Web Exclusives: Tooke's Take
a PAW web exclusive column by Wes Tooke '98 (email: cwtooke@princeton.edu)

October 10, 2001:
Navigating Blind
Notes from our strange new world

The morning of the day that I walked through the wreckage of the World Trade Center, I traveled to Princeton for an early lunch. My ostensible reason for being on campus was to visit with old friends, but the real motivation for my trip, I think, was that after spending 24 hours in a city where suddenly everything seemed strangely alien, I was desperate to return to familiar ground.

I spent the morning wandering aimlessly down paths whose routes remained as predictable as when I graduated three years ago. Although I noticed the new Frist Campus Center and the scaffolding on the Woodrow Wilson School, those changes seemed even less than cosmetic. The place remained aloof and peaceful, filled with students who, now that I live near the UC—Berkeley campus, appear quaintly sanitary.

As I wandered, I reflected upon how quickly and how deeply I had buried Princeton's faults over the previous few days. It is far easier as a columnist to write about weakness than strength, and I have spent many of my columns picking at the university's arrogance and aloofness and bizarre social structure. In the wake of September 11, however, some of our other attributes have buried those faults. I was deeply touched by the desperate networking on e-mail and the web as alumni desperately tried to ensure that their friends were safe; I was overwhelmed by the sensitivity and eloquence of my classmates as they reported the sad news that one of our own had been a victim.

And later that day, as I stared at the knitted, skeletal metal that marked the grave of at least 10 Princetonians, I realized that my feelings toward my country were shifting in a similar way. When I was in Europe last winter, I used to sit quietly and nod my head in silent agreement as my friends from France and Switzerland and Germany would list our multitude of sins. The U.S. has become a country that revels in self-flagellation, and I was a willing participant.

But those days are over for me. While I am fully willing to admit to foreign friends that this country makes mistakes, we are also a nation that has a capacity to give that is unlike any other. My grandparents conquered evil in the greatest war this world has ever known, then helped pay to rebuild the homes of the vanquished. My parents' generation drove one of the greatest expansions of civil and personal liberties in human history. And several weeks ago more than 300 firefighters and policemen rushed into a pair of burning skyscrapers, probably knowing that their lives were in grave danger, simply because they thought they might be able to save another human being.

So while I am willing to concede that Princeton and the U.S. have warts, I am also glad that our strengths are now equally obvious. We may be arrogant and self-absorbed and occasionally jingoistic, but we are also generally well meaning and generous to a fault. Europeans have always seen us as the Labrador puppy of world affairs — we're big and clumsy and knock a lot of things over — but we also have an enormous heart. That heart has been on display over the last few weeks, and I have felt it most acutely in a far-flung Princeton community that so often leads with its head. I hope that Princeton will inscribe the names of its victims of September 11 in the foyer of Nassau Hall, next to the lists of the fallen from our nation's previous great wars, because just by sitting at desks or in planes those men and women have come to symbolize what is unique and great about this country.

So may we Princetonians especially remember our own who lost their lives in the first great atrocity of the new millennium. I hope that this tragedy might at least lead us to better see our better selves, to be a beacon of tolerance and self-determination in a world increasingly dominated by nationalism and religious and ethnic strife. And if we should once again come to fulfill that ambitious goal, the world will long remember those who gave their lives so that freedom itself might live. God bless America.

Wes Tooke '98


You can reach Wes at cwtooke@princeton.edu