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UMass poses political criticism

Scholars present tough questions about Sept. 11

By Patrick Healy, Globe Staff, 9/12/2002

Commemorate, or debate?

That was the question on college campuses yesterday, and many schools aimed for sensitivity and solemnity instead of the usual rough-and-tumble campus exchanges. Harvard University observed Sept. 11 yesterday with an hour of soaring music, apolitical speeches, and prayers from Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and other religious traditions.

Some chose a different path. At the University of Massachusetts at Boston, officials held a moment of silence and a memorial service, but also sponsored a frank discussion about the politics and consequences of last fall's terrorist attacks.

One UMass American Studies scholar criticized the Bush administration's Iraq policy and questioned the patriotism of Vice President Dick Cheney as a young man, while a historian accused politicians and the media of failing to grapple sufficiently with the hardest question asked last Sept. 11: Why did the attacks happen?

Since last fall, many college officials have been pondering the appropriate tone to mark the loss of life, particularly since so many campuses lost alumni or relatives of students and employees last September. Several officials said they wanted to live up to the spirit of their educational mission but were concerned that full-throated debates would upset some people on campus.

''We tried to think very carefully about the right response to Sept. 11, and, frankly, I don't have a clue whether we got it right,'' said Susan H. Murphy, vice president for student and academic services at Cornell University, which is sponsoring panels, vigils, and other events all week.

''Institutions are having hugely different responses to the day,'' Murphy added, ''but that's because every institution needs to define what it thinks is the right thing for its community.''

At UMass-Boston, the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences asked four scholars to try to put Sept. 11 in perspective, however controversial it might be.

Paul Atwood of the Joiner Center gave the most toughly worded speech, saying a US war against Iraq was ''potentially tragic'' and could lead to the deaths of countless innocent Iraqis. He also sought to put Sept. 11 in some context, citing the ''chain of victims'' - in both the United States and the Arab world - who have suffered during conflicts between the West and Islamic countries. He also criticized Cheney for trying to explain his exemptions from service during the Vietnam War.

Historian Paul Bookbinder said local television stations report on fires and car accidents far more than on international issues stemming from Sept. 11. He argued that students would be interested in ''serious'' news and discussions - yet some students in the room noted that only 20 people attended yesterday's discussion, making them wonder about the appetite for such a forum.

Jessica Deery, a UMass-Boston junior, said she did not attend the forum because she was preparing for class. But she also said she preferred to mourn the day privately.

''I've been thinking about it a lot, going over that day in my mind,'' Deery said. ''The campus can come together, but people are really dealing with this on their own.''

Patrick Healy can be reached at phealy@globe.com.

This story ran on page B9 of the Boston Globe on 9/12/2002.
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