The campus in the wake of 9-11

Author: Ed Cohen

A giant hook and ladder truck from the South Bend Fire Department stood on the Main Quad in front of Walsh Hall and Sorin College. Parked nearby were an engine from the campus fire department and various other rescue vehicles. No sirens whooped in the twilight of an overcast fall day, though. The dominant sound was the pealing of bells from the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. There was no fire, either. And no firefighters to be seen.

They were all inside the church.

It was October 11, a month from the day of terrorist airliner crashes in New York City, at the Pentagon and in western Pennsylvania, and the University was holding a special Blue Mass to honor and ask God’s blessing on local public safety personnel along with the hundreds who perished in the rescue efforts in New York City.

Inside the church a white firefighter’s helmet rested in front of the altar between depictions of Saint Florian, patron of firefighters, and Saint Michael the Archangel, patron of police officers. Nearby stood a wreath that read “Pray for Peace and Reconciliation.” In the front pews in uniform sat the 11 special guests: three firefighters and eight police officers from an engine company and precinct at Ground Zero.

The old stereotype of the Irish cop pounding the beat in Gotham must still have some substance to it, because the group included a Conway, a Concannon, a McNally and a McGill. At the end of the Mass, police Sergeant Eddie Colton and firefighter John Gilhooly approached the altar for a special presentation. Colton was carrying a box.

In a Brooklyn accent tight with emotion, Colton explained that the box contained an American flag that had flown for two weeks over Ground Zero next to the temporary morgue. Either by chance or divine intent, when the group went to the morgue the day before leaving for Indiana to look for a priest to bless the flag, they had found only one clergyman present. He turned out to be a Notre Dame alum, Father Charles Miller, OFM, ’59.

Handing the flag to the celebrant and homilist of the Mass — President Malloy — Eddie Colton said, “God bless you . . . God bless America.”

The capacity congregation gave him a standing ovation.

The Blue Mass was only one of the many ways the campus community responded publicly to the events of September 11, but it illustrated as well as any the beliefs and culture that define Notre Dame: Roman Catholic and Irish-American; a chapel in every dorm and a football pregame ceremony where lines from the Constitution and Declaration of Independence are recited like a prayer; a university with Army, Navy and Air Force ROTC units, and a substantial portion of the faculty and student body committed to social justice and peace, if not outright pacifism.

In the days and weeks that followed the tragedy, there were Masses and prayer vigils and candlelight processions around campus, the widespread presence of American flags, demonstrations of honor and support for those in uniform — be they cops, firefighters or soldiers. There was letter-writing, praying and leafleting for peace, reconciliation and refugee relief. Early morning workouts by ROTC students on the intramural fields took on a poignancy, at least to civilian observers. Faculty in anthropology, religion, international affairs, law, peace studies and other disciplines fielded calls from reporters and addressed large audiences of students, colleagues and community members at panel discussions. In dining halls, offices, dorm rooms and classrooms, the questions were always the same: Why did this happen? Why do they hate us? What should we do?

There were answers and disagreement, confusion and worry. And, sometimes, new precautions and misunderstandings.

A campus mail carrier refused to pick up a parcel at the Notre Dame post office that had a Chinese return address and was addressed to a Chinese student. Although the box was wrapped in plastic, a white powder could be seen leaking from within. The substance turned out to be laundry detergent.

Airplanes were banished from the skies over Notre Dame stadium during games, and even the Goodyear blimp was ordered to keep its distance.

On a Sunday at the end of September, some 70 Notre Dame Army ROTC students wearing camouflage uniforms with packs and carrying rubber replica M-16s were treated to a helicopter ride back to Notre Dame after endring training exercises at a facility 20 miles to the west. The chopper landed in a field at Holy Cross College. Traffic was stopped along U.S. 31 Business to permit the soldiers to cross in formation. They then marched through campus, passing the police station and Grotto on their way back to the ROTC’s Pasquerilla Center.

The sight of soldiers dressed for battle and carrying what looked like weapons inspired some observers but alarmed others. The commanders had arranged ahead of time for campus security police to help with the road crossing, but few people outside of security knew what was happening. A University administrator later called the ROTC commanders together and reminded them that maneuvers in such attire were permitted only in designated areas, like vast parking field bordered by Pendle and Juniper roads.

Such restrictions have existed for years, but some interpreted the action as a hostile gesture toward the ROTC by supposedly anti-military elements within the administration.

For many individuals, grieving was the first order of business.

