Where were you...?

September 14, 2001

Dorothy S. Zinberg, THES columnist, writes direct from Harvard University

Some ten hours after I witnessed the devastation of the World Trade Center on television, moving mechanically from one university activity to another - all connected with the disaster - my thoughts are inchoate.

From the childhood memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt intoning that December 7 1941 would live in infamy to recollections of the state of shock into which the country was plunged by the assassination of President Kennedy, I have been ricocheting between fears for the country and the world while frantically trying to contact friends who live or work in lower New York or at the Pentagon. I wait with trepidation for the names of the victims on the flights that originated in Boston.

At the same time, I obsess over the failures of intelligence and security. Where is Echelon, the putative global surveillance system based in England? For several years I have been assured that the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand monitor every fax, telephone and email in the world. If they are as powerful as portrayed, why did they fail? And the $10 billion (£6.8 billion) annual US budget to fight terrorism? What security has that bought?

Inchoate thinking. A meeting of students and faculty at the Kennedy School at Harvard University provides more rational discussion than the strident words that leap from the television: "We must strike and strike hard", or President Bush's statement: "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them."

The Kennedy School faculty who spoke - four with extensive experience in Washington - made observations that have not even been hinted at during ten hours of television. Graham Allison, a professor of government and the assistant secretary for policy and plans during the first Clinton administration, speaking to several hundred students gathered in an auditorium decked with flags from the 70-plus countries from which they come, began by saying: "It is a delusion that America can bomb other countries with no repercussions - Bosnia, Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan." This was a gutsy statement, yet it is so important for Americans, the majority of whom believe that the country's military forays have been just, to understand that large parts of the world do not share this view.

Jessica Stern, a former member of the National Security Council who worked on reducing the threat of terrorism, speaks Arabic and has written extensively about her interviews with terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She said that the aim of the terrorists is to elicit over-reaction, which becomes their most potent weapon of recruitment.

The dean of the school, Joseph Nye, former director of intelligence, added that military might would not improve the situation, but that an international approach was needed. Every other country must share the sense of vulnerability, even Russia and China and the moderate Arab states, Jordan and Egypt.

Desperate to find something positive in this tragedy, I conclude that these acts of terrorism could bring about the end of the national missile defence system. Clearly, if the multibillion-dollar, unproven system were functioning, it would not have stopped these attacks.

Perhaps the most important call to action came from a young woman alumna of Chinese ancestry. Referring to the recollection of Roosevelt's day of infamy, she exhorted us not to forget what happened to patriotic, dedicated Americans who were of Japanese origin, when they were sent to barbed-wire encampments and deprived of their homes.

The gathering on the steps of the Harvard church opened with the prayer, "I greet you with the greetings of Islam", read in Arabic by a Muslim to several hundred subdued members of the Harvard community. A saddened president, Lawrence Summers, said: "As a university we have an obligation to try to make sense of the events that have happened today and to promote justice and peace. We focus too often on what divides us. At a time like this, we focus on what is important - family, friends, faith, liberty and communityI the things that can give us the faith to move forward."

The Muslim preacher read a prayer and some 80 students sang "We Shall Overcome". I am not so certain. The magnitude of what has happened grows larger with every passing hour.

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