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A second chance for community on Sept. 11

As I peruse the events the University has planned in remembrance of September 11, I cannot ignore a nagging anxiety and skepticism. I fear that at Duke, for the second time in a year, the institutional response will leave me feeling confused, frustrated and wanting. Blame my doubt generally on three years of living and working in the murkiest of politically correct swamps or specifically on the wrong-headed and meager official response to the terrorist attacks of last September.

One year ago, this nation faced an unimagined and often unspeakable horror. The response was astounding. Forget that patriotism became a pop trend and a fashion statement after a few months. Forget that the flag and its colors quickly became Kitsch icons, and that the words "America," "hero," and "bravery" were used to sell everything from cars, to commemorative coins, to cable television. But that initial response--those first few days and weeks after the attacks--remain simply and sublimely in my heart as evidence of the gold Americans always possess, and the eagerness with which they will share it in times of need. It was this response that was important, critical even, to our national convalescence.

Bravery and heroism? You bet. Commitment? Undoubtedly. But, perhaps the greatest element of the response, especially in the New York area, was the overwhelming sense of community that developed. My family and friends in New Jersey and New York related innumerable instances of altruism, friendship and fellowship.

All of a sudden, it meant something to be a part of a community in New York. Neighbors became more than co-residents, becoming compatriots, companions and friends. Strangers were no longer so strange, but now seen as helpers and healers, mourners and mothers, firemen and fathers. People talked to each other--really talked. Even more amazingly, people listened to each other. These acts resulted from a need for contact and a desire to show the strength of unity.

People acted as neighbors in spite of the wide range of differences and diversities trumpeted daily by our hyper-individualistic political machine and despite the perpetuation of identity politics in the media and the academy. Briefly, in the weeks after Sept. 11, the idea and practice of Americanism overcame the divisive and greedy politics of so-called diversity and multiculturalism. Being American simply implied a love of freedom, a giving spirit and knowledge of right, wrong and justice.

Color was not a prerequisite, nor was religion, or political affiliation. You simply had to believe in the good and strength of your neighbor and the commonalities you both shared in a time of need. Regrettable and terrible acts of prejudice certainly occurred after Sept. 11, and every leader from President Bush on down took pains to caution against such reactions. But most people rose above this and created something wonderful and distinctly American.

Unfortunately, my experience of this was, at best, secondhand. At Duke, the one overriding and constant message was not that of unity, togetherness and altruism, but rather that of political correctness, difference and division. Rather than building community, rather than directly addressing the emotional needs of the majority of students, the University, from its first prayer vigil to its last Public Policy forum, chose to focus on two main issues--the potential backlash against the Arab and Muslim communities and the role that American foreign policy plays in inspiring fundamentalist insanity and hatred.

Should these have been elements of a complete response? Sure. Should they have been the initial, most persistent, and most noticeable aspect of the response? No, not on Sept. 12, 2001 and not every day for the rest of the semester.

Partly, it was the sense of alienation at Duke, a longing for fellowship and the need for community support that sent me packing last spring for a semester in New York. Gratefully, I found some solace there. Granted, it was months later and commuters in traffic were cursing at each other again, but all around town, you could still discuss your feelings and fears without a PC censor checking every word for sensitivity and inclusiveness. With my friends and family, or with a random stranger on the subway, I could express my anxiety, anger and confusion without hearing the inane suggestion that being white, American and male somehow renders me incapable of understanding the nature of the attacks and the feelings of others in the community.

I came back to Duke whole again.

So Duke, I ask simply this from you on Sept. 11, 2002. Choke back your identity politics for a day. Do not ask me to conclude that the transformation of American passenger planes into missiles resulted from U.S. policy in the Middle East. Do not tell me that America brought this on itself. Just for a day, make me feel like I live in a community as an individual, not as an automaton among other vastly different and disconnected automatons. Do not make me attend sensitivity or diversity training. Save it for the next time you have class on Veteran's Day, Memorial Day or the Fourth of July, or for the next time you cancel class on MLK Day.

On Sept. 11, give me a prayer service with a discernable prayer, not a political message or an interfaith citation of every religious figure ever known from Abraham to Zarathustra. Host a forum about grieving and healing, about community and about helping. Give me a commemoration that commemorates and a remembrance that remembers.

And if you cannot do these things, then please, do nothing at all. Just leave me alone. Just for a day. I'll call home and talk about what matters. You can program me again on the twelfth.

Jesse Panuccio is a Trinity senior and Duke University Union president.

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