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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Talking about Terrorism

November-December 2001

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, Harvard took the steps one would expect of a community of conversation, thought, and learning. The professional schools, already open for the year, decided independently whether to continue or alter registration and classes. Pedestrian gates to Harvard Yard remained open, but those wide enough to admit vehicles were locked; University police were present in force.

The next morning, on schedule, the College began the first day of classes. In the initial lecture for "Poems, Poets, Poetry," Porter University Professor Helen Vendler noted that she had not anticipated how suita-ble an elegy (Herman Melville's "Monody") would prove to be when she originally chose it for class use. As the week progressed, there were memorial services and discussion groups--and news reports about the two $1-million endowments given in the early 1990s by members of the bin Laden family business of Saudi Arabia to support fellowships at the law and design schools. The Harvard Alumni Association established a special electronic bulletin board to help alumni communicate with one another in the face of personal tragedies (http://myharvardalumni.harvard.edu/sept11); by week's end, several thousand e-mailed messages had been recorded at this electronic commons.

Longer-term adjustments soon appeared. Students attending class in especially sensitive venues, like Norton Lecture Hall beneath the Fogg Art Museum, had to show identification first. The security detail at Widener Library's entrance was doubled. In a message to the community on September 19, President Lawrence H. Summers urged "a spirit of tolerance" and announced that Harvard would contribute $1 million toward a scholarship fund for the children and spouses of victims of the attacks. The need-based scholarships will support study at any American college or university, and might well, Summers suggested, be supplemented by other institutions and donors. Two days later, at the hour of the first assault on the World Trade Center, Summers spoke at morning prayers in Memorial Church held in the main sanctuary, rather than in the customary but smaller Appleton Chapel. He cited the University's "special responsibility" to "uphold civility and reason." To those asking what he called important questions--"Does it matter if I do my calculus homework," or "go to field hockey practice," or "carry on with my work of managing accounts or teaching my small class"--he said that it "matters more than it ever did before," citing the academy's central tasks of "learning and teaching, thinking and discussing."

Inevitably, faculty experts were sought out to join the wider society's discussion--for help in understanding terrorism and responses to it. And in unplanned remarks, students heard from their teachers some perspectives on the challenges individuals and the nation faced. Excerpts follow.

 

Where was God? God was present, in the midst of things, but not the architect of evil. God is the architect of a universe where evil can be done, purposely and consciously and explicitly. We don't want to have any doubts that God's abiding presence is with us, but we don't want to confuse God with the evil that is done. And we ought to have as clear a conception as we can of moral accountability, and not spread the responsibility indiscriminately over whole groups of people and whole religious traditions.

This doesn't shake my faith, but it assaults my sense of human solidarity. It assaults my sense of what kind of moral order ought to exist among people. And it sharpens the sense of how large a challenge it is to provide both political and moral order in a highly interdependent global system.

Father J. Bryan Hehir, chairman of the executive committee, Harvard Divinity School, Boston Globe, September 15

 

The attacks on the World Trade Center signaled a greatly increased level of danger and are likely to trigger public demands that will occupy our politicians for some time.

Our elected leaders must thus find a set of actions that addresses both the reality of danger to life and property and the reality of deep citizen fear and anger.

The wisest actions don't confuse dealing with the danger and dealing with the anger.

In other words, our elected leaders must be careful in the trade-offs they make among the following goals: reducing the danger; respecting the demand to address citizen fear and anger; maintaining the democratic joys of freedom and privacy; reasserting our power and the power of our alliances in the world; and keeping the benefits of international cooperation and law. Maintaining such a balance would be quite a challenge even if it didn't have to be done in an atmosphere that terrorists have confused and inflamed.

President Bush emphasized that we would find, catch, and punish the perpetrators and their supporters and hosts. That helps with anxiety and anger. It also emphasizes the immorality of the actions--an important step.

However, unless suicide bombers are in short supply or are deterrable (two unlikely conditions), that prescription doesn't deal with the new level of danger and its effects on our self-confidence. Only more effective prevention, enlightened by what we learn from this investigation, can reduce the dangers and thereby maintain our national self-confidence over time.

Philip B. Heymann, Ames professor of law and author of Terrorism in America: A Common-sense Strategy for a Democratic Society, in the Boston Globe, September 15

 

When seeking to deter, compel, or appease their adversaries, smart leaders first learn about their enemies' desires and fears. It is not clear that quick retaliation is what suicide bombers fear most. We cannot punish the perpetrators; they are already dead. And the organizers of these attacks obviously care more about taking revenge on us than they do about their own security. Osama bin Laden, for example, is reported to have said on Tuesday that he is ready to die, and that if the U.S. military manages to kill him, hundreds more "Osamas" will take his place.

I have met with some of these "Osamas." They appear in many countries and subscribe to many religions. They are usually drawn to extremist movements out of a feeling of severe deprivation--whether socioeconomic, political, or psychological. Inside extremist groups, the spiritually perplexed learn to focus on action. The weak become strong. The selfish become altruists, ready to make the ultimate sacrifice of their lives in the belief that their deaths will serve the public good....

[F]orce is not nearly enough. We need to drain the swamps where these young men thrive. We can no longer afford to allow states to fail. Afghanistan's humanitarian and refugee crisis, which profoundly affects Pakistan as well, has become a national security threat to the entire world. We have a stake in the welfare of other peoples and need to devote a much higher priority to health, education, and economic development, or new Osamas will continue to arise.

