A September 11th memorial poses peculiar problems for the modern American university.
In the typical college of today, the “intellectual” vogues are anti-Americanism and sympathy for America’s enemies. By contrast, patriotism and support for our national defense are embraced about as strongly on college campuses as are capitalism and Dick Cheney. Anything that portrays America as under attack by Islamic terrorists, as even the most purely apolitical 9/11 memorial inevitably will, challenges the university dogma.
And so it is often left to students properly to mourn and remember that tragic day when its anniversary arrives. But what if students wanted to organize a memorial on a scale that exceeded their limited capacity to fund it? What if this memorial was not going to be a politically correct homage to "understanding" and non-violence, but traditional and patriotic? Could they somehow compel your typical leftist university to support it and would students embrace the opportunity to participate? Can 9/11 be properly remembered in a place that wants to pretend it never happened?
The 9/11 memorial at Duke University provides an answer to these questions, and that answer to each is a resounding, "yes."
About one month before school began, I decided I was going to organize a 9/11 memorial at my school to mark the fifth anniversary of the terror attacks. It didn’t even occur to me when the idea developed that the school might already be organizing a proper slate of events. I knew that whatever they were planning would be insufficient and this assumption was of course shortly confirmed.
The first order of business was soliciting all of the major university departments for funding. These requests are sent to the department chairs. The memorial began as a Duke Conservative Union endeavor, but the goal from the beginning was that it should be a community memorial, an event for the whole student body, as well as Durham residents. As I set out in my initial funding request: “The project I write to you about today transcends ideological and political boundaries--it is an event behind which the whole school can unite.”
Apparently not. The departments I solicited offered not a cent of funding. Perhaps my desire to have “a 2,997 flag display to memorialize everyone whose life was taken that day,” and “the purchasing of flag pins which we will encourage people to wear so that we as a campus can come together to show our support for our nation which suffered so much pain and loss in that attack 5 years ago,” clashed too strongly with their worldviews.
Consider part of the response I received from the new head of the political science department: “I personally do not think that your approach is appropriate because it depersonalizes the tragedy by converting it into an American issue.”
Tell that to the firefighters raising the flag on ground zero, or the soldiers draping the flag over the pentagon. How is the worst terrorist attack on our soil in American history, from an enemy seeking to destroy us, not an "American issue"? How is showing unity and support for our nation as we remember when it was attacked inappropriate? I guess I haven’t been paying enough attention in my classes.
The same apparent concerns about the patriotic components of the memorial were echoed by the chair of the sociology department:
9-11 moved us into the human family in a new way, brought terror into white, urban, upper-class lives. Don’t we want to acknowledge the horror of terrorism more broadly? Specifically, the type of event you propose suggests that all the pain of 9/11 has been borne only by the US and US citizens. That's untrue--thousands of lives across multiple nations, both on 9/11 and in the subsequent months, have been lost.
Keep in mind, all of this concern is fueled by the simple fact that the purchasing and display of American flags is involved in the memorial budget, which would indicate the leaders of the sociology and political science department would take objection to the great majority of 9/11 memorials occurring all across the nation—outside, naturally, of college campuses. Maybe the FNDY should remove the American flag from its honor guard and replace it with the UN’s? God forbid we should come together as Americans in the wake of the terror attacks—that sort of behavior might inadvertently breed the will to fight terrorism.
Requests sent to the Duke graduate schools produced the same results. But the administration provided a much more interesting response: They promised to consider my proposal. They would talk it over, they said, and get back to me. So I waited. And waited. I sent a few more e-mails and waited some more. Nothing.
Duke had a problem. The school knew there was no way to justify not supporting a community 9/11 memorial, especially when they didn’t have a similar one of their own, but they also didn’t like the idea of conservatives being in charge, even if those conservatives were designing a non-partisan memorial. How could a 9/11 memorial at Duke University be run by anyone other than politically correct leftists? Could conservatives be trusted to run such an event? Who would make the pleas for non-violence and understanding? With no left-wing students clamoring to design a major community memorial, the administration’s options were limited. They were entering uncharted waters and I just needed to find a way to nudge them in the right direction.
