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photograph of Television with panel discussion
let us reason together

It was on the morning of September 11, at the first meeting of a tragedy response group formed by President William P. Leahy, SJ, that someone surfaced the idea of offering special academic programs to help students understand the morning's events. But not yet, the group decided; first, mourning, prayer, and condolence.

Nine days later, with an evening discussion titled "9/11/01: Why?" and before an audience of about 300 that filled the seats and aisles of McGuinn Auditorium, the University launched a series of programs that will extend through the academic year and will focus on the historical, intellectual, religious, and emotional agencies that came together to form history on September 11.

The speakers at the first session were all seasoned University faculty: Ali Banuazizi, the social pyschologist and authority on ethnic and religious politics in South Asia; Jeanne Guilleman, an anthropologist and close student of biological warfare; Flatley Professor of Theology David Hollenbach, SJ, who studies the collisions of ethics, religion, and politics; and Donald Hafner, a political scientist and expert on national security issues.

With each of the panelists given 15 minutes to elucidate one of four weighty questions (Why the Middle East? Why America? Why now? and What next?), none had an opportunity to journey much beyond the propositions to be found on CNN or in Newsweek. The students in the audience seemed rapt nonetheless--many took notes--as were at least 30 faculty and administrators I counted, who had also come to hear why.

In the end, what felt as important as the information and opinions was the fact that these particular information and opinion providers spoke to us not in the practiced cadences and trim soundbites of celebrity but in human voices that we knew. As when Jeanne Guilleman detoured in her presentation of "Why now?" to score Susan Sontag's contention, in the September 24 New Yorker, that the suicide terrorists "were not cowards." As when Don Hafner closed his tour of post-Cold War U.S. military policy with an old-fashioned exhortation to students to "let your voice be heard" in national politics. As when Ali Banuazizi, in his excursion through South Asian culture, gently joked that "Afghans have a Jeffersonian mistrust of government" and then seemed startled and pleased by the laughter that rose toward him--the first and only time during the evening when his eyes and face did not suggest a man who'd just risen from a long bedside vigil.

Ten days later, McGuinn was the scene of a second faculty panel discussion, on the history and culture of South Asia. Again, McGuinn Auditorium was filled. And filled again on October 16, when three Boston College faculty addressed the question "What Are We Fighting For?" Meanwhile, a faculty volunteer organizing committee, led by Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Michael Smyer, arranged to close out the semester with the University of Chicago's Martin Marty speaking on fundamentalism; Harvard's Fr. Brian Hehir in a public address on Catholic just war theory; and a panel on "Where was God on September 11?"

The last forum I attended prior to deadline for this article was "What Are We Fighting For?" As with all the panels, the event concluded with questions. A student wanted to know whether we are at war with terrorism or with Al Qaeda. Another asked how we would know if we won. "Is the model of truth consensus?" another student asked. "That student is in my class," announced panel moderator and political scientist Marc Landy. "I'm proud of that."

Ben Birnbaum

Photo: From left: political scientist Donald Hafner, sociologist Jeanne Guilleman, psychologist Ali Banuazizi, and theologian David Hollenbach, SJ. Their September 20 discussion was broadcast by BC Cable.
Photo by Lee Pellegrini

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