Bin Laden’s death sparks global, College conversation

Late Sunday night, President Barack Obama addressed the nation to confirm the death of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda founder and mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 (9/11) attacks. Media pundits and scholars have referred to bin Laden’s death as the end of an era in American history that began almost 10 years ago. Amongst the variety of reactions to bin Laden’s death, members of the College community have begun to both recall their experiences of 9/11 itself and reflect on what this important moment means going forward.

Responses to 9/11

Global and campus-wide responses to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 varied substantially based on location and relation to the attacks.

Chaplain to the College Rick Spalding arrived in Baxter Hall, the current site of Paresky, where over 400 students surrounded the only television in the building on the morning of the attacks. “The room was so densely packed with people that you couldn’t really get into it,” Spalding said. “I first saw what happened on 9/11 through the faces of students watching the television gathered in that room. The Williams community learned about what happened in Washington and New York and Pennsylvania together in a way that is no longer possible because of communication devices.”

Spalding recalled three particular changes at the College on 9/11: Psychological counseling services were moved to Baxter Hall from the Health Center, a multi-faith service of prayers took place at 7 p.m. and a Gaudino forum was held that evening to discuss the day’s occurrences. Many classes were canceled on the 11th so that students could watch as the news broke about the day’s events.

“We all went to sleep that night – the night of Sept. 11 – with at least a dozen or two students not knowing whether all of their family members were safe,” Spalding said.

The College lost three alumni in the World Trade Center: Howard Kestenbaum ’67, Lindsay Morehouse ’00 and Brian Murphy ’80. Additionally, a member of the Class of 2004 lost his father in the attack.

Bart Clareman ’05, who grew up in New York City, was in his first week of classes at the College when the World Trade Center was hit.

“9/11 turned up the volume on everything,” Clareman said. “It was disorienting, jarring and bigger than anything any of us had lived through. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism didn’t strike a chord with me.

“I don’t think it changed a ton about the freshman year experience. It did add a degree of clarity,” he continued. “9/11 made me understand the urgency of the material I learned in my political science classes.”

Drew Thompson ’05, from Washington, D.C., said 9/11 “was a moment when the purple bubble had been popped. Our academic and personal careers were automatically changed.
“I don’t think we were apathetic,” he added. “We were finding new ways of becoming critically involved. It was hard being away freshman year, but there was a huge support network here.”

Immediately, the student body at the College began to fundraise for first responders at Ground Zero. In total, the College raised a few thousand dollars, according to Spalding.

Concurrent with the College’s rising concern about students from attacked areas were worries about the safety of the College’s Muslim student community. In 2001-02, there were 10 self-reporting Muslim students at the College, Spalding said. In the 2010-11 academic year, there are 33. Given the lack of information at the time, many feared retribution against Muslims in the United States.

“There were two or three incidents where a Muslim student was on the receiving end of some inappropriately hostile words,” Spalding said. “There is very significant religious prejudice in the United States, and we saw small manifestations of it at the College.”

Gaudino forums – both on the night of the terrorist attacks and in subsequent weeks – were a substantial means by which the College reckoned with the terrorist attacks. However, intellectual discussions were not sufficient to ensure the safety of Muslim students at the College, according to Spalding.

“If any one of our students doesn’t feel safe walking home from the library at 11:30 p.m., then it isn’t an intellectual issue,” Spalding said. “It is true that we are an intellectual community, but that’s not all we are, and that’s never clearer than in the wake of a catastrophe.”

Spalding reached out to all Muslim students by 2:30 p.m. that afternoon via e-mail: “I want you to be sure that you will also have a home to whatever extent you may want one here within the services of my office,” he wrote.

Current students at the College too were impacted by the day’s events in varying forms and extents.

Jordan Roberts ’13 was living in the Washington, D.C., area on 9/11. He was in fifth grade during the attacks. “I was picked up by my friend’s mom, who worked in the Pentagon. By some miracle, she was scheduled to fly that day, so she wasn’t in the office,” he continued.
James Elish ’13 grew up in New York, N.Y. In retrospect, he described his initial response to the terrorist attacks as “childish.”

“I didn’t understand,” Elish said. “We walked out to Lexington Avenue and I saw this huge dust cloud from downtown. I remember being excited to see the fighter jets go by outside my apartment window.”

Elish’s family lost some friends, but given Elish’s age, he did not know them as well as his immediate relatives did.

