There was an odd comfort in watching the unfolding of a national disaster in the presence of video artists and photographers: one did not stand in paralyzed impotence. On September 11, the nearest television set at my college was in the video laboratory, and around me there swirled a reassuring bustle of purposeful and competent activity. One faculty colleague worked to hook up the recorder, another crouched and leaned to snap still photos from the television screens. Standing among them, as we watched the World Trade Center topple, I felt a palpable and unanticipated gregariousness, a concord of mood and feeling.
This sense of commonality barely outlasted the towers themselves. One of my younger colleagues, a woman who keeps an apartment in Brooklyn, turned to me, badly shaken, and said, “I have to do something about this in my class. I have to show them the video about the Japanese internment camps.”
So much for collective mood. Why should the murder of thousands of men, women, and children, accomplished in an instant, concern us? Well, it turns out, because it might lead to something really serious, like civil-rights violations. (I was reminded of the old joke, which I understand is told about more than one religion: Why do Methodists frown on sexual intercourse in a standing position? Because it could lead to dancing.) But soon I found that my colleague’s reaction, far from being an aberrant attitude expressed in a moment of confusion and shock, represented the common wisdom of our campus.
Williams has no great tradition of radical politics. A small liberal-arts college in the Berkshires of northwestern Massachusetts, usually counted among America’s elite schools, it lacks the self-conscious progressivism of a place like Swarthmore. While its alumni are as diverse as George Steinbrenner, Stephen Sondheim, and William J. Bennett, they tend to be disciplined overachievers rather than firebrands. And although it is, after Harvard, the state’s oldest institution of higher learning, its tradition is wholly different. When Harvard turned Unitarian at the time of Emerson, and became the crucible for two centuries of American radicalism, Williams remained stalwartly Congregationalist, a provincial factory for the grooming of ministers.
Isolation and small scale (about 2,100 students) have bred a pervasive culture of good manners and respect, and a distinct caution in the give-and-take of classroom debate. Williams students hesitate to challenge their professors, and do not like it if others do. When an unusually truculent student reproached one of my colleagues with the words, “you haven’t justified yourself intellectually,” his classmates intervened and apologized for his rudeness.
This ethos does not offer fertile ground for freewheeling debate, especially of the political sort, which requires a love of the sound of clashing ideas. In recent years, under the baton of political correctness, things have only gotten worse. The fear of uttering taboo words or sentiments has come to cripple the debating instinct, driving genuine discussion underground or into intimate personal circles.
Clearly, however, some significant number of students tilt more conservatively than their professors. I recently took part in a gun-control debate here against Michael Dukakis, and my faculty colleagues were startled when our students voted for the right to bear arms. Typically, professors willing to champion conservative views—even for the sake of argument—are difficult to find, and even when found, there is no guarantee that they will not jump ship in mid-debate. That was the case this spring when Gary Bauer, former head of the Family Research Council, participated in a debate over President Bush’s faith-based initiative. In rising to offer support, Bauer’s designated teammate, a Williams professor, abruptly removed his jacket to reveal that he was dressed as Satan: he would speak, that is, as the “devil’s advocate,” challenging the views of his own, proper side. Even in formal public debate, it seems, conservatives need not be treated according to the rules.
Such, too, was the case at the college’s first public event after the September 11 attack, a panel discussion hastily organized for the same evening. Four faculty members with expertise in the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy were invited to speak. I stayed away, vividly recalling a hysterical panel discussion at Bryn Mawr the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; intended to calm worried students, it was about as reassuring as a group therapy session conducted by competing psychoanalysts from four different institutes.
The Williams event had a similar outcome, as anguished students later told me. Mentions of American culpability were greeted with vociferous acclaim, while the one professor who argued the case for principled retaliation drew loud hisses. The low point came when a visibly shaky female student said, “I know that the U.S. is going to use this as an excuse to kill millions of people, like it always does.”
One professor from the panel thought to challenge her: “Excuse me, but what is the evidence for that?”
“I feel it,” she responded, to a general round of applause.
