Powerless in a powerful land


As I stood outside at ten o’clock Friday night, cradling a tiny espresso cup with a burning candle inside, I thought about what a terrible time it is to be in law school.

With the post-attack news cycle slowing, CNN and others have turned to human interest reporting to fill the airwaves. As good news organizations do, they’ve depicted this tragedy from an incredible range of vantage points. Middle American farmers. Relatives of the missing. Arab-Americans. Soccer moms. Soldiers. Firefighters. Fathers.

I see people trying to help, people whose lives and whose work keep us fed, keep us safe, keep us healthy. People who, in their small ways, make this world move by doing their best every day at whatever they do.

Where am I?

One of my friends, a Newsweek reporter, spent the night of the attack scurrying between New York hospitals, trying to find survivors. Finally, she ended up at ground zero, talking to confused but determined rescue workers. She got herself a hell of a story. She told me later that it still doesn’t seem real.

It didn’t seem real here, either. By Wednesday I was back into my 1L class routine. A routine that, while still surreal in its own right, seemed utterly meaningless in the wake of this tragedy.

One of my professors dedicated his class to talking about the attack. There were the expected calls for revenge, the expressions of confusion and fear, the concerns about friends and loved ones whose destinies remained uncertain.

What I did not expect were the comments that, to me, verged dangerously on equivocation, or even justification, for this thing that has happened to us. Some seemed to suggest that we were reaping the sour fruits of things like Iran-Contra, Desert Storm, U.S. global hegemony, even slavery; that Osama bin Laden’s hatred was justifiable and the violence explicable; that this catastrophe was no worse than the terrible suffering that happens around the world every day.

Our country, like all nations, has a legacy that is at times messy and at others downright ugly. But to draw any parallel, or worse, to try to establish an appropriate causal relationship between this heinous, violent assault and our nation’s history is wrongheaded and inappropriate. This act’s motivation was not politics, but hate. This act’s victims were not political. They were not combatants, they were not citizens of a nation at war. They were bankers, waiters, firefighters, bureaucrats and parents — people who were in no way responsible for U.S. history or policies.

Our tragedy is not more important because so many of the people were Americans. It should be more important to us because it is ours to deal with.

Firefighters and cops and politicians were trying to restore order Wednesday morning. I and my fellow law students were busy having a class discussion.

What most frustrated me about the dialogue was not that I didn’t agree with some of what was said, but that what was said cost so little. We had the privilege of sitting in an academic enclave where any opinion is given credence, where any idea is worth debate. Harvard Law School, like virtually all of the academy, is a place where all the hot air often amounts to nothing.

While I was fortunate to be safe, I was also frustrated that I was so impotent. While the rest of this country was uniting to solve the problem, my class was trying to argue both sides. We languished in the safety of a classroom as others were preparing to give their lives to secure us the right to do so.

In academic climates rank with privilege and token radicalism, people forget that their easy lives are not free. We are the heirs of a birthright that others are still paying for. We are the heirs of a nation’s mixed legacy that it is our duty not only to criticize, but to improve.

As I understand it, a good lawyer is able to see both sides of an issue. But a good lawyer — like any human being with integrity — also must have the courage to take a side. One day, many of our words won’t be so costless. They will affect decisions, they will affect lives. In some cases, they will affect nations. But right now, my words don’t make a damn bit of difference to America.

And that is the most frustrating sensation of all.

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