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Stanford Report, January 23, 2002

Campus reflects on Sept. 11's aftermath and aftershocks

BY CRAIG KAPITAN

It had been only four days since junior Valerie Brar returned to campus, and as she addressed a crowd inside Kresge Auditorium Thursday evening, the emotion in her voice reflected the freshness of the journey she had just taken.

"Her pain was so raw, so awful," she recounted of her meeting with a widow in a small village in northern India. "I have lost my world," the widow had told Brar as the two cried together. "Everything is empty. Everything is empty."

The widow's husband was Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh immigrant who was murdered in Arizona days after Sept. 11 because he wore a turban. He was one of the first victims of a hate crime due to the Sept. 11 attacks. He was also the one who moved Brar to take a quarter off, using a grant from Stanford to film a documentary on the post-9/11 backlash toward Arab Americans and other immigrants.

Brar was one of 14 members of the Stanford community who spoke about the Sept. 11 attacks at "University Voices: A Post-9/11 Dialogue." Although there have been various smaller events in past months aimed at coping with and discussing the terrorist attacks, this was the first large-scale, campus-wide dialogue on the tragedy since students arrived for classes in late September.

President John Hennessy discussed the emotional impacts the campus community has endured since Sept 11. Photo: L.A. Cicero

Speakers varied from sophomore Cursha Pierce, who gave her perspective as a member of the ROTC, to Professors Robert Zajonc, psychology, and Pamela Karlan, law, who reflected on the misuse of the word "evil" and the importance of retaining civil liberties in times of war. President John Hennessy also addressed the crowd.

"As the father of two sons and your university president, I worry that we have entered a new era -- an era where we are not only more vulnerable, but [where] that fear of our vulnerability will forever change our lives," he said. "Much has happened, however, in the four months that have passed. One thing we know for sure is that life goes on."

Hennessy also mentioned the five scholarships that have been created in memory of the Stanford alumni who perished in the World Trade Center and the hijacked airplanes.

"The scholarships represent our shared belief that education can heal and transform," he said. "The search to know -- the search for understanding -- is the core purpose of our university, and is one of the most important ways we have responded to the events of Sept. 11."

While Hennessy mentioned the emotional impacts on campus, Coit Blacker, deputy director of the Institute for International Studies, took a more analytical approach for his speech. He set out to answer the question, "Why do they hate us?"

"They hate us because 54 years ago we took sides in a blood feud between Arabs and Jews," he began. "What we saw as an act of selflessness and atonement and renewal they saw as an act of cowardice and betrayal."

Blacker briefly cited a variety of other reasons, alternating the crowd's mood at a speedy pace with explanations both pithy and sadly profound.

"They hate us because we're open, optimistic, vainglorious and proud, because we talk more than we listen, because we tell others what to do and how to think, because we expect everyone to be just like us and take mortal offense when they decline the honor," he continued. "They hate us because we are rich and they are poor, because we set the rules and others must follow, because we act while others are acted upon, because what we can't fix we ignore, and because what we don't understand we dismiss. They hate us because we can and they can't."

While the speakers held diverse perspectives, each was able to find a lesson in the Sept. 11 tragedies. For Brar, the lesson was to shower every act of hatred with hundreds of acts of kindness.

Junior Valerie Brar spoke about her meetings with those who fell victim to hate crimes after the terrorist attacks. Photo: L.A. Cicero

"I asked only one question: What do you want to tell the people of America?" Brar told the crowd of her interview with the Indian widow. "She said simply, 'Tell them thank you. When I came to America for his funeral, they showed me so much kindness and caring.'

"You must care to communicate," Brar added. "For one village woman who lost her entire world, you are her only hope. Your love, caring, passion -- your care to communicate -- may be the only solace she may ever feel that her husband's death had some meaning.

"This is the light in the darkness."

Sophomore Cursha Pierce gave her perspective as a member of the ROTC at "University Voices: A Post-9/11 Dialogue." Photo: L.A. Cicero

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Psychology Professor Robert Zajonc explained the misuse of the word “evil” by the media Thursday. Photo: L.A. Cicero