Members of our Occidental community returning to campus early Sunday morning discovered a disheartening and devastating sight. A few hours earlier our community, organized by the Conservatives of Occidental Club, erected a memorial to the lives lost in 9/11. Students, staff and faculty — regardless of their political leanings — came together as one to create a space on campus to remember those that had been taken away from us by an abominable act of terror. It was our community’s memorial and it had been defiled and vandalized.
The students who discovered the vandalism lifted flags out of trash cans by the armload and began replanting them throughout the quad where the event had been registered with the Office of Student Life. The students who discovered the vandalism were soon joined by friends they had messaged and many others who came across the tragic sight while returning to their dorms. Together, as the Occidental community, we replanted the 2,997 flags representing the American lives lost that day. Together, as a community, we again mourned the precious lives that were taken from this world and from us. Together, as a community, we stayed up to guard the memorial and stop those who would attempt to defile it again and again and again.
The 2,997 flags were so much more than cloth attached to sticks. The 2,997 flags represented not only those innocents who perished on hijacked airliner flights, nor only those who had the misfortune to work in the Pentagon or the World Trade Center on what appeared to be just another Tuesday. The 2,997 flags also represented the more than 400 first responders who paid the ultimate price in fulfilling their duty. Next year we hope to enlarge the memorial to include the more than one thousand first responders who have passed due to health issues stemming from performing their heroic actions during that tragic and cowardly act of terror.
They claim that our memorial wasn’t inclusive enough, that it focused on the wrong lives. Yes, human beings from many nationalities passed that day and the memorial only addressed the American victims. There are many ways to address this, to broaden our memorial. Anyone could’ve added flags representing the many victims’ nationalities. Anyone could’ve added photos of those they knew who were taken away from them by that diabolical act of terror. Anyone could’ve placed prayers among the flags. Adding something to the memorial is protected by our First Amendment. Free speech should be welcomed not only in classroom discussions but in all of our personal conversations. Hearing other opinions and thoughts is why we attend Occidental — it strengthens us. Anyone could’ve added to the memorial.
They instead responded by taking flags representing American lives and throwing them into trash cans — literally overflowing them. They responded by destroying our memorial and stifling free speech. This was not some careless act. This was a deliberate and disgraceful operation with an insidious political agenda.
They put up flyers that twisted the message of our memorial. Our memorial was not a political space to discuss the American foreign policy that emerged from 9/11. And yet the many quarter-sheets of paper posted on benches and trees mourned “innocent Iraqis” who died years afterwards. They sought to shame 9/11 victims by juxtaposing their deaths with other “innocent” deaths. Were the 9/11 victims not blameless and innocent? It was a Tuesday in September.
They sought to pit one socioeconomic class against another. The poem they posted after desecrating our memorial highlighted 9/11 victims who belonged to a restaurant workers union, arguing that their socioeconomic situation somehow held them blameless compared to other victims. Their flyers’ attempts to weigh the lives of victims against each other is sickening and shameful. The memorial held every American victim equal regardless of their race, gender identity, sexual preference, age, religion or any other aspect of their identities. The flags reaffirmed that deep down we are all Americans. We are all members of a covenant between ourselves and our Constitution.
Americans died that day. They had families. They had friends. They were Americans. They had jobs. They had dreams. They were Americans and their lives were extinguished. We can honor them and the ones they left behind by remembering them and remembering their sacrifice. We can honor them by following our Constitution and using free speech to seek truth by respecting and listening to others even though they may have different opinions. We must and will continue to honor their memories. Io Triumphe!
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Sumner Schwartz, Class of 2018, and the Occidental Conservatives Club.