Sunday, September 11, 2016

Remembering 9/11, the Past, and the Future

We are flying a new flag this weekend as we think about the 15th anniversary of one of our country's darkest days.  The old flag had literally been through the wars and this seemed like the right replacement opportunity. It belonged to my wife's father; its stripes were fading, and to give you an idea of its age the field only contained forty-eight stars. We plan to deliver it to our local American Legion Post for respectful disposal.  The new flag will mark today's solemn memory.

September 11, 2001 will be for me,  and many of you,  one of those "Where were you when?" moments. I was sitting in my office at the college that morning when someone came in and said you need to check the news.  I had a tiny seven inch black and white TV sitting on a bookshelf and turned it on. Later that morning, on the large color projection screen in the Wells Theatre,  my students and I watched together as several pieces of our world collapsed in New York City, Washington DC, and a field in Pennsylvania.  I am sure you can recite your whereabouts fifteen years ago with equal ease.

Could I add that when I retired from teaching in 2002, I realized that my career at Monmouth College had been enclosed by two sad bookends.  In the fall of 1963, shortly after my first semester's teaching began, I shared a terrible November 22nd with another  generation of students. I was taking a carful of them to the Bradley Speech Tournament in Peoria and we stopped for gas at the little town of Brimfield, IL. I went in to pay the bill (no swiping of credit cards at the pump in those days) and the attendant told me what was on the news.  This past summer at a fifty year reunion gathering one of the students who was in that car reminded me of his memory of that day and the tears that were in my eyes as I reported to them that our president had been shot. The haze, of the ensuing weekend in Peoria,  gathered in a large room of the student union where a black and white TV set was positioned,  remains fixed in my consciousness.  Like lemmings all the competitors returned from their events to the TV room and for two days watched together the tragedy unfold. Mostly the people in that room were strangers, but we were all united in those communal moments.       

Today,  as we remember 9/11,  I am also thinking of an upcoming November event.  It seems to carry all the marks of potential national disaster.  I do not take sides but instead track with some dread the violence of the presidential campaign. Its virulence is fueled by what seems to be a loss of compassion, civility, fair play, and interest in the facts amongst our citizenry and our candidates.  Amplification is provided by an ever more pernicious and poisonous media landscape. The internet in particular has become an echo chamber where the lack of gatekeepers or editorial control gives equal credence to all posts whether they are blatant falsehoods or established truths.  I believe it is still an open question if it will be possible for this society to manage the beast that was not even in our conceptual universe in 1963.  

I hate to say it, but this election campaign is so full of bile that I suspect it may continue to poison the well of our democracy for the years to come no matter who wins. I hope and pray for something better because warring factions, as the Middle East shows,  have a difficult time solving anything.   There will be no winners in November and  I fear we may be heading for another  "Where were you when?" moment.

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