Remembering 9/11

Town meeting on September 11 issues plea for tolerance

It was an unlikely town meeting at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy that featured two academics, one originally from Lebanon, the other of Pakistani descent; a former Suffolk County district attorney who is African-American; a Fletcher student and peace activist; and an Irish-American comic who hails from the streets of Cambridge.

But taken together, this group formed the basis of a fascinating discussion that took place at the Fletcher School on September 9—two days before the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks against the United States.

Students, faculty and staff gather in front of Ballou Hall on September 11 to remember and reflect on the tragedy. © Mark Morelli

Co-sponsored by the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and the Fletcher School, more than 350 people, including students and community members from the Boston area, packed ASEAN Auditorium to reflect on the extraordinary event now known simply as 9/11. A giant screen in the Hall of Flags accommodated the overflow audience.

Hosted by Christopher Lydon, a familiar radio voice and TV personality from his days as the host of WBUR-FM's "Connection" and Ch. 2's "Ten O'Clock News," the town meeting was titled "The New American Profile: Eye on the 'Other.' "

The panelists consisted of Leila Fawaz, director of the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts; Ralph Martin II, former Suffolk County district attorney; Jimmy Tingle, political humorist and former commentator on "60 Minutes II;" Qamar-ul Huda, assistant professor of Islamic studies and comparative theology at Boston College, and Usmaan Ahmad, a Fletcher student and political activist involved in finding a solution to the Indian-Pakistani impasse on Kashmir.

Personal stories
With audience members occasionally chiming in, the discussion dealt with changes in our national psyche and public policy issues such as civil liberties, racial profiling, diversity and immigrant life. Lydon set the stage by posing the question, "How are you holding up?"

The evening turned out to be as personal as it was political. Fawaz said that as an American of Lebanese descent, she had become a more guarded person since 9/11. In particular, she related one incident in which she and her husband were waiting in line at a local movie theater. "For the first time, my husband happened to talk to me in Arabic. I got so angry at him," she said, fearing a hostile reaction from other movie patrons.

Martin, the former DA, spoke of feeling helpless in the face of terrorism. "My life is good. My kids think I'm a great guy. I make a very good living [in private law practice]. Life is great—until I think of the things I can't control."

Students listen to speakers during a ceremony on the Medford/Somerville campus, marking the first anniversary of September 11. © Mark Morelli

'Profound sadness'
Martin also spoke of the disorienting effects of the attacks. "Public safety was my business, and we were pretty good at it. But [with 9/11], there was nothing we could do," he said. The former prosecutor also spoke about his feelings as a member of a minority group. "As an African-American, I feel now another part of the population will know what it's like to be targeted," he said.

Tingle spoke of the "profound sadness" he felt on September 11. "One of our neighbors was at the Windows on the World. We tried to get hold of her, but it became apparent she was dead," he said.

Still, Tingle was not above some gentle political humor. Calling himself "a lifelong Democrat, a peace activist who had opposed the Persian Gulf War and did benefits for the Red Cross," Tingle announced that he had given up on the flag and given up on God. "But on September 11, I found myself praying for Bush," he said as the audience clapped and broke into laughter.

The angry brown man
Ahmad, an American born of Kashmiri parents, spoke forcefully about the discomfort minorities felt in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. "On September 12, I was in Brooklyn, N.Y. Every single business owned by a minority had [an American] flag—as a protection," he said. Ahmad also recalled being the victim of racial profiling aboard an American Airlines flight as he was about to return to the Fletcher School from the Thanksgiving holiday. Recalled Ahmad, "The pilot said, 'The flight attendant isn't comfortable with you on the plane.' " When Ahmad asked what that meant, he said the pilot told him, "Maybe you should have smiled at her." Ahmad was kicked off the plane. "I had become the angry brown man," he said.

And yet, the town meeting ended on a hopeful note. Said Fawaz, "We've got to keep the dialogue going...We've got to go back to our principles. That's the best way to win the war."

The Tufts community marked the first anniversary of September 11 with remembrance services on all three campuses. The university chaplaincy and Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow led an evening program of reflection and remembrance on the main academic quad on the Medford/Somerville campus.