Thirteen years ago, I spoke these words in Chapel, on the day after the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center:
“This event is a test of our moral courage. We will be tempted to become more suspicious, more violent, and more defensive. We have some members of our community who could be targets of racist or ethnic prejudice because they look different. These students are part of us and are not any more responsible for this act of madmen than I am. They wanted me to tell you that they unequivocally condemn this act of terrorism. Let’s be courageous and compassionate enough to resist pointing fingers and accusing each other.
The character of each of us, as we respond to this tragedy, is put to the test. We will be tempted to band together only with people who are like us and put up walls to mark our differences. If we did not feel some kind of pain and some kind of outrage, something would be wrong with us. Ironically, these natural human reactions of distrust and hatred will just perpetuate and intensify the evil. The only remedy to evil is the courage of good people. Our best safeguard against the waves of hatred and violence that will follow this event is to reaffirm our belief in, respect for, and care for each other. The fact of the matter is that in everything I have ever done and in every tragedy I have ever witnessed, good has triumphed. I know good ultimately wins.
The perpetrators of these evil acts have destroyed buildings and killed people. We cannot let them destroy our growing sense of community or kill the exceptional good will we have extended to each other so far this year. But to resist them, we will need to act—not only individually, but as a community, not only symbolically, but effectively, to do our part.“
Much of what I prophesied that morning came true: hate-filled rhetoric increased in the media, we were tempted to become more suspicious and defensive, we were tempted to put up walls and become fragmented. But the most important and lasting prophecy also came true: good won.
The lessons of September 11 for me have been about a fundamental choice about how to live with others: treating them like objects or treating them like full rich human beings. On the one hand, I can treat them like means to an end or obstacles to be removed as I try to impose my will on the world; on the other hand, I can treat them like wonderfully mysterious beings that I can never fully understand but with whom I can choose to empathize. Likewise, I can see them as objects to control and manipulate or powerful beings upon whom I depend in a myriad of ways. The choice is mine: Self-giving or self-serving, love or hate, life or death. Your were given this choice too when you were invited to take up Rachel’s Challenge—look for the best in others, speak words that heal, start a chain reaction of kindness and compassion.
The members of al-Qaeda, who killed so many innocent people thirteen years ago, made the opposite choice; they saw themselves as patriots, but they chose a brand of patriotism devoid of compassion. Last night, the President of the United States spoke about another organization, ISIL, which has chosen to pursue and act upon a similar brand of patriotism, a choice that caused them to murder Jim Foley and thousands of others. Our patriotism, if it is to participate in the victory of good over evil, needs to be substantially and significantly different than theirs. Their patriotism is inward looking, separating themselves from all others and seeking to eliminate all who are not like them. Our patriotism, regardless of where you are from, needs to be outward looking, acknowledging our duties toward others, the need to sacrifice for something bigger than ourselves, and our common call to pursue the common good.
Thirteen years ago, a French headline read, “We Are All Americans.” It reminded me of President Kennedy’s speech at the Berlin Wall when he expressed America’s solidarity with those suffering under Communism, saying “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Today, we have compatriots around the world willing to sacrifice for the common good, a reality reflected in our student body. On this day, when so many sacrificed for the common good—risking their lives to save others, volunteering to protect others, sacrificing time and resources to serve others—let’s honor them by continuing to seek what is good for all humanity, resisting the forces that seek to destroy our commitment to compassion and kindness.