By Bill Conover
The movie “Forrest Gump” opens with a feather
drifting on a breeze, ﬁnally alighting at Forrest’s feet.
This image is of fragility and tenderness, a metaphor
for the modern human being: alone, caught up,
helpless in history and ﬂux, but nonetheless beautifully,
movingly, human. Falling. Rising. Falling again.
Since September 11, 2001, we’ve gotten a lot of that
falling feeling and many illusions of certainty torn away.
A secure homeland? An ever more prosperous life for
each generation? A reasonably functional democracy?
No. Only twenty well-organized zealots took down the
twin towers, murdered 3,000, and launched a decade
where things were much less solid than we’d hoped.
Most Beloit students were in elementary school then.
What was it like to inherit a child’s place in such a
world? Though your elders may wisely have protected
you from news of that day, they could not possibly
shield you from the succeeding decade in which you
have come of age. Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. Roadside
bombs and PTSD. Katrina and the drowning of New
Orleans. The inconvenient truth of a planet heating
fast. Financial meltdown and Arab Spring. Hyper
partisan politics and utter government dysfunction.
In an age of anxiety and breakdown, we crave stability
and certainty. We seek shelter in things still within
our control. It’s tempting to avoid this scary world
hurtling at us, to ﬁnd some quiet corner in which to
be reasonably happy and safe. But we are feathers
on that wind whether we admit it or not. There’s no
real escape, and besides, ethics insist that we stand
up and face responsibility for our place in history.
Another impulse: revenge. Who did this to us? What
enemy has pushed us oﬀ the edge? We feel a deep urge to
locate “evildoers” and destroy them. Osama bin Laden’s
face, crossed out by a bloody X on the cover of Time. We
ﬁnd this impulse throughout our politics and culture. It
is easy nowadays for demagogues to rouse an angry mob.
One camp marches against another with simplistic
demonizations on the Internet and in the streets.
The anniversary of 9/11 is not simply “history.”
It cannot be tucked into the past, left at safe
distance in televised ceremonies and op-ed pieces.
What we learn (and ignore) from this decade will
impact our little campus deeply. How each of us
responds matters. Beloit College is the real world.
If we solemnly remember victims and honor soldiers,
then go right back to business, we will miss an opportunity
to ask how we choose to live in this time and place. As
bewildering and sometimes terrifying as our moment in
history is, we still face the same daily choices faced by
every generation: will we live by fear or love, anger or
hope, reaction or vision, competition for scarce resources
or neighborly partnership for the common good?
Yes, it is true, politicians and corporations will
call the tune in years ahead. The future will largely
be decided over our heads. History will roll over
us, sweeping movements and sudden accidents
tossing us where they will. There’s a lot more
falling to be done in the next ten years, I’m afraid.
Remember 9/11’s New York ﬁreﬁghters? Their heroic
actions that terrible day say something vital to us now.
When the towers were melting, the stairwells clogged
with people rushing down, those guys were heading
up. In the chaos they had made a clear choice. On a
day when so much fell down and shattered, they were