Enter the City Council. At the same time I sent requests to all the major facets of Duke University, I also tried to get in touch with the Durham City Council. Two City Councilmen, Mike Woodard and Thomas Stith, along with City Manager Patrick Baker, offered their full weight and support to the memorial project. I am indebted to them.
Additionally, I had sent out a request to the Durham Fire Department asking for their aid and involvement, and I was immediately put in touch with one Captain Towner. He and the department provided phenomenal assistance and support in bringing this memorial to our community. With two city councilmen, the City Manager, and the Fire Department behind the memorial (support which I strongly feel was vital to its success) the school had powerful reason to support it and a most difficult situation if they did not.
But the task was far from over. The school was hoping the decision could be taken off their hands if someone else would come forward and fund the effort. In a phone conversation with one of our university Vice-Presidents, I was told that they would prefer to “fill in the holes” in an existing budget rather than supply a budget themselves. Given that at the time of this conversation 9/11 was only two weeks away, I was naturally very concerned about whether the project would be able to happen at all.
I had a third parallel process going forward from the beginning, which had already netted the generous $1,000-dollar donation from the VFW, and this was the search for outside funding. I had solicited donations from local business, national business, foundations, private individuals, you name it. However, the overriding sentiment from these different sources was that it was not their place to support one particular memorial at one particular university. There are many programs in place to fund speakers to which student organizers can apply. I don’t blame the organizations that didn’t donate to the memorial—there simply aren’t the existing bylaws or guidelines in place to make such a contribution possible, however much the individuals making the decision personally supported the project. I’m also confident that with more time, arrangement could have been made. Nonetheless, I hope that in the future, these bylaws and guidelines will expand, but as a number of these people pointed out, the school itself should bear much of the responsibility for using some of its vast budget to support a 9/11 memorial.
Having made it clear to the administration that I had extensively and vigorously pursued outside funding and that the future of the memorial was in their hands, my suspicion was that they meant to make a contribution—enough money to say they helped out and prevent the possibility of criticism, but not enough to enable a program that would cost approximately 5,000 dollars. (To give you a sense of what that budget means to the university consider that they spent 45,000 dollars on MLK day commemoration last year, which featured Harry Belafonte as the keynote speaker.)
However, there is also another factor in play which empowers non-leftwing college students in a way they never have been before. University administrators can no longer act with impunity. Students for Academic Freedom not only fights for student rights (and succeeds), but also serves as a vital watchdog group. Thanks to SAF, administrators are much more hesitant to engage in the sorts of partisan discrimination that characterize so much of what goes on in our college campuses.
Obviously, there are a lot of battles left to fight, but as an SAF chapter President at Duke, I have personally witnessed the effect SAF has had on academia and am very confident that the new pressure brought to bear on university administrators, and their great need to be able to deflect criticism, has vastly increased the chances of success for non-left, non-PC projects, like this 9/11 memorial—projects that are usually the victims of partisan-motivated under-funding—of receiving proper university support.
To illustrate just the sort of mentality we’re dealing with, consider the one aspect of the memorial which the administration, later on, quashed. Any use of firearms on campus requires administrative and university police department clearance. The Durham Police Department wanted to honor and mourn the heroes from NYPD killed on 9/11 with a 21 gun salute (blanks of course) and I immediately set about trying to obtain said clearance. The administration, however, forbade any such salute. Here was the reason: Having a 21-gun salute, and thus involving guns in the memorial, would jeopardize its non-partisan nature and possibly offend students who weren’t conservative. You can’t make this stuff up.
Fortunately, this was the only feature of the memorial that required special clearance and, hence, that the university had any real control over. Nothing else was in any way affected. However, the clock was ticking and a decision was going to have to come soon. With the support I had and the pressure that had been placed on the university administration, I wasn’t surprised when they starting giving signs that they would help fund the project. Nor was I surprised by their request that I bring other student groups, of diverse ideologies, into the fold, which would no doubt help alleviate some of their concerns. I’m sure they had many closed-door conversations debating my request and how best to proceed. They knew conservatives would still be in charge, but perhaps having some leftwing students involved would, the administration probably thought, enlighten things a little.
