The moment of a generation

In the wake of events as horrible and terrifying as those of last Tuesday, we must not permit ourselves to dwell solely on the images of violence and suffering that are so much with us now. These images will never, ever leave us, but still we must seek signs of hope to keep despair at bay. I see one such sign in the number of thoughtful conversations and meetings and memorial services that have been held at Williams and elsewhere in the last few days. Too often in the decade that I have taught here, students and faculty alike (and both reflecting the larger society of which they are a part) have concerned themselves with the trivial while turning their backs on the consequential. Starting salaries have been a subject of discussion more often than social justice. Political leaders have been objects of contempt, while those who have made multi-millions in their twenties have been looked to as heroes. Ironic disdain as a mode of self-presentation has been far more fashionable than passionate engagement.

After what we have witnessed this week, we will never be the same again, and that might be a good thing. If the terror attacks of Tuesday lead us to seriously debate our country’s role in the world, then something good will have come from this tragedy, particularly if young people realize that they have the greatest stake in these discussions. If our grief and horror lead us to learn more about the larger world we live in and the social and economic conditions that cause some to embrace soul-destroying violence, then something positive will arise from the smoldering ruin of lower Manhattan.

In writing these words, I do not intend to rationalize away the crimes committed this week or to say that force should not be part of our response. This is a moment that calls for all of us to stand together as a nation and to recognize that democracy is indeed worth fighting to preserve. But if we allow ourselves to descend into self-righteous and vindictive patriotism, believing our sole responsibility to be that of bringing down Osama bin Laden, as though he were the source of all problems in the world, then surely others will come forward to take his place, and we will live in terror’s shadow until the end of our days.

My generation was forever marked by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and it may very well be that the events of September 11 have a similar impact on young people in schools and colleges today. It is my hope that your generation will avoid some of the excess and self-importance that marked my generation’s coming of age, but also that you recognize in the events that are shaping up around you the sense of seriousness and possibility that we felt when we were young. These are dangerous times we live in, but greatness can only be forged in such circumstances. I pray that you seize the opportunity and lay a foundation for change in the ashes of these days.