Inhabitants of the Ivory Tower

A conversation about issues in higher education

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Reflections on death at the university

A university is like a small community within a community. The inhabitants are a separate but intimately connected part of us, within our little towns and large cities, and often they are us. They may lead two lives, one at home in the larger community with their mothers and brothers, fathers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends... the other at the academy where they gather to be enlightened and stimulated by the power of minds and the creative energy of their souls. Some even live there, in a home away from home, or in the only home they have ever known, having no other family, other than the one they make at university. For them, special times or holidays such as Ramadan, Eid, Chanuka and Christmas are lonely and difficult, and some end their lives because these times are unbearably sad for them.

Sometimes a university becomes a place for tragedy that lasts, and lasts, in the minds and hearts of those who were there. In Texas, a young man climbs a tower to look down on fellow students making their way to classes... and kills as many as he can with his rifle. Nobody knows why. In Iowa, and Berkeley, California, doctoral students murder their professors, and themselves, for reasons that can only be imagined. In a time long passed, students gathered by the thousands on campuses, and were beaten, maimed and imprisoned for protesting a war that should never have been. At Kent State University, Ohio, nearly 40 years ago, four students were murdered and numerous others wounded by the national guard troops that were sent to... what?? Protect them from themselves?? Protect society and the institution from members of the family who were just trying to say to their government, "you are wrong." ??

But the most tragic, most horrendous, most senseless, most unforgivable, happened in Baghdad, Iraq a few days ago at a university that is over 800 years old. Over eighty students were murdered, and many more badly wounded, by car bombers and suicide bombers whose sick, twisted, perverted minds reside at the lowest levels of animal life. The victims were mostly girls, young women whose wombs carried the possibility of forging a brilliant future for a wonderful country of courageous people struggling to find their way through terrible chaos. I don't have enough tears in my old eyes to quell the anger and sadness over what has fallen on them... and us.

When it comes to unspeakable acts against humanity, a university should be sacred ground where inhabitants are protected from such craven cowards. But what makes this event even worse - if that is possible - is that it appears to be part of the sectarian exchange of death between Sunni and Shiia. This is happening where thousands of college students have a Shiia mother and a Sunni father, or the other way around, at a university where it is natural that hearts and minds should reach across divides. They came from families whose neighbors and best friends include Christians and Kurds and Turkmen, where Muslims exchange Christmas gifts with their Christian friends.

I am smart and well educated, but I do not understand. Words fail.

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