So I created what I called the Duke Student 9/11 Memorial Commission, serving as Chair, and appointed a student by the name of Adam Zell, who had shown an interest in helping out, Vice-Chair. Having such a commission only more easily enabled my desire to create a community memorial and was a natural development in the planning process. I had a strategy in my head which I knew would both satisfy the needs of the administration, aid in the success of the memorial project, and in no way alter or compromise the planned memorial. Given the options available to the administration, such as requiring changes in the planned memorial, sharing leadership, involving leftwing faculty, getting a diverse group of student organizations on board, the fact that they left the process and everything else to my discretion was in my view a significant victory.
Was it necessary to have other student groups involved if the existed plan was already non-partisan? Not at all. Did it speak the administration’s distrust of conservatives? Absolutely. But the all-important goal was a meaningful, successful memorial and now it was within reach. I got a couple of clubs on board right off, contacted the administrators in question, and then fantastic news followed—the school was going to support the memorial in the amount of 4,000 dollars. A major victory.
One problem, though: The decision was so long in coming that the fifth anniversary of 9/11 was only 10 days away. Most of the plan had been sketched out, the appropriate people contacted, the proper processes set into motion, but there was a great deal that couldn’t be arranged, requested, planned or reserved until I knew whether or not the needed money would be there or, for that matter, could have access to it. We had also received $500 from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, bringing our budget up to $5,500 dollars. Putting it all together in 10 days would be an enormous challenge.
Any thoughts I might have entertained that were simple logistical reasons for the administration's temporizing were quickly banished by the response I received from one key administrator when I suggested that the school, having made this wonderful decision, might want to consider issuing a press release, and also that, to help ensure the success of their investment, they might want to consider sending out an e-mail to the student body about the memorial. As I’d made clear from the beginning, I wanted this to be a memorial for our whole community.
But the administrator, one of our Vice-Presidents, was greatly dismayed by these requests. He explained that he could not assist because we were receiving not institutional sponsorship from Duke, but merely financial sponsorship. We should be careful, he cautioned, not to imply the university official supported our event. The analogy he gave was the administration’s financial support of the Palestine Solidarity Movement -- a group that as documented by FrontPageMag.com and as I’ve personally witnessed at Duke, is in league with Islamic terrorists. This administrator was very eager to see that we were having progress in getting other groups involved. Clearly, he was afraid of having a community event run by conservatives. Of course, were leftists in charge, it would not be an issue, just standard operating procedure.
So I’m sure he was pleased to discover that by the day of the memorial, 10 major student groups were on board. Given the conditions of being a member group of the Memorial Commission, this is in itself something I consider to be one of the major successes of the memorial project. I knew that if I simply invited student groups, some of them quite leftist, to be part of the commission, and thought we’d all sit down and hammer out plans for a memorial that we’d end up with either chaos or a memorial rife with their political agendas. Instead, I proposed to them the existing plan that I had, and the request was either sign on to this or sign on to nothing.
So, for instance, when the Asian Student Association said they were concerned the memorial didn’t deal enough with Asians assaulted who were mistaken for being Muslim, we explained that our memorial’s design was already created and budgeted but they were free to independently pursue such programming. If we somehow accommodated every request of sponsoring student groups, a memorial for those murdered on 9/11 would have become quite distracted, to say the least.
My feeling is that some of the student groups who typically aren’t involved in activities like ours, which honored the military and their sacrifices, were put in a similar place as the administration. The administration knew key people in the city were behind it, were worried about conservatives running it, but no one else had come to them with such an offer, and saying no would be an extremely hard decision to defend. Similarly, the far-left student groups knew key administrators were now behind it, were worried about who was running it, didn’t have memorials designed of their own and didn’t have other offers to be part of one, and knew saying no would be an extremely hard decision to defend.
So the student groups came on board and they are all to be congratulated, along with the administration, for putting aside their political biases and being part of something so profoundly important. It was a wonderful thing to see a community coalition supporting a 9/11 memorial that is meaningful and so distant from what you’d expect on a college campus. I’ve certainly been critical of the Duke administration, but here I both applaud and thank them profusely for their support, which I believe is a very significant step forward.
Here is the program they were supporting and which was brought to Duke’s campus, as explained in the full page ad we ran in our student newspaper.
