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President

Pelton Speaks at 9/11 Vigil

September 11, 2011
Boston Common Bandstand

This evening we join the nation – and indeed the world of good and kind-hearted folk – in a day of remembrance:our pledge that we will never forget what happened on September 11 at the dawning of a new century.

The tragedy and heartbreak visited on the innocent 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 ten years’ worth of days.

Today, our memory of it lies before us with the freshness and glory of a dream, as if no time has passed at all. So, we seek healing and comfort in the words of the poet:

Ah, love, let us be true 
To one another! for the world, which seems 
To lie before us like a land of dreams, 
So various, so beautiful, so new, 
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, 
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; 
And we are here as on a darkling plain 
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, 
Where ignorant armies clash by night. (Dover Beach, Matthew Arnold)

It is fitting that Emerson College should have been the host of these decade-long vigils, for we are the humanists, in the broadest and most ancient sense of that word. Through the arts we discover and create coherence, integrity and meaning in human actions – large and small, good and evil. Through communication we shape and illumine human culture and society.

Among the many who lost their lives on that fateful Tuesday morning ten years ago, we must remember the children, almost 2,000 of whom lost a mother or father, one of whom is with us today: Sonia Tita Puopolo, an Emerson graduate, whose mother, Sonia Mercedez Puopolo, was on American Airlines Flight 11, a flight that left Boston bound for Los Angeles but was hijacked and diverted to New York City where it crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

What do we say to the children? What is our wish for them?

Mostly, we hope for them that their tears of despair should so flood the earth that it makes of this old world, a new world.

We hope for them what Martin Luther King hoped for his generation: that “unarmed truth and unconditioned love will have the final word in reality." 

He said: “I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, other-centered men can build up.”

We hope that they – and we, together – will, one day, be able to look through the confusion of the moment and listen to our "conscience until our conscience becomes a trumpet call to like-minded men and women" to help create out of this tide of human despair, pain and want, a sea of joy and light. (see Jane Addams' Washington's Birthday, Union League Club, Chicago, Feb. 23, 1903)

We hope, as I said to the convening class just last week, that they should live a life with no regrets; where we see wrong, right it; where we see hurt, soothe it; where we see a broken heart, mend it.

Live a good life and all of the other things will not matter.

We hope that you share your talents and resources with those who have not had the good fortune to participate in the bounty of life.

We hope that you stand for something, stand up for something.

For as awful as 9/11 was (and still is in our memories of it), it is the days that followed that define who we are and what we stand for as a nation.  

When we woke up the following day ten years ago, heartbroken, from a dream whose awfulness had no words to describe it, we had to confront a new reality. Many of us must have felt that the comfort that we had always taken for granted in living in America – on American soil – had been shattered forever. We faced a new vulnerability – a new way of viewing not only our connection to the world, but our place in it.  

But make no mistake about it. We have an opportunity to leave a legacy. History requires it; those who perished that day require it. Both history and they will judge us by our actions – by how we answered – as a nation and as individuals – the question – What will I do?

We saw – with spirits made heavy by human suffering – the deep fissures of hate, cowardice and ignorance – like specters at dawn – that haunt the world’s conscience.

So we sang together and in the days ahead – with courage and resolve – the song of America’s beauty:

My country 'tis of thee
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing,
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims' pride,
From every mountainside
Let freedom ring.

Last night and many nights before, the children, sisters and brothers, neighbors, fellow workers, friends, husbands, wives, partners and lovers, woke restless before the sun appeared in the east, brushing against some dim memory of their lost, seeking to reassemble disparate moments of lost lives into a whole, to beckon them a happy return to us, so that we know they are still here, are still near.

They have left traces of themselves in those now blessed places where we once knew them, some noisy and crowded, but mostly places of repose where the cool air is sweet and the soul may gather itself into a single pinpoint of light, where we feel whole and restored to ourselves. 

“… what a morning – fresh as if issued to children on a beach. What a lark! ... How fresh, how calm, stiller than this, of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave …,” thought Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

And there they are. They are there – off in the distance. We see them there.

And, so, in our longing for resolution, we know – we have to know – that our weary hearts will be softened by life’s tender mercies and that it was enough, after all.

It is enough and we are truly grateful.

Thank you.