It matters what other people think of us. We need to think much more seriously than we have about whether we are perceived by people in other parts of the world as malevolent or benevolent. Being feared for our military strength alone is not sufficient to guarantee our security.

Jessica Stern, lecturer in public policy, Kennedy School of Government, and author of The Ultimate Terrorists, in the Washington Post, September 15

 

Some Americans may be tempted to believe that we could reduce these hatreds and our vulnerability if we would withdraw our troops, curtail our alliances, and follow a more isolationist foreign policy. But they would be mistaken. Fundamentalist groups would still resent the power of the American economy and culture. American corporations and citizens represent global capitalism, which is still anathema to them. It would make no sense to give such groups free rein in their regions while at the same time abandoning our allies.

Moreover, American popular culture has a global reach regardless of what we do.... [T]here is no escaping the influence of Hollywood, Harvard, and CNN. In general, our culture has a positive effect.... American movies and television programs express freedom, individualism, and change (as well as sex and violence). American higher education attracts half a million students from around the world every year....

Individualism and liberties are attractive to many people, but repulsive to some fundamentalists....

Others are repelled by American feminism and the changing role of women. Open sexuality and individual choices are profoundly subversive of staunchly patriarchal societies. Indeed, for some conservatives the term "great Satan" refers less to our Fifth Fleet than to MTV.

In short, some people will hate us because of our values of openness and opportunity for change. But they are not likely to become a majority unless we ourselves fail to practice and live up to our values.

Joseph S. Nye, dean, Kennedy School of Government, Boston Globe, September 16

 

From a legal perspective, the difference between calling what has happened war and calling it terrorism is considerable. It is the difference between military conflict and criminal justice (of the sort meted out just months ago on the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993). It is the difference between bombing a state and punishing an individual or several individuals. And it should mean the difference between acting together with other nations or going it alone....

Using force also means subjecting ourselves to the laws of war, to the strictures in the Geneva Conventions that are enshrined in our own military code of justice. That requires us to fight soldiers rather than civilians. We must harm those who have harmed us, and do so as directly as possible. The terrorists may not wear uniforms or represent a state, but their coordinated planning and militaristic actions lend them the status of soldiers.

These legal constraints are not designed to enshrine some utopian ideal. They make sound political sense. America has been singled out for harm, but fighting this evil effectively will require collective action and cooperation at many levels of government, from law enforcement to intelligence gathering to military support. And fighting consistently with the laws of war will ensure that we do not inflict indiscriminate terror in our turn....

Rhetoric about "ending states" flies in the face of the international legal system. We should instead be affirming the values that make us strong. Our response must be as carefully crafted as the terrorists' attack.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, Armstrong professor of international, foreign, and comparative law, Washington Post, September 16

 

We are beginning the academic year, and its ordinary routine of going to classes and hearing lectures, at an extraordinary moment. Before we jump into the normal business of teaching and learning, I had a couple of thoughts I wanted to share with you. The first is for the short term, how we all act in this community over the next few days. The other is more for the long term.

The level of the devastation and death resulting from Tuesday's tragedy is so great that, in a class this size, there is almost certainly someone who has lost a relative or friend. There are probably students here who today simply do not know what has become of people they know and love. In my own office there are two people who have a close friend or relative who is a New York City firefighter. Both firefighters were unaccounted for when I last heard. I would never have guessed that these people were close to New York City firefighters.

So I hope you'll try to remember that you have no idea what the people you will encounter over the next few days are going through and are dealing with. The fact that they are here, sitting next to you in class or going about their normal activities beginning the academic year, does not mean they are not worried, or even grieving, about friends and loved ones.... I hope you will try to remember these things with everyone you encounter--the woman who swipes your card in the lunchline, the TF to whom you want to complain about a bad grade....

The other thought is for the longer run. The one experience in my own life that resembled what we have all been going through over the past few days was when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was about 16. We had the same experience of everyone being collectively and publicly stunned, silent, disbelieving; people wandered around outside with blank stares. We felt that our national security and personal safety were suddenly at serious risk, in a way that had been unthinkable.... And yet there was no smoke in the air in Boston, classes and homework assignments and traffic jams and weather forecasts all were going on as normal.

Terrible as that event was, I think something good came of it for my generation. The political bickering about Kennedy's policies...ceased abruptly, and people talked mainly about the ideals for which he stood. Many members of my generation were inspired to achievement, not just in public service but in industry as well, because we were forced by that tragedy to think of our responsibility to pass civilization on to the next generation....

I've witnessed the greatest technological progress of any generation in human history. But Tuesday's events have shaken the confidence of many members of my generation that we will have done as good a job passing humane ideals and a civilized society on to our children as our parents did for us. The jury will be out on that for a long time....

But I hope you will take these terrible events, occurring at the beginning of the academic year, as an opportunity to think about why you want an education, and what you hope to accomplish by getting it.... It's hard to find an occasion to think through these big issues; perhaps these terrible days will turn out to be good ones for you if they help you think about why you are here and what you want to do with your lives.

Okay, let's get down to work.

Harry R. Lewis, McKay professor of computer science and dean of Harvard College, first meeting of Computer Science 121, "Introduction to Formal Systems and Computation," September 13.