After hearing about this evening, I sent an e-mail message to a dozen of my students, asking their view of the general campus sentiment. Several assured me that there was a consensus among undergraduates for decisive military action; others, that there was a consensus against. What seemed to be true was that, already by the evening of the 11th, the campus had assumed well-defined, rigid contours: a strongly vocal party agitating against military action and a rather quieter group inclined to support some sort of proportionate military response. Since by the nature of things the latter group was in a passive position—waiting hopefully for government action—the former briskly and visibly set the agenda.
The focus of its activity was Baxter Hall, a rambling building that houses the student union. Here a number of display cases were given over to exhibits urging tolerance. A massive banner advocating “Justice through Global Peace” was erected in the mailroom, immediately drawing 400 signatures of support. A peace rally and a candlelight vigil were announced. By Thursday, handmade posters appeared around the campus proclaiming “God Bless our Ignorance”; they were affixed over photocopies of the New York Post’s defiant headlines. Any student who yearned for a bracing American military response would have looked in vain for tangible signs that anyone shared his feelings.
By Friday morning, however, news spread of the first Wlliams fatality. Lindsay had graduated last year, a charming and kind young woman, a leader of the tennis team. I knew her quite well. The shock of the news—she had been a familiar figure on campus—changed the tone of the debate, making it rather difficult to speak in abstractions. Resentment over the first evening’s panel discussion now boiled over. On her own initiative, an enterprising sophomore spontaneously invited the entire student body to join her in pledging allegiance to the flag.
This gesture would likely have been lost in the rising tide of candlelight vigils and rallies were it not for the fact that Morton O. Schapiro, the college president, who was stranded in Seattle, read the invitation via e-mail and cited it in a mass mailing to the campus, inviting all to attend. For those like me who had sought some formal acknowledgement that the student body consisted of American citizens, and not merely therapy subjects, here was a welcome signal.
The simple ceremony took place the following Sunday afternoon in front of Chapin Auditorium, the formal center of the campus, where the college’s American flag stood at half-mast as it had every day since Tuesday. About 200 students converged, decidedly subdued or somber. Many of the cafeteria staff quietly left their posts to join them. I saw our college president, just returned from Lindsay’s funeral and clearly distressed. As a student pinned to his jacket a red, white, and blue flag (just purchased at Wal-Mart), Schapiro told me about the memorial service for Lindsay, who it turns out had been speaking to her father by phone when the plane struck, very close to her office on the 89th floor of the south tower. Apart from the janitors and cafeteria workers, he and I were the only college employees present.
The flagpole, it now became clear, had an unintended backdrop. Directly behind it stood a flimsy plywood shell, a roofless box the size of a small room. This, we learned, had been assembled by a lumber supplier as a demonstration shed for Habitat for Humanity. Even as our group was gathering, a smaller group of students came to sit around the base of the shell. One of our party called out, inviting them to stand with us. Hand waves, shrugs, non-committal sounds. And so we pledged to the flag while our lounging watchers made something of the opposite gesture. It struck me later that during the whole aftermath of September 11, with its mixture of improvised ritual and rambling confessionals, this was the one ceremony where everyone knew exactly what to say.
Within a day or two, the Habitat shell would acquire an inscription in black paint, labeling it a MONUMENT and dedicating it in opposition to “senseless killing.” I appreciated the coy wording.
Later, as our group broke up, an undergraduate asked us where we had gotten our flag ribbons. It seems that the students organizing the campus vigils also needed a supply to designate their volunteers. “We’re not sure yet what color we want,” he confessed—the problem, presumably, being the need to avoid confusion with the red insignia of the AIDS epidemic. When one of us suggested that they use our red, white, and blue ribbons, he responded, “Well, no; we’ve decided that would be too nationalistic. We don’t want to alienate anyone.” Too late.
By late September, the therapeutic phase had passed and the campus moved into the analytical phase, a region where a well-stocked college can operate indefinitely on cruise control. I attended another panel discussion, this one devoted to American policy. Here, I thought, I would finally hear what I was yearning to hear from one of my colleagues ever since the morning of September 11—a clear, unambiguous, manly expression of fury at those who had wrought this destruction on our country. I sat waiting for the invective, only to be let down by talk of “alleged perpetrators” and the “possible involvement of bin Laden.” As I walked out into the cool Berkshire fall, it occurred to me that in the course of the entire evening I had heard precisely one full-throated word of contempt: slime. The reference was to Jerry Falwell.