By midday of September 11, the new rector of Keough Hall, Father Peter Jarret, CSC, ’86, knew for certain that his niece, Amy Jarret, had been aboard the second plane to hit the World Trade Center towers. She had been a flight attendant for United Airlines for several years.

Stephen Fallon, a member of the Program of Liberal Studies and English faculties, lost his eldest brother, William, at the World Trade Center. He worked on the 62nd floor of the north tower (the first to be hit) as an executive for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Everyone else in his division got out safely.

Mercifully, worst fears were not always realized. Sophomore Tom Galvin’s father, Tom Sr., deputy chief of the New York fire department’s Division 3, was inside the Marriott hotel adjacent to the north tower and about to take command of operations in the south tower when the south tower collapsed. About 40 firefighters were in the hotel. Galvin was among 30 who escaped.

Then there was Muffet McGraw, coach of Notre Dame’s defending national champion women’s basketball team. In early September she made arrangements to go on a cross-country recruiting trip. Her plan was to leave Boston for California on September 11. She reserved a seat on United Flight 175, which became the second plane flown into the World Trade Center.

Fortunately, one of her assistant coaches, Kevin McGuff, convinced her to fly out of the Providence, Rhode Island, airport. He was taking a flight home out of that airport on the same day. They ended up driving back to South Bend together, along with men’s head coach Mike Brey, who also happened to be at the same airport.

There were demonstrations of charity and generosity. At the home football game against Michigan State on September 22 (the first game played after a September 15 road contest versus Purdue was postponed till the end of the season), hundreds of students and stadium personnel collected money for a Notre Dame relief fund for New York City. At the end of the first quarter, blue recycling containers were passed hand to hand down every row of the 80,000-seat stadium. The total offering came to more than a quarter of a million dollars.

As everywhere else, the first reaction to the events was stunned incomprehension. Shortly after the news broke, classes were canceled and a day of prayer was declared. Supplicants lined the prayer rail at the Grotto. Students crowded into dorm TV lounges and each others’ rooms to watch the events unfold. All day long a single bell tolled mournfully from the Basilica.

In Breen-Phillips Hall, sophomores Kelly Shaffer and Christina Shreiner hung a sheet from their second-story window with lyrics from the song “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” by the politically conscious Irish rock band U2. The banner read, “Can’t believe the news today/Can’t close my eyes and make it go away/How long must we sing this song?/Tonight we can be as one.”

At 3 in the afternoon an estimated 7,000 people gathered on the South Quad for a Mass concelebrated by 75 Holy Cross priests, including Father Malloy and Daniel Jenky, CSC, ’70, ’73M.Th., auxiliary bishop of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese. In contrast to the somber mood, it was a dazzling blue-sky day.

“On the altar today we will say prayers that Jesus will be present with us again,” Monk said to a mass of people that stretched from Alumni Hall nearly to Badin. “His words are emblazoned on the Sacred Heart statue not too far to my right: ‘Come to me all you who are afflicted with heavy burdens for I will be with you. My burden is easy and my comfort light.’ He is our source of comfort. He is the one who can give a perspective on the incomprehensible horror that we have experienced today.”

The priest also urged restraint. “The worst thing that we can do is pass judgment on people out there we do not know. We need to leave the responsibility for determining that to those with the capacity to do so.”

Debate over how to respond to the attacks dominated the letters and columns on the Viewpoint page of The Observer for weeks.

Aaron Kreider ’01, one of the founders of the Progressive Student Alliance, frequently has spoken on issues from gay rights to sweatshop labor. Now a graduate student in sociology, he was one of the first to suggest that U.S. foreign policy nurtured the resentment that led to the terrorist attacks.

In a column titled “End terrorism by eradicating injustice,” Kreider criticized the government’s continuing support of brutal but U.S.-friendly dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, and he questioned whether a Catholic university should allow the ROTC to operate and CIA to recruit here. He said he could see Notre Dame-trained officers participating in a “vengeful military response” that would kill civilians and only provoke further terrorist attacks.

Kreider’s words and a later column by junior Joanna Mikulski suggesting that the crisis could be peacefully resolved by cooperating in international criminal prosecutions along with embargoes and sanctions touched a nerve.

“I shudder to think of what the world would be like today if the Allies attempted to stop Hitler with boycotts and strongly worded resolutions,” read a letter from Mary Beth Ellis ’99 SMC.

