Mark O'Connor, the director of Boston College's Arts and Sciences
Honors program, likes to say that he and his students examine the
challenges posed "when the life of the mind meets the life of the
troubled spirit." One of the profound effects of the September 11
attacks is that they have forced all of us to confront just such
questioning. In the midst of great tragedy, does the mind actually
have anything to offer the troubled spirit? Can grief and rage be
converted into wisdom? Can the abstractions of Athens or the revelations
of Jerusalem provide even a partial answer to the simple, painful
question that everybody is asking: Why?
Two weeks after the attacks, on a cool fall afternoon, a group of
11 Honors students and three faculty gathered in a circle on the
couches in the Gasson Hall Honors library and attempted to grapple
with these issues. The students were freshmen and sophomores and
came from all over the country. The faculty were Professor O'Connor,
from the Honors program; Christopher McDonough, an assistant professor
of Classics and Honors; and Donald Hafner, a professor of political
"Extraordinary events like this sweep beyond the imagination," O'Connor
said, opening the conversation. "Our challenge now--everybody's challenge
after this tragedy--is to try to justify what it is we spend our
time doing. Why do we sit around discussing what is good, or what
is just? Does it matter?"
What emerged early in the discussion came as a bit of a surprise.
Rather than drawing upon literature to understand and shed light
on the tragedy, several of the students instead immediately remarked
that their living through a time of moral and political tragedy
was helping them to appreciate the depth and complexity of the works
they were studying. "I think of all of those lists of names and
places in The Iliad," one young woman said. "Before all of this
happened, the names just seemed so boring. But now, after having
seen the names of all of the people who died in the World Trade
Center scrolling across the TV screen, it makes much more sense.
Homer's doing exactly what the TV was. These people were killed!
They're just gone, and the names are all that's left."
Another student, a soft-spoken young woman, jumped in soon after.
"We've just finished reading Antigone," she said. "Before the attacks,
we pretty much all just felt sympathy for Antigone, and hated Creon.
But now there's this odd parallel with Bush. He's got to figure
out how to be a leader at a very difficult time. I don't necessarily
like everything that the guy does or says, but it's hard, what he
has to do. Seeing what he's going through has made a lot of us sympathize
The practical challenges of leadership after the September attacks
developed into a major strand of the conversation. What is the just
way to respond? Is the infliction of suffering and the killing of
innocent people acceptable in the pursuit of justice?
"On this point," Professor McDonough said, "I keep coming back to
Achilles, who at the beginning of The Iliad asks, Why am I here?
Why should I be killing innocents? Those are questions we're all
thinking about as we consider what our response should be."
"We have to remember something," a young man said. "This isn't black
and white. America is not clean. We're just not."
"But do we have to be clean in order to pursue justice?" Professor
"Machiavelli has interesting things to say about this," a sophomore
said. "Would our killing innocent civilians in Afghanistan in order
to get Osama bin Laden be an example of what Machiavelli calls 'correct
cruelty?' And for that matter, were the attacks themselves an example
of 'correct cruelty' from the terrorists' perspective? How can we
reconcile the pragmatic politics of the moment, which almost demand
retribution of some sort, with the Christian ideals of forgiveness
and turning the other cheek?"
"I know Jesus advocated turning the other cheek," a young man said,
"but he also never shied away from condemning evil, and even from
recognizing the authority of the state to take action. Those are
things we have to do now. We can't just sit back." Several students
nodded in agreement.
The conversation moved on to the idea that although thought can
be ambiguous, action cannot--a central message of Machiavelli. Professor
O'Connor also brought up Shakespeare's Richard II, another Honors
text, in which King Richard, a passive witness to the usurpation
of his power by Bolingbroke, repeatedly asks himself, Why? and as
a result loses himself in a hall of mental mirrors. As in The Prince,
action in Richard II, represented by Bolingbroke, wins out over
The question Why?, of course, is powerfully asked in the Western
tradition by Job, and Professor McDonough suggested to the group
that part of the trauma engendered by the September 11 attacks is
that, for the first time in the country's history, the United States
has found itself in Job's position: suffering, wanting and needing
to ask Why?, but not finding (and perhaps afraid of knowing) the
One sophomore was visibly offended by the analogy. "I've never heard
the U.S. compared to Job," he said, and his words provoked laughs
around the room.
The conversation continued for some time, probing ethical and political
questions with a collegial ebb and flow. When it was time to wrap
up, Professor McDonough and Professor O'Connor joked that they have
dramatically different nicknames for the Honors program--the Department
of Truth and Beauty (McDonough) and the Department of Woe and Intrigue
(O'Connor). This raised smiles, but everybody appreciated the point
behind the humor--the nicknames are both apt and demonstrate the
intersection in the Honors program of the life of the mind and the
life of the troubled spirit.
The best that one can hope for from studying such things, Professor
O'Connor said, is what Wordsworth holds out at the end of "The Prelude,"
Book XIV: "What we have loved, / Others will love, and we will teach
Toby Lester is a writer based in Boston. His article "Abolitionists,"
about the Healing the Wounds of Murder Conference cosponsored by
Boston College last spring, appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of
In the Honors library, seated from left, are Peter Kammerer '04,
Tania Rudnitsky '04, Kathryn Jefferis '05, Katerina Montaniel '04,
and Becky Herhold '04. Standing, from left, are Matthew Gaul '04,
Colleen Hughes '05, Tristan Nelson '04, Kristen Nazar '04, and Dave
Pedulla '04. Photo by Lee Pellegrini