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9/11 Remembrance Event

Remarks by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Rensselaer Union Lawn (Corner of Sage Ave. and 15th St.)

9:00 a.m. Sunday, September 11, 2011

Good morning.

Thank you for joining us as we begin this day with solemn ceremony and quiet reflection.

As people, we do measure ourselves and our society in a special way every ten years. So today, ten years after September 11, 2001, we again remember those who lost their lives that day, and the lessons we have derived in the years that have followed.

Perhaps it is impossible not to recall the horror of September 11, 2001 -- the tragic loss of life, the fear, and seeing the face of evil. But we also can choose to remember good works, heroic deeds, and the sweetness of the lives lost. We can commemorate what was revealed, what was changed, and what we gained from our association with those whose lives were lost.

The private commemorations will vary from person to person, depending on how our lives and the lives of those around us were transformed.

Public commemorations, like this one, give us the opportunity to draw from each other’s strength; to honor publicly those we appreciate - for their lives, their actions – in some cases, their heroism – or simply the time we spent together; and, in a sense, to pay a debt to those who paid a price, who sacrificed so much on 9/11 and in the years that have followed.

Ten years ago, our community grieved, but we also stepped into action. We cancelled classes at 1 PM so that students and staff could assist in a blood drive. (The blood drives have continued each year, including today.) We raised funds for the families of those who were lost, and we organized discussion forums to share information and to engender understanding – and tolerance.

We all have our memories of that day - even those who were children that day, especially children who lost parents when the World Trade Center towers came down, when the airplane hit the Pentagon, and when the plane went down in Shanksville, PA. We know that all of those who lost loved ones that day continue to grapple with painful memories. We should keep them in our thoughts and prayers, and remember, in particular, the heroesthe sacrifices made by the firefighters and the policemen at the World Trade Center, the responders at the Pentagon, and the passengers on United Flight 93, who fought the terrorists and gave their lives, with the result that their plane did not reach Washington, DC and wreak more havoc.

Rensselaer suffered direct losses that day. Among them, two Rensselaer at Hartford graduates: Nicholas Humber, Class of 1963, who was a passenger on American Flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center; and Carlos DaCosta, Class of 1984, who worked in the north tower.

Many of you, our students especially, were young children on that day. You are young adults today, and you have grown up against a backdrop of what has been called “the war on terror,” with conflict abroad, and sacrifices by our young men and women in the military, as well as by civilians and our military allies in the countries in which we have engaged in conflict. We should remember and honor, every day, the sacrifices that are made by them to protect our way of life, even as there remains suffering in the countries of our conflicts.

At the time, and in the time following, many have said that on September 11, 2001, the world changed. And in many ways, it did. The events of 9/11 have led us into subsequent conflicts, the detention of suspected Al Qaeda operatives and terror suspects, the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Many of us have heightened fear and suspicion about Muslims, and about any who are different than we. This has developed at a time when we are living through the “great recession” and a fragile national and global economy, and, it seems, one natural disaster after another. Such intersecting vulnerabilities naturally make us feel unsettled and hypersensitive.

As we struggle with our feelings about all of these things, I am reminded of a documentary about 9/11 that appeared on PBS in 2002. It was entitled, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero – with an explicit look at religion and how it played into that day. Let me share three brief vignettes from that documentary which I spoke of in 2002.

An Episcopal priest, who volunteered at Ground Zero in the days immediately following the attacks, was asked to bless bucket after bucket of victims’ body parts. It was a gruesome task but, for him, a necessary duty. He said:

“As I looked deeper into the bucket I was convinced of a truth that I had always paid lip service to, but now knew was undeniable and as real as it gets: that we are all one. It doesn’t matter what our race, creed, gender, or background happens to be, we’re all one. We live together, ultimately, we all die together.”

A Roman Catholic priest observed of the victims at the World Trade Center:

“Here there were Jews present, there were Christians, there were Buddhists, there were atheists, there were Muslims. There were rich, there were poor. There were CEO’s, there were waiters. There were newlyweds, there were widowers. It was humanity.”

And finally, a rabbi spoke of the heartbreaking telephone messages of victims saying goodbye to their loved ones as expressions of “pure love,” and he concludes:

“The real experience behind religion is love. It is about connection, and it is no more complicated than that.”

In vivid contrast to the televised images of fire and destruction, my recollection of 9/11 here at Rensselaer includes wonderful images of students, faculty, and staff – people of different nations, diverse faiths, and divergent persuasions and perspectives – gathered at the Alumni Sports and Recreation Center to draw strength and solace from each other.

We continue to do so, and, perhaps, this is the clearest sign that we cannot forget our friends, our colleagues, and our family, in joy and in pain.

We come together as people of a sharing community. At significant moments through the ages, people have brought their words, their prayers, their symbols, and their music to public ceremonies. Today, we also bring our words, our prayers, our symbols, and our music. The song the Rensselyrics will sing next, “Fix You,” laments a time “when you lose something you cannot replace.”

Certainly, that day, ten years ago, was such a time. But the song also reflects the drive we have to fix, to repair, and to heal. “Lights,” the song says, “will guide you home.” And those lights are the care and compassion and love we have for each other.

Let us never let those lights go out.

Thank you.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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