Remember 9/11? Everyone remembers exactly where they were on September 11, 2001. We remember what we were doing, when we heard, and what we did for the rest of that infamous day. Where were you on 9/11/12? More importantly, where was the University and its leaders a week ago Tuesday?
This may seem insignificant. It’s not. 9/11 was the epochal tragedy in the lives of our entire generation. Just like Pearl Harbor and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and John Lennon rocked the worlds of the generations before us, changing them indelibly, 9/11 is part of our cultural memory, our collective unconscious, in ways we are only beginning to understand. As the first generation maturing in a post-9/11 world, it shaped our understanding of trauma, war, peace, and our entire sense of American identity. The nature of such a random act of horrendous violence shapes the way we perceive our government and the entire political and intellectual climate of the United States and world to this day. This is specifically true about New York City, where the momentous change in skyline was only the tip of the iceberg in the subtle ways its residents’ lives were altered.
There is something wrong when “the greatest College, in the greatest University, in the greatest city in the world” (according to Dean James Valentini in an email sent to every student on Tuesday, which did not mention 9/11) does not recognize or remember the greatest tragedy that the greatest city has ever faced, the greatest tragedy America has faced since the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1945. There was very little recognition of 9/11 last Tuesday on the Columbia campus. There was no email from our deans or president asking us to reflect on the history of that day. I had three classes on Tuesday, and not one of my professors asked us to take a moment to be silent in memory of the lives lost. Hell, none of them even mentioned it. The best our university could do was a speech on the Low Steps from Christian professor John Lennox of Oxford University attempting to reconcile the existence of God and suffering in the world. While admittedly timely, the Christian nature of the speech limited its audience dramatically.
I have a different vision of Columbia University. Columbia must have a greater sense of institutional memory for 9/11. We remember the Trojan War and have entire departments dedicated to remembering the cultural horrors of things past. What is the point of learning about Achilles’s great tragedy—and Western society’s subsequent remembrance of him for it—in Literature Humanities if we cannot even remember our own history as residents of New York City? Given its prestige and geography, Columbia should lead the rest of American academia on this point. So where was it?
Some may argue that it is better to forget, to alleviate the trauma, and to let sleeping dogs lie. Lennox’s speech demonstrates the peculiar peril into which we are thrust when academic institutions fail to properly remember and mourn this tragedy. The danger, in other words, is that this horrendous event, which shocked and scared all of us, is politicized. The government of our country warped and distorted our collective memory of this trauma into an illegal war in Iraq in which scholarly dissent was quashed for “national security reasons” or as “Un-American,” millions of Iraqi citizens were displaced or killed, thousands of American soldiers lost their lives, and an entire region of the world plummeted into chaos.
Universities occupy a unique place: They are sites of cultural memory. This is why we have the Core, to instill a wide swath of cultural appreciation in all members of our community. This is why we have maintain the banner on top of Low Library, commemorating this space as King’s College. This is why we have such a great library in the first place. Columbia cannot hold itself up as the greatest university in this great city if it cannot even remember our own tragedies. Columbia must not turn its head away from 9/11.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore.