A year ago today, Lower Manhattan was covered with a layer of ash. Ash that filled the lungs of its residents, ash that stung the eyes and smelled of death and filth. A year ago today, Lower Manhattan and the United States awoke as places changed forever.
Yet that morning at HLS was tranquil as ever. No dust fell upon our halls. We had seen the violence and fire of the day before only on television. We had faced few hard choices — we did not have to ask ourselves whether or not to leap, whether or not to flee, whether or not to call our spouse or significant other or our parents first. We at HLS are connected to America’s greatest city, where we send a majority of our class each year, by family, by friends and often by birth. On September 11, our task was easy. Few, if any, of us were physically touched. We were asked only to grieve.
For most Americans of our generation, last year’s tragedy was probably the singular national event of our lives. Here it is no different. And like us, most Americans were asked only to grieve, to give to charity, to care, to be better people.
Unlike many Americans, our lives were safe on September 11 in an academic enclave far removed from the workaday world. We are fortunate daily for this shelter, but it also presents a challenge.
We are privileged by virtue of being here. But that privilege comes with a cost: We must strive not only to be better people, but to be the best kind of people. The name of this place can make us powerful, but will also magnify our failures. We cannot let this place shield us from our faults or let us shirk the onus of responsibility. We must choose to be leaders rather than followers, champions of justice rather than prophets of empty rhetoric.
We should look through the pain of last year for transformation, for new ideas and new reasons for our shared existence. Yet so far, we have not. We who would be leaders still speak far too often in the churlish manner of sheltered academics. Instead of new ideas, our debates have often clung selfishly to old ones.
HLS is a place of law and of learning, where possibilities are articulated and dreams are realized. Yet still we hide, avoiding the chance to do justice, to advance reason over mysticism and chaos, and to foster lives of decency, dignity and respect for intellectual debate.
Instead of seeking transformation in tragedy we have too often clung to partisanship and dimestore pedagogy. People on this campus still spend too much time talking past each other and not enough time listening. The motto of this great University is “truth,” yet we too easily accept its ideological substitutes. All too often, in the opinion pages of this newspaper, in campus protests and classroom discussions, we see examples of people not trying hard enough to connect.
In last year’s terrible collapse, in that onrush of dirt and blood and ash, one truth should have seized us all: We cannot be agnostic about the future. We cannot believe that our choices do not matter. And we cannot make a better future, first and foremost, without listening.
As President Summers said, some truths are unassailable. But many assumed truths — and worn ideologies — need reexamination. We cannot be leaders or ideologues unless we are willing to defend our ideas, not by shouting others down, but by critically rethinking our perspectives. We cannot be teachers unless we are still willing to be taught.
One year later, the opportunity to transform, to listen, still stands. There is still a chance to seize this privilege by the reins, to use our time here to force ourselves to rethink.
We should be sorrowful on this somber day, but we should also use this moment, once again, to search for inspiration.