September 12, the day after the terrorist attack on the United
States, and I wonder: What can I say to the students? What should
we do in class today? I’ve talked to my colleagues in the past
few hours about what they’ve done, or intend to do, about discussing
the tragedy with students. The faculty have been understandably
cautious in the way they’ve conducted class—discussing the international
context for this horrific event, and so on. I decide to simply
let the students talk, and then see where things go.
Reeher is a professor of political science in the Maxwell School
and the College of Arts and Sciences. He wrote this essay about
his class, Democratic Theory and Practice.
Two of my students’ families were affected
personally by the event. They are not in class, of course. The
rest are quiet. It’s hard to tell if they want to talk. I am asked
if this is the worst thing I have ever seen in my life. The premise
of their question puts me in touch with my mortality—the distance
in the number of years lived between myself and the students.
Yes, it is the worst thing I have actually seen, but not the worst
thing I have watched the world experience.
Then their anger comes, anger about many
things. They can’t believe what they are seeing on TV in the aftermath,
the celebrations in the streets of the Islamic world. I consider
discussing the nature of political coverage by the media, but
instead, without planning or thinking, really, I take a more personal
approach. I try to push them not to hate, to accept their own
anger, but not to let that inform their judgment on what our nation
should do. They challenge me: How should they feel about those
celebrating? We should feel sorry for them, I argue. But they
challenge me again: Why? There is no place else to go with this
question and remain honest. We should feel sorry for them because
they are demeaning their own souls. Because each of us walks around
with this capacity in our hearts, and because life is the constant
struggle to listen to the better angels of our natures.
Rarely in class do we professors set forward
our most basic beliefs, our faiths—and there are some good reasons
why we don’t. But there is no choice for me today. I share a story
about a regret in my own life, from my own college years. In 1980
I let my anger over the hostage crisis lead me to go and watch
the burning of an Iranian flag on campus. A friend stood alone
among the crowd and protested it. I wish now that person had been
Where will this class go this semester? I
cannot say. But at least we are listening to each other.
Navy photo by PH2 (AW) Jim Watson
A flag hangs from a soot-covered building near the World Trade Center.