Early last Friday, the Hamilton College Republicans and Democrats clubs joined forces to place nearly 3,000 flags along Martin’s Way in remembrance of the brave Americans who lost their lives in the devastating attacks of September 11, 2001. For the last fifteen years, student organizations at colleges and universities around the country have done the same, setting aside political differences to honor the fallen through memorials, speeches, and candlelit vigils.
This year, however, a group of students from Occidental College, a small liberal arts school located in Los Angeles, California, demonstrated the utmost disrespect for the victims of 9/11 and their families by turning the college’s memorial into a political statement against both the war in Iraq and, more broadly, American patriotism.
At approximately 1 a.m. on the Sunday morning of the anniversary, members of the Occidental College Republican Club, the group sponsoring the memorial, discovered that some of the 2,996 flags they had placed in the campus quad had been broken and others were tossed in the trash. These students worked to restore the display and requested a member of campus security to stand guard.
Shortly after, the club alleged, four students walked up to the memorial and broke flags in front of the club members who had just finished repairing the display. “When we confronted them, those cowards got away as fast as they possibly could,” a member of the club explained. “We had thought the storm had passed. However, we were very wrong.”
Later, hundreds of flags were knocked down and others were smashed and thrown into the trash. “Of course, we put them back in the ground,” a member of the club said. Following the second destruction of the memorial, the club asked “that all students respect the memorial for the remainder of its time in the quad. If you try to destroy it, we will rebuild it.”
Following the destruction of the memorial, members of a student group, Coalition Oxy for Diversity and Equity, placed fliers around campus that displayed the image of the two World Trade Center towers, including the message: “R.I.P. The 2,996 Americans who died in 9/11. R.I.P. the 1,455,590 innocent Iraqis who died during the U.S. invasion for something they didn’t do.”
To accompany the fliers, the Coalition posted a statement on Facebook saying: “We were concerned by the complete disregard for the various peoples affected by this history. When this institution allows thousands of American flags to be placed in the center of campus, it speaks volumes to the students that have lived their lives under the oppression of this flag. From Native students whose land was stolen to undocumented students who live in fear of deportation to black students who see their communities destroyed by state-sanctioned murder, this school is saying your fear and trauma do not matter here.”
Students, the Coalition said, were confused by the display and asking about its purpose. “This is not a critique of desiring to remember the fallen, this is a critique of failing to comprehend who, or what, has been lost,” the group said. “To this end, we wanted to provide more information and more context in order to center the actual lives and individuals affected by 9/11 rather than simply placing a symbol of one nation.”
The proliferation of such posters and Facebook posts confirms that the attack on the memorial was not a partisan jab at the Republican club, as many members of the club first thought. Rather, the actions of the Coalition were, in effect, a protest against America’s handling of the war in Iraq, and frankly, an assault on both the demonstration of American patriotism and the commemoration of lives lost.
“This is beyond politics, this is about those lives that were so tragically taken,” the Republican club said in a statement on Facebook. Indeed, both the comments made by the Coalition and the actions of individuals who destroyed the memorial went far beyond the pale. Regardless of what they believe the appropriate military response to the September 11 attacks should have been, they cannot deny that the thousands of Americans – mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives, children, an friends - lost on a sunny Tuesday morning fifteen years ago was, and still is, a national tragedy worth remembering.