There were only two candles at first. Two slender fingers of wax against the chestnut colored walls of the Chapel at Mills College. At noon, Reverend Erika Macs rang a hand chime three times to mark the beginning of the silent vigil. Over the next half hour, students, staff members and the president of the college sat before the stone dais where the candles stood in a jade basin. Two candles became nine in a show of solidarity for the victims of 9/11.
Cody Manning, a junior transfer student, said she came to the silent vigil to pay her respects to everyone personally affected by the tragedy.
“I think it’s important to at least take a moment to reflect, remembering the sacrifices people made,” she said.
Sophomore Lesley Burnett came for similar reasons, while College President Janet Holmgren wished to share a sense of community about the event.”
“I remember how five years ago the campus came together to support one another and express our concern,” she said.
I wanted to continue that today.”
Although brought to the chapel for different reasons, every vigil attendee shared one commonality: the desire to commemorate Sept. 11. In doing so, they joined people across the Bay Area in observing the 5 year anniversary of the event. The methods of observance may have differed for each individual, yet a sense of personal involvement and reflection was shared by most.
Macs, the director of spiritual and religious life, held the silent vigil with the hope that the Mills community would find peace and solidarity in the midst of their remembrance. “I believe that there is a deeper sense of peace in the world despite times of crisis,” she said. “What gets created in the moment [between individuals] is what really matters.”
The vigil was something she said she would have done on her own to observe 9/11. Her usual ritual involves a paper globe, holding a moment of silence and calling family and friends to recount their memories of the tragedy.
Macs received the globe on Sept. 11, 2001 while at a spiritual retreat in Kawaii, Hawaii. She attended a Hawaiian “spiritual circle” to cope with the disaster and was given a small, 2-D image of the world to remind her that every community shared her pain. She’s placed the globe on her watch face every Sept. 11 since.
“I keep it to remind me that the event affected not just us but the entire world,” she said.
Curtis Jones, district manager for the west coast division of the RAV security company, says a prayer for the families affected. A native New Yorker, Jones watched the Twin Towers collapse from his office building and a close friend of his died rescuing victims of the attacks. The trauma of the experience drove him to California, yet he still feels strong waves of homesickness every Sept. 11.
“I’ll just want to go home … [but] it’s hard to heal from that if you’ve lost someone there,” he said. For Jones, the day also elicits reflection on “how my life has changed since then.”
Maya Gilbert, a freshwoman, also uses Sept. 11 as a time to consider her personal development since the attacks.
“I am not a religious person, so I will not pray, but [9/11] will evoke a lot of thought within me … on what I am doing with my life, if I am happy and how the conditions of the world are now,” she said.
For some, the political and military turmoil that arose after the event leave them with mixed feelings in recognizing the day.
Sophomore Cierra Bolin refuses to attend commemoration activities. “I have a problem with public remembrances of 9/11 because they tend to be politicized instead of an honest mourning for those who died,” she said.
Freshwoman Bridget Carls shares Bolin’s opinion and doesn’t observe Sept. 11. For her, the day elicits anger toward an administration she believes used the tragedy as a pretext to advance its military program.
“On the day it happened I was shocked and outraged because the U.S. was attacked,” she said. “Now I’m outraged because there’s evidence that Bush allowed it to happen so he could send U.S. troops to do his family’s dirty work.”
Such political concerns are one of the primary reasons historians and sociology professors at Mills believe 9/11 will never become an official day of remembrance. Andrew Workman, an associate professor of history and associate provost for academic affairs, believes people are distancing themselves from “naive commemoration” of the event due to the political atmosphere surrounding it.
“The public is cautious against memorializing 9/11 because of the political uses to which it has been put,” he said.
Bruce Williams, a professor of sociology at Mills, believes the government itself recognizes this fact and won’t make an effort to nationally recognize it. “They don’t want to offend anyone,” he said. “The politics of [9/11] doesn’t bear as much fruit as it used to.”
Both professors believe time is also distancing people from the tragedy while Carol Chetkovich, an Associate Professor of Sociology, believes not enough time has passed for it to be nationally observed.
“It’s currently unclear what the legacy of 9/11 is,” she said. “[Recognizing it] depends on the historical context into which it is placed.”
According to Chetkovich and Workman, such context is dependant on the outcome of the war in Afghanistan and other international activities spurred by the event.
Burnett said he believes officially recognizing 9/11 would do little for he public.
“Even if there … are national memorials and public events honoring the victims and their families, I think that everyone’s emotions surrounding September 11 are still very individual and personal,” she said. “Everyone should just do
whatever feels right for them.”
Will Wood, a third year student in the UC Berkeley/UCSF Joint Medical Program, agreed.
“[9/11] means different things for different people, so they should acknowledge the day in whatever way they choose to do so,” he said.
While he does not recognize Sept. 11, Wood still recalls being emotionally affected by the attacks. He worried about the safety of his mother who was working in downtown San Francisco when the towers collapsed.
“At that time, everyone was worried that bombs would be going off anywhere,” he said.
Nearly every interviewee shared a similar sense of personal connection to the event irregardless of where they were that day. In New York City, Jones stumbled through the wreckage and human remains on a nearly five mile trek toward home. Gilbert watched the twin towers collapse from the windows of her Quaker School in Brooklyn while sophomore Caroline Tilghman could see the smoke from her middle school in Connecticut.
“When my dad got home later that night, I found out that a part of one of the planes had landed in front of his office building [in New York City],” she said.
In California, Carls coped with the tragedy by calling her best friend in Arizona.
“I couldn’t stop crying ‘We’re going to war! Bush is going to send us to war,'” she said. “I was really scared that close family members were going to be sent off to die.”
Chetkovich was teaching a course at Harvard on the day of the attacks. She recalls sharing her feelings with the class and how she continued to do so when she taught the same class in the years following. Even now, she uses 9/11 as an example of “the ethical issues of balancing civil liberties vs. national security” in her Ethical Reasoning class at Mills.
“I do not formally commemorate 9/11, but there are definite ways it has been worked into my teaching,” she said.
Jones said he became a preacher and community activist because of Sept. 11. He now chooses to help others in ways he couldn’t on the day of the attacks. “I like to share my story to give people a sense of my commitment,” he said.
Macs said she understands how tragedy can evoke positive change in individuals and hopes that the candlelight vigil helped the Mills community in that respect. “In times of crisis, there can be a lot of opportunity,” she said.
Burnett felt the vigil helped her do her part in honoring those affected by Sept. 11. “Even if there weren’t many people there, it still felt meaningful,” she said.