Pelton Introduces 9/11 Panel

September 6, 2011
Bill Bordy Theater, Emerson College

These remarks were given to introduce "A Decade of Fear," a panel hosted by Emerson College that discussed the impact of 9/11 on American life.

It seems to me, and I suspect to many others, that the 10 years that have passed since September 2001 have done so with a surprising swiftness.

For a generation of young people, September 11, 2001 will forever be a point of reference, a marker—just as a presidential motorcade and a grassy knoll in Dallas, Texas, on November 22nd in 1963 was a marker for my generation. I was in middle school on that grey Friday afternoon when an assassin’s bullet brought down John F. Kennedy, just as my oldest daughter was in middle school 10 years ago this week when terrorists attacked America.

The tragedy and heartbreak visited on the innocence that day exceeded our capacity to comprehend the fullness of it.

A series of four coordinated suicide attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and an aborted flight on a charred field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, left almost 3,000 people dead and another 6,000 injured. The emotionally injured and maimed surpassed both numbers combined and inflicted permanent damage on the American psyche. The overwhelming majority of the dead were civilians, including citizens of more than 70 countries.

In other words, if we were to lay the victims out one by one, they would stretch to almost 10 years’ worth of days.

“Oh, horror, horror, horror! This is beyond words and beyond belief!” declares Macduff in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the deeply melancholic refrain that is taken up again almost three centuries later by the ivory trader Kurtz at the end of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Another century has passed and we in America, and people elsewhere with eyes to see, minds to think, and hearts to feel, were made to face our own dark horror.

9/11 changed America. This is undeniable. But what is equally important was the next day, September 12, 2001 and all the days to follow, for these are the days that defined America, the days that tested the true measure of who we are and what we stand for.

How will we respond? What will we do? What must or what can we do? Our answers to these questions honor the living, and the dead.

Foremost, we are reminded that we are part of the involuntary life that makes up the world and that we can neither look out on it from our luxurious shelter nor hide our eyes in selfish complaining.

We are also reminded of Kierkegaard’s dictum that while life must be understood backwards, it must be lived forwards.

Ten years ago, late into the evening of 9/11, a friend told me how her 16-year-old son curled up in her lap as he watched in disbelief at what he saw on the television screen. She said that these events had rendered us all as if we were children. She was right. We were all children then. Searching with a new innocence—and a new knowledge—for answers that would come only with time.

As members of an academic community, all of us here at Emerson have an obligation to reflect not only on important events like 9/11, but also on the root causes of such events. And those who teach must inspire students to see an event as it really is and to respond with critical inquiry, compassion, creativity, and the civic responsibility that comes with the freedom of living in a participatory democracy.

Thus, I am very proud that we have gathered together a group of distinguished visitors who will provide us with important perspectives not only on 9/11, but also on 9/12 and the days that followed.

Thank you very much.