August 23, 2018

GUEST ROOM | The War Memorial

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As I get ready to return to the Cornell Law School to teach one day a week as an Adjunct Professor this fall, I can’t help thinking back to last year when I spent an entire semester — three days a week —  there as the Practitioner in Residence. It was a privilege to spend significant time at such a vibrant campus. The feelings of hope and promise were palpable. I’m not naïve. There were terrible incidents of empowered racism; the students were under tremendous pressure; and there was much anxiety, depression and fear throughout the campus.  However, the positives very much outweighed the negatives. Walking through the campus and talking to the students, there was an energy and that was hard to find in other places. Students were engaged in animated conversations about both important and trivial matters; they laughed a lot, they dreamed about their futures, they went to parties, and worked toward a more ideal future.  The students in my poverty law class sincerely wanted to tackle our most challenging societal problems and make our country a better place. The campus brimmed with promise, hope, joy and laughter.

The building next to the law school is Anabel Taylor Hall, home to the campus’s interfaith community. The entry to the building was one of my favorite spots and I was drawn to visit it almost daily.  The entrance is a war memorial dedicated to Cornell students who died in World War II. The space is not that large, with about 23 feet between the walls. Because of a vaulted ceiling (about 60 feet up), a lack of windows, walls of grey stone and a pervading hush, the space has a somber tone, feeling very much like a medieval monastery.  Etched into the stone of the wall facing the entry is a haunting list of Cornellians who died in WWII. Astoundingly, there are about five-hundred names — just from Cornell. They are hard to count as the writing is necessarily small and the names go all the way up the vaulted space. The list of Cornellians felled in the Vietnam War numbers 29. The Korean War lists 16.

I visited the space almost daily because I couldn’t quite get a grip on how I felt; it roiled my brain and shook my being. All of those students, at the beginnings of their lives — with so much hope and promise and joy to have their lives just snuffed out, cut short, erased.  I was overwhelmed by a sense of sadness and confusion. The mystery of such devastating carnage cut my confidence and sense of security. How did we get to such a state of hate, violence and destruction? My mind continually wandered to other travesties, where lives have been cut short or made miserable – the Holocaust, Khmer Rouge, Kosovo, slavery and even the current epidemic of mass incarceration.  I was haunted by lives of promise ended or diminished way too early.

The generations of young people lost in the Holocaust — my ancestors — couldn’t have been very different from the students around me at Cornell.   I kept seeing images in my mind of young girls and boys — the age of college students — covered by drab clothing, in bleak surroundings, fear and sadness etched on their faces, holding hands as they walked towards the showers, desperately hoping it would not be what they feared.

I have lived a life of enormous privilege.  I did not have to go off to any war; I missed the Vietnam War, and was too old by the time we got to Iraq and Afghanistan.  I have never seen anyone killed. I have always lived in relative comfort and been immune from hate. But, I know the past; I know that my life is the exception.  The history of the human community is a history of immense cruelty towards ourselves.

We now have a President who lives by hate and destruction, and daily promotes these values with the vigor of one without self-doubt or intellectual rigor.  He is just the type of leader who throughout human existence has led us to perdition and ruin. And, as is typical, he has throngs of supporters who cheer him on and march in enthusiastic lock-step.

It’s hard to know if we are on the verge of another conflagration that will wipe out much of a generation.  Events have a way of spiraling out of control, especially in a complicated and conflicted world. I fear that we won’t know the answer until fateful decisions have been made and actions have been set in motion.  Until it’s too late.

When I stood in the War Memorial at the entrance to Anabel Taylor Hall and read the names on the wall, I visualized in a mental swirl all those Jewish youths in Germany living in innocence before 1933, and the African people before the slave-traders entered their homes.  I see the khmer children running around their villages, and the youth of our inner cities playing in the streets before confronted by an unforgiving and overbearing criminal justice system. I see them all dancing and laughing and holding hands. May we have the strength, wisdom and fortitude to make sure it does not happen here, ending the lives of so many of the young people who brightened my days for a semester in Ithaca.

Doug Lasdon teaches at the Law School. Guest Room runs periodically. Comments may be sent to [email protected]