5 years ago America suffered the worst and most horrific attack in its history. It was a brutal, unprovoked assault against thousands of innocent civilians and the country in which they lived. Nearly 3,000 were murdered at the Pentagon, the World Trade Center, and in a flight that crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
The victims knew no common age, religion, race or creed. They came from all walks of life. They represented all facets and attributes of American society. They were brothers and sisters, friends and companions; they were mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives.
This Monday, September 11th , we come together to mourn the dead, honor their memory, and pay tribute to those firefighters, police, and rescue workers who made the supreme sacrifice. We come together as a community and as Americans.
The night before, Sunday at , we will be screening the film ‘United 93’ in Griffith Theatre to share the tragic story of the flight’s passengers and to recognize their heroic acts. All are invited to view this powerful and sobering film.
On Monday, there will be a display of 2,997 flags on West Campus to memorialize the fallen—one flag for each person who perished on 9/11. Flag pins will also be distributed, which we encourage everyone to wear to show our strength and resolve in the ashes of such devastation, and to display our unity across all ideological and political boundaries.
There will also be a visual display in the Bryan Center to mark the attacks and to pay tribute to the noble rescue workers who rushed upwards towards hell as the sky rained down with ash and fire, dying as they lived—with the great and selfless courage that showed the whole world the unyielding spirit of our nation.
At on Monday, 9/11, there will be a memorial service on the Plaza to which everyone at Duke and in Durham is urged to attend. The service will feature representatives from the Durham Fire Department, Durham Police Department, the Durham City Council, the U.S. Armed Services, and the Chapel Dean, Reverend Sam Wells. It is an opportunity for all of us to show our sympathy for the bereaved families; our support for the rescue workers who risk their lives to keep our communities safe and the soldiers called away from home and into battle; our defiance of the terrorists who condemned thousands of innocents to fiery tombs; and our solidarity as we remember and honor the fallen.
I'll try to give a brief idea illustration of how each of these components played out, especially the memorial service which was everything I had hoped it would be and could be.
The flag memorial was beautiful, and we were able to recruit about 25 people to help set it up. The Duke Chapel lies at the heart of campus and Chapel Drive runs right into it. As one comes up Chapel drive, one could see the flags and the chapel all in one line of sight. This image was made even more moving by the fact that the Durham Fire Department had a truck directly behind the flag memorial and in front of the chapel all day long. They rotated trucks and crews every two hours and right before the service began at 8, they parked five trucks in front of the chapel and two Durham police cars were added as well. Throughout the day, there was also a Duke police car beside the fire truck and two Durham police cars joined in the evening. I also rented a light tower and put it in the quad so at night all the flags were illuminated, which created a very powerful effect. From to I hired a Durham Police officer to guard the memorial so there was no chance of anyone disturbing it in any capacity. When students woke up that morning they were greeted by a stirring image the likes of which they’ve never seen on Duke’s campus. All day I saw people photographing the display and the firemen stopping there to reflect and taking time to mourn. It was very moving.
All the local stations came down to add the display to their evening and/or morning news feeds. Everyone watching at home would be reminded of the staggering toll of that heinous attack five years ago and would also see that while their community was neglecting this painful but essential 9/11 anniversary, Duke students were not.
Indeed, one of the city councilmen explained to me that part of the reason he was so tremendously supportive was not only that he believed in the need for our memorial but that to his dismay the city of Durham, a very far-left operation, didn’t really have anything planned of their own. What we were creating was a memorial for the whole Duke and Durham community.
The budget allowed 3,000 flag pins, which I was able to get at a discount price. It was great to see students walking around wearing their pins on 9/11 and when students and community members arrived at the service, we had them laid out on the table next to the programs so they could be available to everyone present.
On Sunday night we showed "United 93" to what I understand was a good crowd. I welcomed everyone to the film at the beginning but didn't get to see how many finally showed up as I had to return to setting up the flag memorial. One of the students present told me that everyone seemed to be affected by the film. As students left, there was none of the energetic small talk and joking around that is usual as people exit a movie theater. Instead, people were very quiet and the mood was very somber, befitting the occasion.