The following story first appeared on the Dallas Observer.

At SMU, Commemorating the 9/11 Anniversary

Anna Merlan, Dallas Observer, Sept 10 2011 

"Thought-provoking events" -- that's how SMU said it wanted to honor the 10th anniversary of September 11, with a series of "thought-provoking events." There would be lectures, speeches, prayer services and, tonight, a half-time tribute at Gerald J. Ford during SMU-UTEP -- events political and spiritual, a few attended by those directly affected by the terror attacks, among them SMU student Christina Rancke, whose father was in the World Trade Center, and Rais Bhuiyan, the victim of a hate crime perpetrated by a white supremacist seeking vengeance. So yesterday we trekked to the Hilltop to see what was going on. SMU may exist in The Bubble, but on a lovely fall Friday it was also very much a microcosm of responses and reactions, a well-groomed town square filled with kids weaned on The War on Terror.

In the sculpture garden outside the Meadows Museum, scores of American flags were planted in the lawns and planter beds around the sculptures, each one marking someone lost in the attacks. The garden itself was quiet, but around it the campus grounds were bustling. Some of the women from the Tri Delta sorority sat at a table in the quad, handing out fliers for their Monday-night football party. Ali Williams, a 20-year-old Tri Delt from Houston, said that "SMU is really aware of" the anniversary, and that "this is a time for us to commemorate the lives lost and to join together and just be patriotic."

On a black leather couch sunk into the lawn outside one of the fraternity houses, a group of guys swigged bottled water and spat sunflower seeds into red plastic cups. "The frat usually has a party," one of them said when asked how they'll spend Sunday. "But it's not like, 'It's September 11, let's get drunk!' or anything."

"It's more like, 'Fuck, yeah, America!'" shouted a kid named Max, who was in elementary school when the attacks occured. He wore an orange T-shirt and red shorts. "Because we killed Osama! I do a double fist punch," to celebrate, he added. He lifted one leg off the ground and flailed both arms in the air in demonstration, falling sideways in the process. He recovered his balance with remarkable speed. "You can write that I did that," he said serenely.

Almost in unison, his friends buried their faces in their hands. "Dear God," one of them said. It came out a little muffled.

"I'm probably gonna go to church," said Evan Meehan, 19, from his end of the couch. "No, really. I'm not messing with you. We should use this to look back, reflect, see what happened. It's not something we need to be celebrating. We should remember the people who gave their lives."

"And that we double fist punched Osama!" Max shouted again, making another ambitious vertical leap.

"Max, please stop talking forever," one of his friends advised.

Across campus, on wooden benches outside the dorms where most of the art students live, the view was a little different. A group of them said that while the fraternities would "probably be having some brutal parties Sunday night," they didn't much feel like celebrating.

"Is the mission accomplished now?" one guy said, reminiscing about George W. Bush's flight suit during his infamous battleship deck speech. "What was the mission, exactly?"

"Making a sign?" another one suggested.

They talked for a little while about a phrase they've grown up with, the concept of a "war on terror."

"How do you win a war against an idea, though?" asked Kyle Patterson, a 20-year-old from L.A. "I look at the anniversary as an opportunity to learn a little bit more."

Kyle Davis, a 21-year-old from Georgia, scrolled through his campus email on his cell phone. "There's nothing scheduled for today, it looks like," he said. "But there's free body fat measurement!" Everybody laughed.

"I got crap all through middle school," offered Simon Raab, 21. He's Arab-American, and for a few years after the attacks he was plagued with kids demanding to know "what my dad did for a living," he said, "and making fun of me." But all that ended by the time he started high school. The attacks, and the ensuing wars, receded into the background, a constant drone under their daily lives. "It's what we grew up with," he said. "It's what produced our world."

Still, he added, "We only tasted terrorism. It's nothing like what other countries have experienced. And it took airplanes coming over over here. ... And in Texas especially, we're very distant from all this. It's something we watched on TV."

Friday evening, SMU's Embrey Human Rights Program and the Dallas Peace Center co-hosted a panel: "Ending the Cycles of Violence: Reflections on Compassion, Forgiveness, and Healing." The crowd was mostly older and made up of non-students, a group of about 50 in a room that could have held three times that many. The panelists themselves, mainly leaders from the Christian and Muslim communities, were not at all sure that much progress has been made in the last ten years.

Alia Salem, an eighth-generation Texan with Egyptian roots and a member of Fort Worth's Muslim community, said that in many ways, in fact, it has gotten worse. Right after the attacks, she said, "we were met with care and compassion from our neighbors, who said, 'We love you and stand by you.'" Now, she said, "those very same people are the ones who are picketing against any new mosques being built. ... You'd think at this point we'd have a different stance on things. What was right after was actually much better."

Hind Jarrah, co-founder of the Texas Muslim Women's Foundation, agreed. "There's a level of virulence now that I didn't see after September 11," she said. "There's so much alienation, suspicion and fear now."

Rais Bhuiyan, one of the first victims of a post-9/11 hate crime, was also among the speakers. His campaign to save his attacker Mark Stroman's life ended in July, when Stroman was executed in Huntsville. Since then, he's been in contact with Stroman's son and daughter, who he said are both struggling, though he didn't elaborate much.

"Healing is a tough thing," he said. "But we can move forward, if our voices are heard and listened to. ... As a nation, we are able to look forward to a better future."

Said Salem, a little later, "I think that we still have a long way to go."

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