I saw them on the web and in print; I heard them on the radio
and watched them on television; I talked about them on the phone
and in e-mail and face to face with my students, but the events
didn't feel real to me until I saw the photograph of American flight
11's pilot on television.
I fly often between Boston and Los Angeles. I used to take United.
More recently, I have been taking American. It had already sunk
into me that with a slight shift in travel plans, I could have been
on that fateful flight. I was, as it was, scheduled to fly out to
Vancouver the very next day on another early morning American flight.
Several friends called or e-mailed to make sure that I wasn't on
When I saw the pilot's photograph, I cried.
I recognized him. He had flown me on many different flights back
and forth across the United States. I flashed on an image of him
standing in the doorway of the airplane as I was departing one of
my recent flights. Was it to Los Angeles or to Seattle? You don't
usually notice the pilot. Or if you do, you forget who he was as
soon as you leave the plane. But this guy stood out - he had a warm
smile and a friendly laugh; he honestly seemed to care about the
passengers and take great pleasure in the human contact at the beginning
and end of the flight. I struggle as I write this to hold onto concrete
images, to prevent him from turning into the smiling mailman in
the kinds of books they used to give us to read when I was a child.
Yet, I want to hold onto these memories, to remember the exact sound
of his voice, to try to understand what his job meant to him. I
think he may have been the pilot on a flight back from Seattle,
when I had just had my first flair-up of gout, when my foot was
in so much pain that I almost passed out, and he had seen the pain
in my face and offered comforting words and an offer of help. Maybe
it was him. Maybe it wasn't. I no longer can be sure. The photograph
is starting to print itself over my memories. The pilot is no longer
a person of flesh and blood - he is becoming the embodiment of a
myth I may desperately need to carry on with my own life right now.
He is now my hero.
After I saw that photograph, I couldn't look on the repeated images
of the plane slamming into the World Trade Center Towers the same
way again. I can't watch that plane from the outside, gasp in shock
and wonderment or sputter with patriotic fury. As I watch those
images, I am inside the airplane, a passenger on another one of
his flights, trying to borrow a cell phone from someone so I can
call home to my wife, my son, my mother. Words are inadequate.
I heard the pilot's brother speak on the radio, talking about
his brother as a hero who did his job well, had served his country
in the military, and now had given his life serving the passengers
on his plane. I heard the mixture of pain and loss in his voice,
and perhaps, heard what he wasn't saying about the nature of duty.
I remember grumbling to my wife when I got out of bed this past
Tuesday morning, clearly unhappy to have a full day of meetings
ahead, uncertain how I was going to get everything done, and frustrated
that I had slept rather badly the night before - but "duty calls,"
I said half ironically, as I headed out the door.
The concept of duty has come up for me again and again over the
past few days. It is the kind of word that intellectuals normally
scorn, yet which cuts to the heart of the small ethical choices,
the careful balancing act, each of us makes every day.
Where do our duties lie at a moment like this? I remember first
thinking this as I was sitting in my office less than an hour after
the attacks, just a few minutes before I was going to enter my classroom
and confront my students. Clearly, I had a responsibility to be
a leader within my community, to help them confront the pain of
this tragedy, yet what was the best way to serve that responsibility?
I changed my mind many times in those few moments. As I left my
office, I saw clusters of students gathering around, listening to
the news, heatedly discussing their concerns, some of them crying
openly. In those moments, I realized that my duty was to create
a space for comfort and mourning, intellectual response would come
later. I called my wife and told her that I was bringing my students
home - a few blocks away - to watch the news on television. Some
stayed with the community, some left to go home to their families.
Those who stayed crowded into my living room and we watched this
tragedy unfold. People were urgently using their cell phones or
my phone to call New York and try to get word from friends and loved
ones. They were trying to find ways to link their laptops to the
internet and get more information from more sources than we could
watch at once. We flipped between CNN and the BBC trying to see
how the world was responding to these still unfolding events.
That evening, my duty lay with the students in the dorm where
I'm housemaster and so I opened the doors to my apartment and invited
them to come in and watch and talk. Not many came. Many wanted to
watch alone in their rooms or in other kinds of communities. But
those who came needed to talk.
Along the way, I had duties as a father - my son was in Washington
D.C. and frightened by the event, as a son - I wanted to write my
mother and let her know that we were alright, as a mentor - we needed
to find out whether our alums in NYC were safe, as a faculty member
- they needed facilitators to help lead students, faculty, and staff
in discussions at a gathering in MIT's Killian Court and so I volunteered
my time, as a colleague - the faculty gathered together after the
Killian ceremonies and comforted each other, many of us shaken by
the responses we had heard from our students and feeling ill-prepared
for the therapeutic roles that were thrust upon us. I shifted from
one role to the next, from one priority to the other, each action
taken meaning perhaps an action not taken, a responsibility shirked.
When I first reread this, I realized I hadn't referenced my responsibility
for my wife. This is because she is a strong woman who can take
care of herself and has been my comrade through all of these experiences.
We know we have a responsibility to each other, but we also know
this without having to say it and are inclined to focus our emotional
energy elsewhere for the moment.
I hear people say that we must carry on with our normal activities
or otherwise, we allow the terrorists to defeat us, but I am not
certain what our normal responsibilities are. The invisibile compromises
we make between different roles and expectations hour by hour are
no longer so invisible to me.