Sikandar Ahmadi ’14, who is Afghan, was living in Pakistan when the 9/11 attacks occurred. His family had moved due to the Taliban’s rising power in Afghanistan. His parents sat him in front of the television and had him translate what little of the English broadcast he understood so that they could understand what was going on. His family returned to Afghanistan in early 2002.

“Ever since I was born, I’ve constantly experienced war,” Ahmadi said.

Academic interpretations

Academic offerings at the College too were forever changed by al Qaeda attacks on 9/11.
James McAllister, professor of political science and chair of leadership studies, responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks by creating a new course: “America and the World after 9/11.” He has offered the course every spring since 2002.

“In the first few years, I spent five to six weeks on the origins of al Qaeda, bin Laden and Islamic fundamentalism,” McAllister said. “As bin Laden receded from American focus, he receded from the focus of my class, too.”

In this year’s course, McAllister allocated about a week to discuss bin Laden.

The announcement of bin Laden’s death had heavy implications in many classrooms, altering syllabi and discussion for this week’s meetings.

Monday afternoon, McAllister’s “America and the World After 9/11” students convened for a normal class session. The assigned reading for the day dealt with Afghanistan, but the class focused additionally on bin Laden’s death for approximately 40 minutes, according to McAllister.

The implications of bin Laden’s death remain unclear, according to McAllister and Magnus Bernhardsson, associate professor of history and chair of international studies.

“From an academic perspective, we’ll learn a lot more about what he’s been up to in the past 10 years,” McAllister said.

Bernhardsson, who focuses in large part on Middle Eastern history, said he believes that bin Laden’s death is an “opportunity for students to engage in the material” of his classes.

This semester, Bernhardsson is teaching “Movers and Shakers in the Middle East” and “Nation Building: The Making of the Modern Middle East.” In both of his classes, Bernhardsson put aside his existing syllabi to discuss the implications of bin Laden’s death.

Bin Laden has been “the world’s most expensive scavenger hunt” and the “personification of the war on terror,” Bernhardsson said.

“For any Div. I or Div. II class that deals with issues of our society and America’s relations with the world or religion, this is a very teachable moment,” Bernhardsson said. “We must find a good balance between not being held hostage to the news but also ensuring that when it has a clear connection to the material we use it. I’m happy to throw out my syllabus for moments like this.”

McAllister echoed Bernhardsson’s sentiments: “The story has ended,” he said. “There are new developments in this story, but by the time I teach [“America and the World After 9/11” again], we’ll know a lot more about things that would have been fruitless to speculate about in years past.”

David Edwards, professor of anthropology, referred to bin Laden as “a brief neighbor.”

Edwards resided in Peshawar, Pakistan doing archival research briefly in 1986. In Edwards’ classes on Tuesday, “The Scope of Anthropology” and “In Between: The Ritual Construction of Identity and Difference,” the schedule was delayed to discuss bin Laden’s death.

“I didn’t become fully aware of bin Laden until well after the fact, but he was one of the people who lived in the compound down the block from me,” Edwards said. “He and his cohort who set up shop in Peshawar during that time changed the ideological orientation of some of the parties within the resistance establishment to the Soviets.”

Edwards interviewed many other resistance leaders but never spoke to bin Laden, as “he was not a significant figure” then.

The impact of bin Laden’s death on foreign affairs or the vivacity of al Qaeda has yet to be fully detailed.

“This is an opportune time to think about the various other conflicts in the overarching war on terror,” Bernhardsson said. “So many resources have been put towards finding this guy, and this is an important moment for us to reflect on.

“It’s so early that we’re still trying to come to grips with this and trying to figure out how significant his death is, whether it will be a moment remembered by our grandchildren or a footnote,” Bernhardsson continued.

Edwards said that bin Laden “instrumentalized martyrdom in a way that hadn’t been done before. We can put a close on this chapter – if not this book – in American history,” he said.

Professors also placed bin Laden’s death within the context of the Arab Spring, in which revolutions across the Middle East have spurred hope for new leadership.

“His stature had been tremendously curtailed from recent historic events in the Middle East; his methods and ideas were not at the forefront in Egypt or Tunisia,” Bernhardsson said.

“Should the events of the Arab Spring be successful and begin to create real hope for democracy, development and an elimination of corruption, then al Qaeda will be irrelevant in the future,” Edwards said. “But if the protestors are unable to implement fundamental changes – if, for example, the military takes over in Egypt – and the people continue to be frustrated in a year or two, then al Qaeda will have another chance,” Edwards continued.