A classmate of Kreider, columnist Mike Marchand ’01, said of letters that implied that the United States had it coming: “I have a one-word answer for what we did to deserve this: nothing. . . . Not even our most egregious transgressions could possibly justify the sort of malicious destruction . . . we witnessed on September 11.”

The question of the proper Christian response to the attacks prompted recently retired law professor Charles Rice, a regular columnist for the paper, to review the Catholic church’s teaching on just wars. Rice, a former Marine, wrote that all the preconditions for just war appeared to have been met, including the certainty that other means of recourse would be impractical or ineffective. Assuming the perpetrators can be identified, the legal scholar wrote, their attacks on innocent civilians “justify and even demand a conclusive military response.”

Later, in an interview, Rice said a military response, as opposed to law-enforcement-style response, was called for because the attack was on “the nation as a whole. It was an act of war. It was not an individual crime.”

If the campus was divided on how to respond to the attacks, it wasn’t evident at the next great congregation — the Notre Dame-Michigan State home game of September 22. A couple of days before the game, the bookstore began selling T-shirts with the interlocking ND monogram done in stars and stripes on the front. On the back was an American flag bracketed top and bottom by the words “God Bless America” and “Stand beside her and guide her.” All profits from the $15 shirts were going to victim relief. The initial printing of 6,000 sold out in an hour.

Fans entering the stadium could pick up paper American flags printed by the South Bend Tribune. During a special pregame ceremony, when the band played “God Bless America,” people held up the flags in an emotional show of unity and support.

The most stirring moment of the day came at halftime when the gigantic Notre Dame and Michigan State marching bands jointly played “Amazing Grace.” The rank of instrumentalists eventually meshed in long lines, and at the conclusion of the song the “opposing” band members shared hugs and handshakes to wild applause.

At least one member of the Notre Dame faculty wasn’t cheering.

Father Michael J. Baxter, CSC, ‘83M.Div., assistant professor of theology, wasn’t even at the game and would later say of the pregame flag scene, as it was described to him, “I found that chilling, with no faces able to be seen, only the flags.”

Baxter, whose friend and classmate at Moreau Seminary in 1979, Army Lieutenant Colonel S. Neil Hyland Jr. ‘77, was killed in the attack on the Pentagon, thought that instead of demonstrating support for their government and potential military action, Christians should be following Christ’s teaching and looking for ways to love their enemy.

The priest-professor said he thought that those responsible for the attacks should be brought to justice, and an appropriate sentence would be life imprisonment. But as an immediate response, he suggested doing . . . nothing, for at least 40 days. The time period hearkened back to ages past when the church required soldiers returning from war to do 40 days of penance to reflect on and heal from the experience, he said.

Baxter, who joined the faculty in 1996, has always been critical of Notre Dame’s nationalistic tendencies. Notre Dame’s founder, Father Edward Sorin, CSC, was a fervent patriot who had the Golden Dome modeled on the U.S. Capitol and named one of the campus’s first major buildings (Washington Hall) after the father of his adoptive country. But to Baxter the famous statement of Notre Dame’s priorities above the memorial entrance to the Basilica — “God, Country, Notre Dame” — has the order all wrong. In his view, “country” should be dropped to “maybe No. 20,” behind concerns like one’s family, South Bend, Saint Joseph County — the campus’s neighbors.

Though clearly in the minority, Baxter had sympathizers on campus. Campus Ministry and the Center for Social Concerns joined forces to produce and distribute bright yellow “Pray for Peace” T-shirts. (In contrast to the bookstore’s stars and stripes, it took weeks to exhaust all 500 produced, and these shirts could be had for a suggested $5 donation.) Campus Ministry and the business college’s Master of Science in Administration program distributed copies of the Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi (“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace . . .”) on campus prior to the Michigan State game. Attached to card was length of a red, white and blue ribbon with a pin for wearing.

A new grassroots organization, the Notre Dame Peace Coalition, began passing out leaflets before football games informing people about the millions of innocent Afghan citizens trapped inside their country. Members of the coalition agreed in advance to meet at 5 p.m. on whatever day the anticipated U.S. military operation began. When the first missiles were fired at Afghanistan on October 7, about two dozen students gathered at the Fieldhouse Mall for a prayer vigil.

“For those of us who understand that peace is in no way related to violence, it necessitates us coming together,” senior Rachel Soltis, one of the group’s organizers, told The Observer. “You just can’t be silent . . . not as Christians, not as human beings.”

