It was Sept. 11, 2002, and there was no reason on earth to feel anything but somber. That pervasive sense of doubt and vulnerability that had been thrust upon us a year ago would probably have been reawakened anyway, but certainly, with all the media replays, ceremonies and testimonials, an American person going to work would be hard-pressed to anticipate a day of anything but quiet resignation.
Thus my frame of mind on Sept. 11 as I crossed the California State University, Northridge campus toward the classroom where I teach freshman composition. People were wearing dark colors, I noticed, and the campus was unusually still. But then, draped on the side of one of the buildings, an enormous banner rustled in the desert breeze: "Anti-War Protest: In front of the Oviatt Library 1-3 p.m." Well, against all the odds and expectations, I felt a smile coming on. I was positively beaming.
It was the perfect gesture on the perfect day. The students, I thought proudly, were participating, acting, recognizing their role in the world and asserting their collective voice. They, of course, are the people who will have to go and fight a war if there is one. How perfect that on this day, a day our government seemed to be exploiting to advance a military confrontation, these college students would take their stand against it.
My classes would be over by 1 p.m., I realized, noticing that my gait had quickened to accommodate a lively spring. I'd join the students on their march. I'd march not only out of a sense of nostalgia, although there would be that, but to show support, one generation to another, for an important action on a significant day.
As 1 p.m. rolled around, I finished up some business I had in the library. With mild trepidation, I wended my way to the front of the majestic building and wondered: Would the turnout be pathetic? Would there be a turnout? Earlier, when I'd buoyantly asked my students whether they'd be attending, they'd looked at me blankly. Had I misread the enormous banner? Had my eyes deceived me?
No, there they were, about a 150 students clad in black. They hoisted placards reminiscent of an earlier time and stood proudly waiting as more students fell in to join them. Not a sizable showing, but still, a noticeable presence of serious purpose on the sun-bleached campus.
Waiting for the sea of students to commence its movement, I beamed like a proud parent, and joined the small but forceful throng as it passed my way. There was spirit here and pluck. Why, I could see as we approached him, there was even a serious-looking, bespectacled youth handing out fliers. Maybe this march had legs; maybe follow-up demonstrations were in the works. Who said our young people weren't politically involved?
With a smile of support, I took the sheet that the boy handed out and read. My spirits sank as quickly as they had lifted earlier in the day. The paper I was reading was an anti-Israel tirade, put out by the Lyndon LaRouche for President campaign.
"A nest of Israeli agents," it hissed, "[sits] inside the U.S. government." And its goal is, "to induce President Bush and the U.S. Congress into a war with Iraq.... Does this raise questions about the true, mysterious authors of the Sept. 11 attack?" the paper toxically posed.
"How can you spread this poison?" I asked the student. "How can you suggest that Israel had anything to do with this atrocity?"
The boy shoved his face to within inches of mine. "You don't know what you're talking about," he shouted.
Of the many things that can be said of Sept. 11, it's fairly clear that, at least for the foreseeable future, it will be a morning on which we wake up resigned to being permeated with feelings of solemnity. This year, however, for this American citizen, feelings were not so easy to predict. Within a few short hours, my expectations had been blown by events and ideas I could not have anticipated. And maybe that's the most fitting commemoration of all.