In my theory class, I was asking the students to reflect on the
duties of theorists in a time of crisis to share their knowledge
and insight, to pull back from the immediate emotions and ask hard
questions that need to be asked. We had answered all of this in
the abstract - as, well, a theoretical proposition. But one student
was more persistent, asking concretely what we could do, other than
wait for the media to call us.
I think this project, still vaguely defined, was born for me at
that moment - in my need to show him and others that there was something
that we could do that would make a difference, that sharing knowledge
was what we as knowledge workers had to contribute to the international
effort to reconstruct our world from the rubble. It was clear we
all wanted to do something and re:constructions emerged from our
discussions. The graduate students quickly weighed their own commitments,
their own obligations, deciding whether they were really prepared
to spend the whole weekend on this, and the faculty weighed their
expectations for classes to decide if they could really push back
their assignments and give students room to commit to this project
or if they would push back their own professional and family obligations
and write material for the site. I have called friends who I haven't
contacted in months and asked them to give up time this weekend
to contribute something to this project and they have dropped what
they were doing and helped.
And I have watched my students, my faculty, my friends, my family
pull together in the last few days to make this happen. We all felt
this was a duty, an obligation to our communities - large and small,
local and global. This was not an abstract intellectual exercise
but rather a labor of love, an act of humanitarian concern. I watched
them quickly learn in practice ideas I would have struggled to communicate
through lectures and textbooks and I watched them realize that our
slogan of "applied humanism" might mean more to all of this than
simply words in a promotional brochure. I watch them struggle moment
by moment with hard ethical choices about words, images, color schemes,
interface designs, which really cut to the heart of all how we can
ask hard questions and still show how much we care about the human
lives that were lost last week. I watched a loose cohort of graduate
students, many of whom arrived here for all over the world, just
a few weeks ago, transform themselves into a community.
Some might say that we have a duty to our country to blindly support
our president in a time of national crisis. I have always felt I
served my country better by asking questions, by making sure its
choices are ethically sound, by challenging authority when it was
stamping out core American principals in the name of defending them.
For me, the questions our site poses are a matter of patriotic duty
- not a blind patriotism that says our country, right or wrong,
but a quiet, self-doubting patriotism, which believes that our country
stands for a set of ideals, ideals we have failed as much or as
more as we achieved, but ideals that are worth defending, especially
in times of crisis. And I believe that patriotism is not inconsistent
with a concern for people around the world, a sense of comradeship
with humanity, and a recognition of other national perspectives.
An intellectual can't be an unthinking patriot - or at least shouldn't
be - but an intellectual who doesn't care deeply about their country
and its traditions has probably isolated themselves too much from
I arrived home at 1 a.m. last night and felt virtuous. I had done
my duty. But my son, who had come home from George Washington University,
needed me to be a father. He was concerned about his own future,
about whether he wanted to go back to school at all given the fact
that DC was almost certainly a target for future terorrist attacks
and that he lived only a few blocks from the White House. He talked
about what he felt taking the train home to Boston through New York
City and seeing through the window the empty hole and the clouds
of smoke where the World Trade Center used to be and I realised
that all of this had a reality for him that it still didn't quite
possess for me. I got angry, frustrated, because I couldn't provide
him any more answers and because I had already given at the office.
He asked me about the people who stayed inside the World Trade
Center even after the first attack on the building. Not those who
were trapped in the upper floors, but those further down or in the
other towers. Some fled, but there were others who remained a at
their desks. They sent out e-mail saying they were safe or called
family on their cellphones and then went back to work. He wondered
why, even if they thought it was safe, they didn't take the day
off, use the events as an excuse to walk in the park or spend time
with their family. He wondered why, even at such moments, their
jobs seemed so important to them. And I couldn't answer his question.
I remembered once, years ago, my son asked me what I would do
if I had only a few minutes to live. I hadn't recognized how serious
this question was to him. I said I would go to my computer and make
sure people knew how to access the essays I was writing, because
I had such a horror over intellectuals who die and their life's
work is lost with them. My son ran from the room crying and my wife
helped me to understand why that answer wasn't what he needed to
hear from me. I was stupid.
I also remember a night, when I was still an undergraduate only
slightly older than he is now, when I sat up late with my fiance
(now my wife), looking at the stars, and talking about our own uncertain
futures. It was just a few nights after Jimmy Carter had reinstated
draft registration in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Last night, we stayed up several more hours, talking, until I
was too exhausted to talk any more. I still wasn't able to give
him what he needed and I still kept getting angry, more at myself,
than at anything he was asking or saying.
It is too simple to read this as an opposition between work and
family - far too simple. The people who stayed at their desks in
the other tower probably felt what I am feeling now - torn between
a duty to their communities and a duty to their families - and were
uncertain how to reach the right balance between the two. We all
wear so many hats, have so many different sets of duties.
I have a ticket on American flight 11 in two weeks. I have to
decide soon whether I get on the plane and go out to Los Angeles
to help try to build my program and serve my community. I made a
quick decision yesterday - I told my Dean that I would make the
flight. This morning, after the long conversation with my son, it
no longer seems so simple to me where my duty lies.
I am writing this essay from home, but in a few moments, I am
going back to the office to work some more on re:constructions.
Right now, I feel a need to build something.
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