Celebrity visitors to campus in the weeks after September 11 offered their perspectives on the attack. Pro-peace and tolerance songs dominated the playlist at the sold-out U2 concert October 10 at the Joyce Center. For the final encore, lead singer Bono led the 11 New York City police officers and firefighters in town for the Blue Mass around the heart-shaped stage.

Chris Matthews, host of the MSNBC show Hardball, spoke in the Carey Auditorium of the Hesburgh Library on October 15. In his talk, Matthews called Osama bin Laden an “evil genius” who wanted to start a blood war between the East and the West.

“I don’t want that war,” the hard-boiled journalist said. “No one in this room will live to see the end of that war.”

Ela Gandhi, granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi and a member of South Africa’s parliament, was on campus for a Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies panel discussion on interreligious solidarity and peace-building in South Africa. She was asked about her opinion of the U.S. response to the attacks.

“The problem is that every time there is violence there is more. When Americans see the World Trade Center, they begin to feel anger and want to do something about it. Similarly now, the Afghans who have died, their families feel that same hatred. So where is that hatred going to end?”

Two days after the attacks, the Kroc Institute organized the first of what has become a continuing series of panel discussions featuring faculty and visiting scholars.

Unlike Rice, scholars from the law school’s Center for Civil and Human Rights at one panel all said they favored bringing the terrorists to justice without war.

At a program on Christian and Muslim holy wars, Father Patrick Gaffney, CSC, ’69, ’70M.A., ’73M.Th., an anthropology professor, emphasized that the Taliban and Osama bin Laden represented a warped minority of Muslims. “Seeing the Taliban as an example of what Islam is,” he said, “is like talking about the KKK as an example of the Gospels.”

On the same panel, Baxter said that instead of supporting or participating in air strikes, Christians should “go over there and assure them that in our religion we won’t kill you.” A student in the audience charged that that appeasement — doing nothing — is what allowed the Nazis to perpetrate their atrocities during World War II. The theologian calmly replied that appeasement wasn’t to blame for the Nazis. It was German Christians who agreed to do the bidding of the state and the Fuhrer.

Although the scholars at each discussion unanimously condemned the terrorist attacks, they also faulted the United States for having supported brutally repressive regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East.

“The U.S. is complicit in the Talibanization of Islam,” declared Rashied Omar, a Muslim from South Africa who is an assistant professional specialist for the Kroc Institute.

One of the most chilling moments of the talks came when Cynthia Mahmood, an associate professor of anthropology who studies the connections between religious fervor and armed violence, recalled the days she spent meeting Islamic militants in Pakistan in 1998. The group she met with is now part of the Northern Alliance. After talking companionably with them for a few days, she said, one of them turned a gun on her and announced, “We like Saddam Hussein, U.S.A. no.”

Mahmood said she was able to defuse the situation by talking with them about the Gulf War and then joining them in Christian and Muslim prayers. But later a young man turned to her and said in a tone expressing regret over something inevitable, “But, Madam, don’t you understand? Someday we’re going to have to kill you.”

The scholars’ often harsh assessment of U.S. policies contrasted with the many signs of support for the government’s response on campus, including dozens of American flags hung from dorm room windows.

R. Scott Appleby, who moderated the panel discussions in his role as director of the Kroc Institute, was asked his sense of the prevailing opinion on campus. He said he thought a range existed, from those like Baxter, who virtually disown the government, to those who steadfastly believe America is right and the rest of the world is wrong.

“My opinion,” Appleby said, “is the best way to be a patriotic American is to call America to live up to its highest ideals.”

About an hour after the Blue Mass, the New York police officers and firefighters were enjoying a reception in the cozy social space of the new Coleman-Morse Center. On the other side of campus, Aaron Kreider and about two dozen other members of the fledgling Peace Coalition sat at desks in the Center for Social Concerns, planning their next moves. One of the ideas brought up was to have Notre Dame’s Muslim students (Campus Ministry estimates there are 70) discuss and take questions about their faith at meetings in the dorms.

A few days after fall break, the University Counseling Center and Student Government offered a program for New York area students returning to campus to help them deal with seeing the devastation and being with their families for the first time since September 11. More Kroc Institute panel discussions were planned, including one on the economic causes and consequences of the attacks. On November 11, the two-month anniversary of the attacks, the University began a week-long program of lectures, films and 16 panel discussions in the residence halls focusing on such topics as fighting terrorism, the historical roots of anti-Americanism and the role of students.

Whatever form the U.S. response to the attacks takes, efforts to teach about the issues and win hearts and minds figure to continue on campus for a long time.

Ed Cohen is a former associate editor of this magazine.