“I’m not sure how much the killing of Osama bin Laden changes the challenges we face,” McAllister said. “It won’t change the implications in Libya or Syria or Iran.

“There is still going to be an al Qaeda, and there still are going to be threats we have to deal with,” McAllister added. “He changed the world, but the problems that he helped bring into being will still remain.”

Student insights

Bin Laden’s presence in media and thought has been preeminent for roughly half of the College’s student population’s lives. Professors, commentators and students alike have viewed his presence as a defining feature of the generation of students currently enrolled at the College.

Students’ “adolescence and coming to age has all been in the shadows of the Twin Towers and what happened that day,” Edwards said. “Bin Laden’s death has a sense of momentousness even more for students than for me because this is in many ways the narrative of their lives.”

On Sunday night following Obama’s speech, students set off fireworks in Currier Quad, Susie Hopkins and on Meadow Street.

“There were lots of text messages going around amongst my friends,” Tim Morris ’13 said. “I talked about it a lot [on Monday] and saw a lot of conversations about the latest news on campus.”

Student visceral responses to bin Laden’s death have ranged across a spectrum of emotion: While none have expressed regret about the occurrence, some wonder whether celebrating death in any circumstance is appropriate.

“We’ll have to wait and see if it has a major impact on what our armed forces operations are overseas, but regardless it’s definitely a great victory for the United States,” Morris said. “It’s great to be able to speak about Osama bin Laden in the past tense and not have that as a question mark.”

Stephanie Berger ’11 swore into the Navy just over a year ago. She is currently ranked as a sailor, but her only responsibilities at the time are to attend her classes at the College. Berger will become an officer after graduation in June. She joined in admiration of the Navy’s values of honor, courage and commitment. Berger said bin Laden’s death is “a very exciting example of how successful U.S. intelligence, the executive branch and the military were in working together.” She added, “It makes me excited to be able to join in my small part a community that can work so well together.”

“Sunday night there was a lot of glee and jubilation,” Roberts said. “That wasn’t my initial reaction, and it still feels uncomfortable to me. I am glad that this enemy is no longer a threat, but we can’t shy away from the reflection that needs to happen in his aftermath.”

“Personally, I do not cherish any human death, but Osama bin Laden’s death was both justifiable and important,” said Matiullah Amin ’12, who grew up in a refugee camp in Pakistan but is Afghan.

However, Amin warned the community not to “lose sight of the bigger mission that is in store for us in Afghanistan.”

Ahmadi echoed Amin’s sentiments: “It’s definitely necessary for people to be aware that killing Osama bin Laden doesn’t mean that the war has been won or that the mission has been accomplished,” he said. “There’s a long way to go for American and Afghan officials.” Along these lines, Ahmadi noted his experience and insecurity walking the streets in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Students also have begun to call for greater discussion of current affairs in the collegiate setting.

“In general at Williams, there is a lack of discussion among students,” Ahmadi said. “This is a moment for people to get started and talk about things outside of the purple bubble that are impacting the lives of people thousands of miles away too. I know we have bright students on this campus, but there is a lack of fruitful, genuine and deep discussion about the issues.”

The universality of bin Laden’s influence is of the utmost importance: “We have all been affected in one way or another” by bin Laden, Amin said.

Professors have integrated bin Laden’s death effectively into certain courses: “In my class discussions, it’s been more focused on the implications of his death as opposed to how great it is that he was killed,” Roberts said. “That’s more important for us in the long term.”

Edwards noted mixed or shy responses in his discussions of the topic. “Students here haven’t expressed that celebratory mood with me directly, but it may be because they suspect my perspective may be different,” he said.

Edwards found the “celebratory conception of response” to bin Laden’s death odd, citing the number of students gathered at the White House and Times Square as examples.

“Different colleges are going to respond in different ways,” Berger said. “I had friends at Georgetown who rushed the White House lawn, and I had friends at the Naval Academy who had an impromptu pep rally at midnight, which was huge because they generally aren’t allowed to leave their barracks. At Williams, bin Laden’s death had the response I expected it to have. We are a reflective academic community, so we are going have seminars.”

To discuss the events in depth, four of the College’s specialists on terrorism, the Middle East and American foreign policy will participate in an international studies colloquium moderated by Bernhardsson on Friday at 12 p.m. in Schapiro 129.