November 21, 2001: On the Campus

The new reality

Students struggle to reconcile war and daily life By Abhi Raghunathan ’02

Illustration: Felipe Galindo

It has been a long time since politics has played such a big role on campus. I had heard stories about marches and sit-ins during Vietnam, about impassioned debates on current affairs. But for me those were stale accounts of what had once been done, not inspirational tales of what people with strong moral convictions could do.

Since the terrorist attacks, the university has seen some of these things. Peace activists chant and hold signs. Professors and students debate in panel discussions about war and terrorism. Scathing letters to the editor and stern criticisms of professors appear on the editorial pages of the Daily Princetonian. Before September 11, my friends and I sometimes complained that our lives were doomed to be comfortable and bland. The Clinton scandals and the Peter Singer controversy only confirmed for us that politics did not matter much. I remember a friend telling me that he longed for a good war to fight.

Such talk now seems as distant to me as the stories about Vietnam used to be. Now my friend is putting off the reality of his musings. Marches and memorial services, candlelight vigils and serious discussions have replaced the chatter about our comfort and boredom. The ordinariness of our former life is what we now mourn.

Even with life so altered, though, talk of war and morality does not dominate our lives. Frist filled up with students cramming during midterms, and the Street clogged with freshmen looking for beer on Thursday nights. In the dorm rooms, eating clubs, and dining-hall cafeterias the strains of everyday life are again topics of conversation. And in most classes, discussions are about ideas in books, not developments in the war.

Our struggle to reconcile ordinary life and the dramatic world events is happening as pundits and theorists wonder about the future of the apathy that characterizes the MTV Generation. Many of us undergraduates — generally born in the years from 1979 to 1983 — developed a political consciousness as the Cold War was ending, when it seemed as if our country would not have any serious threats to power for a good while. We spent our teenage years in a culture that celebrated prosperity.

The question, then, is what we should make of the absence of serious debate outside the formalities of a discussion in McCosh Hall or a letter to the editor in the student newspaper. Talk and debate about the war tends to be enclosed, structured, and organized like practices for a sport or precepts for a class. Discussions rarely spill out from the spots we set aside for them in our schedules.

The need to impose an order on attacks designed to reduce our lives into chaos is not a bad development. In some ways, it is even touching. By refusing to abandon the philosophy of control and rationality that guided many of our lives, we show its resilience. We do not let an act of horror, no matter how dreadful it is, succeed in altering the way we live our lives.

But it also suggests a sort of desperation to postpone coming to terms with what has happened. Horror can be compartmentalized into 50-minute blocks and scheduled in day planners for only so long. What happened on September 11 will soon demand stronger responses from us than an attempt to debate war between dinner and hitting the library. The clouds of confusion and emotional anguish will disperse, and then we will have to deal with the terrible load of a world we thought we would never see.

When that reckoning comes — when the new world becomes something we live every day rather than in scheduled blocks of time — we will have to toss out the old rubrics for success. The trait that marked us as the “Organization Kids” described in the Atlantic Monthly was that we had the luxury of believing that if we followed the right rules then we would live good lives. We now know that is not true, but we have not yet admitted it to ourselves. We will soon have to do just that and try to assume the mantle of struggle and knowledge of tragedy that made our idle innocence possible.

Abhi Raghunathan ’02 ( is writing his thesis on the poetry of Wallace Stevens.

“On September 12, Jon di Cristina ’02 decided to join ROTC.” Read Liriel Higa ’02’s account of Jon’s decision on On the Campus Online.


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