Web Exclusives:On the Campus...

October 10, 2001:
A campaign for mayor turns into a campaign for understanding

By Liriel Higa '02


In New York:

I am on W. 5th Street and Third Avenue when the planes hit, campaigning for New York City Council candidate Brad Hoylman. Up until 8:45 a.m. it is Primary Day, time to elect a new mayor and fresh slate of city councilors. Outside, without a cell phone or Walkman, I watch the smoke from a mile-and-a-quarter away and wonder. Catherine Abate, mother of Kyle Kliegerman '01, who is campaigning for another candidate and with whom I have been chatting, makes use of her cell phone and tells me the cause of the smoke. I immediately call home, waking up my parents in Los Angeles, and a friend at Princeton who had wanted to campaign with me, getting his voicemail. I want to keep calling others at school until I get an actual person, but already there is a line to use the pay phone. One woman cries hysterically.

A mass exodus from downtown begins, and I get updated information and misinformation: They've hit the Pentagon, Sears Tower, and the State Department. I take a bus uptown, away from the crash site, but rumors of unaccounted for planes flying over the city make the threat seem immediate. I am determined to stay on the East Side as long as possible to avoid major landmarks. I end up at my sister's friend's apartment, whom I have met twice in four years. Her roommate's father opens the door; "I'm Noessa's little sister," I say, and that is the only introduction necessary.

Back at Princeton:

Everyone is still camped around television sets when I return to campus Wednesday. My inbox is filled with e-mails from administrators informing us of counseling and other services, SVC information about blood donation, e-mails asking if I am okay, and e-mails from friends telling me they are okay.

Triangle Club collects money for the Firefighter's Memorial Fund as hundreds wait in line for its wildly popular freshman week show. Everyone searches their pockets. I give $5, feeling my inadequacy. Others, with mere pennies and dimes, refrain, feeling it would be insulting, but the multigallon water jugs get filled.

Professor Oates decides to forgo introductions on the first day of Creative Writing 303. Instead, she has us write for an hour. Our homework assignment is to read Bharati Mukherjee's short story "The Management of Grief" a first-person account of a woman who loses her family due to a terrorist attack on a plane. "Acceptance," according to the narrator, "means you speak of your family in the past tense and you make active plans for moving ahead with your life." I see makeshift memorials with pictures of missing loved ones on the news and tearful friends and relatives begging them to call home.

Princeton's leading figures speak at the Sunday memorial service on Cannon Green: President Tilghman, Provost Gutmann, Professors James McPherson, Toni Morrison, Paul Muldoon. President Tilghman leads a moment of silence and warns against hateful, discriminatory behavior toward others. I have heard rumors that Princeton students have gotten hate mail that I hope aren't true. McPherson provides a historical perspective, speaking of the thousands that died in the Battle of Antietam, which turned out to be a turning point during the Civil War. But it is Professor Morrison's message that resonates most deeply with me: she speaks to the dead. Her language, devoid of the words I have been hearing endlessly these past few days, "senseless tragedy," "patriotism," "terrorist attack," "retaliation," is forceful and lyrical. It does not pretend to provide the closure that I am nowhere close to feeling.

Liriel Higa '02 can be reached at lshiga@princeton.edu