermon also charged us to right wrongs in the world. But it omitted the wrongs committed that day. Why? I suspect it was to escape tangible confrontation with the notion of evil, or to avoid the “controversy” of being “too political”, but I don’t know.

From the steps of Memorial Church, I went to Saint Paul Parish. The Bible passage for the week was Matthew 18:21-35: “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy seven times.” Another sermon, another odd elision: The pastor talked about forgiveness while hardly mentioning the men responsible for 9/11. But how can you offer forgiveness without acknowledging why it is needed? The pastor meant to urge us to forgive Bin Laden, Atta, and KSM. But his words suggested rather that we simply forget them.

My next event was the 11 o’clock service in Memorial Church. (Not since Joe Lieberman ran for President has a Jew gone to so many Church services in one Sunday.) David Gergen, who, among other things, has served as an influential adviser to four Presidents, delivered the sermon. His remarks almost managed to avoid the actual events of 9/11, focusing almost exclusively instead on the political dynamics since that day: Iraq, Afghanistan, the Great Recession, economic inequality.

This sort of reframing is a common, but mistaken, rhetorical tactic among people who believe that America has become paralyzed by fear. Ultimately, wounds are overcome not through their avoidance, but through their frank acknowledgment. The Jewish people, for example, have re-told the story of their exodus from Egypt 4,000 years ago each year since then at the Passover Seder. Reading the Haggadah has not paralyzed them into a perpetual fear of bondage. Rather, they appreciate freedom when they do have it and they yearn for it when they do not.

From the Protestant post-9/11 event I walked directly to the Catholic-led “post-post 9/11” event in Boylston Hall titled “Interfaith Conversations on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.” What is a “post-post 9/11” world, you ask? The speaker, Samir Selmanovic, the founder and president of the Board of Manhattan Faith House summarized its ethos thus: “I want to build new histories not rehash the old ones.” He believes that “the old histories”—by this, he seemed to mean all books of all sorts, though I admit I’m not sure—is preventing interconnectedness, co-existence and a host of other trendy buzzwords. And as we all know from not reading books, historical ignorance has never proven itself to be a problem. (This was the first half of his presentation. The second half consisted mostly of his chiding Americans for our inability to “let go of America being the greatest country on earth…because it isn’t.” Which is obviously something that needed to be said on a day of mourning for 3000 dead Americans.)

The second speaker at “Interfaith Conversations” was a Muslim woman who spoke on the persecution she faced in the aftermath of 9/11 because of misunderstandings about her faith. Her story is important and ought not be overlooked. Unfortunately, it was overshadowed by the fourth speaker—the third speaker was a Zoroastrian priest—who rambled about connections between hatred of Muslim people in America and Christian support of a distant, sovereign member-state of the United Nations, Israel.

The best thing that can be said of “Interfaith Conversations on the 10th anniversary of 9/11” is that there was hardly anyone in attendance. There couldn’t have been more than 25 people there—about half of whom a policeman described as the sort of “pseudo-intellectual weirdos that populate college campuses.” It would not surprise me if one of the attendees had been the source of the five or six posters I saw around Cambridge insisted that “9-11 was an Inside Job.”

The next event was “The Art of Survival: A Tenth Anniversary Observance of 9/11 in Words, Music and Dance.” The saxophonist and four violinists who performed were undoubtedly very talented. Moreover, I was relieved to discover that the two men and two women who were on stage when I arrived were each reading testimonials to people affected by 9/11: They were actually evoking the Americans who the terrorists killed. Until, that is, the “narrator” of the event prefaced the next segment by telling us it would be about post-9/11, George W. Bush, Afghanistan, Iraq, Guatanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, war crimes, etc.

I drove back to Memorial Church in evening for the 8 pm college-wide candle light vigil. There were more students at the vigil than had been at the previous events combined. A girl spoke about her father who worked in the World Trade Center and was killed on 9/11. Students lit one another’s candle wicks almost as quickly as the wind blew them out. But even here, the focus was not on 9/11 or the events that had lead to it. It was again on our response, on the acts of violence against Muslims and Sikhs in the weeks and months following 9/11, on what speakers understood to be the media’s stereotying of Muslims. And that was it.

It’s a shame that Harvard students—many of whom were too young to be politically aware at the time of the attacks, and are palpably searching for intellectual mooring in relation to them—could have gotten a better education about the events in their hometown parks and community centers than at their own institution of higher learning, one of the most impressive in the world. If this was how Harvard chose to remember 9/11, it would have been better if they had forgotten it entirely. 

Adam Lior Hirst is a first year law student at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University. He is a 2010 graduate of Yale University.