Examining “Our
Common Humanity”

September 11, 2001, was the day that America “joined the modern world,” said Dr. Michael Eric Dyson. In recalling the “heinous act” that marked that morning, Dyson, the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities, social commentator, and biographer, noted that the anniversary was also “an opportunity for us to forge solidarity with other victims of terror … So many parts of the globe are victimized by a callous disregard and vicious indifference to their existence. So many people suffer daily what we on 9-1-1 endured.”

During a panel discussion held in Irvine Auditorium, Dyson —along with Dr. Afaf Meleis, dean of the Nursing School; Dr. David Rudovsky, senior fellow in the Law School; Dr. Harvey Rubin, professor of medicine; and Dr. Jeremy Siegel, professor of finance—reflected on the nation’s responses to September 11.

The date reminded Dyson of “the American vision and burden of terror endured by a range of people of color, of different sexuality, of race and ethnicity.”

“We are now citizens of a domain of suffering from which we can hardly recover,” he said. “And yet we shall, because we depend upon our common humanity … We depend upon the ability to love our country without worshiping it, and therefore we admit when we have been wrong, even as we embrace one another with a sure recognition that nothing we have ever done and nothing anyone has ever done deserves the radical, despicable act” committed that day.

Meleis focused on the well-being of women after September 11, particularly those in the Middle East, and urged the audience to recognize different interpretations about women’s rights and lifestyles.

Ask a person in the Muslim world what they fear, she said, and you will get these nonpolitical answers: “They fear their daughters will lose their virginity. They fear that their wives may dominate them. They fear that Middle Eastern women will adopt Western values.

“The West is loved for providing education, technology, democracy, and potential for advancement,” Meleis added. “On the other hand, the West is abhorred for allowing girls and women to date, to leave their parents’ home—not to go to their husband’s home but to live alone. Middle Easterners criticize our explicit movies … the increasing divorce rate … and our acceptance of single-sex marriages.

“This contest [of values] becomes even more inflammatory, and its consequences more urgent, after 9-1-1, because of the stereotypes and stigma that have been applied to Islam,” said Meleis. And stigmatizing Islam, she concluded, only serves to polarize Middle Eastern countries against the United States, empowering those with the most extreme interpretations of the religion.

Reviewing the effects of September 11 on civil liberties, David Rudovsky said that “Much of what was done was right and righteous in terms of both defending ourselves and in terms of law enforcement.” But he also observed some “very disturbing trends,” from attempts to silence criticism to ignoring the right to due process under the law.

“Almost immediately after 9-11, we detained some 1,500 to 2,000 persons,” with the justification that “they were suspected as possible terrorists,” and a year later, “not a single one of those 1,500 to 2,000 persons has been identified in any way with the actions” of that date, Rudovsky said. “It is troubling, at a minimum, to think that in our country someone could be detained for a year without charges, without judicial review, and without even being able to consult with a lawyer.”

He also criticized the targeting of large groups of people, adding: “Racial or ethnic profiling is not only morally wrong but is ineffective as a law-enforcement tool ... We ought to remember that terrorists come in all shapes, colors, and sizes.”

 

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AROUND CAMPUS

Remembering 9/11

 

There was no need to ask for whom the local church-bells tolled—at 8:45 a.m., at 9:03, at 9:43, and again, finally, at 10:10. Though the day’s activities were many and multifarious, the scores of maroon t-shirts worn by student volunteers said it all:

9.11.02
University of Pennsylvania
Remembrance Reflection Community

“The impetus behind the activities really was to remember and mourn the dead, and affirm the unity in which the Penn community stood in the days and weeks after the tragedy—and to have the opportunity to explore again what lessons might be learned in the wake of that terrible chapter in our life,” explained Rev. William Gipson, Penn’s chaplain, and one of the main organizers of the events. “We wanted to give people as many options and different ways to do those things.”

One year before, Houston Hall had been transformed into an emergency center for students trying to comprehend the terrible news coming in from New York, Washington, and western Pennsylvania. This year, Penn’s student union was again the hub of campus activity—at least during the morning—but this time the mood was reflective and cautiously hopeful.

In the first-floor reading room and bistro, students came together for a community breakfast, watching the large-screen televisions that carried the somber anniversary observances from New York and elsewhere. The Hall of Flags was given over to silent reflection. In Bodek Lounge, various commemorative presentations honored the dead. On the second floor, students were giving blood to the Red Cross and participating in other civic activities.

At noon, the focus shifted to other venues. There was a “spiritual reflections gathering” in Stemmler Hall and an interfaith service at a nearby church. On College Green, student musicians and a-cappella groups performed, and dance groups wearing I Love New York t-shirts moved sinuously to taped music. Later in the day there would be an organ concert at Irvine Auditorium, a faculty panel discussion (see sidebar), and a candlelight vigil on the Green.

“I think the University was very dedicated to making this a day that was all-encompassing —for students as well as faculty and staff,” said College senior Aviva Moster, one of many student volunteers. “You know, everyone mourns and remembers in a different way. So we have quiet rooms; we have a blood drive; we have a civic fair of things to do if you want to go out and get involved; we have religious services; we have performing arts. Basically, there’s something for everyone.”

In front of College Hall, the Hands of Hope project was underway. Hundreds of students sat at tables casting their hands in plaster, decorating them, and writing messages. “I hope for the day when I can bypass tolerance and reach understanding,” wrote Moster, who called the project “a wonderful idea, because it was a way for everyone on campus to actually get involved and really get their hands dirty.

“It’s very therapeutic to sit there and write and make a gesture of hope that is meaningful for you,” she added. “It’s such a small part, but when you see this huge sculpture that’s going to be hanging up, you know that you were here when this happened. It’s your contribution.”

The project was supervised by Connecticut artist Sasha Bergmann Lichtenstein, whom Gipson invited to Penn for a 10-day residence. “It allows all these busy students to stop and pause for 15-20 minutes, and be in relation with another person as they have their hand cast,” Bergmann Lichtenstein explained. “It’s an intimate experience, where hopefully they can drop into their bodies and begin to feel some of where they were a year ago, where they are today, how the world is different for them—and release some of that. They can also think about how they can be a hope for the future. They can be lights to bring in new ways of being and not continue what happened a year ago.”

Since the finished hands would be part of a “large-scale collaborative sculpture” installed at the 1920 Commons later in the month, she noted, students “can go and have it as a touchstone, a talisman—the sculpture, hopefully, of the hopes that they feel deeply in their bodies.”


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Copyright 2002 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 11/04/02

 

Above: In Blanche Levy Park,
meditative students hold a candlelight vigil.
Below: The Hands of Hope reach out to the future.
Photos: Tommy Leonardi