This piece was originally published in the Williams Record a few days after the death of Osama Bin Laden.
I turned 13 on Sept. 11, 2001. Sunday evening, eight years to the day after George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech, I ran home to Susie Hopkins after learning that the man chiefly responsible for that event had been killed in a firefight.
We live, it is said, in a purple bubble here at Williams, isolated by mountains in every cardinal direction. Our lives are enabled and assisted through the efforts of hundreds of staff who provide us with security and services while we pursue our education. While the Internet has made true isolation less possible, we are sheltered here from hunger and the worst sort of injustices that have provoked the current Arab Spring.
Nate Krisoff ’03 departed from this shelter and entered the United States Marine Corps. The plaque commemorating his life and death on Dec. 9, 2006, sits alone above one of the back doors of Thompson Chapel, dwarfed by the long lists of names from other wars in which Ephs took greater part. He was a co-captain of the swim team, known for his one-liners and the blue and white Adidas tracksuit top that he wore everywhere.
After his death, his father, a surgeon, enlisted in the Naval Medical Corps to honor his son’s memory, serving a seven-month deployment at Camp Al Taqaddum, Iraq, among other places. I know of no other Ephs who followed Bill Krissoff’s example; Williams students are rarely found in today’s armed forces.
We serve in the government, yes, and I have no doubt that many ’11s, ’12s, ’13s and ’14s will leave this valley to accomplish great feats, but many of us will remain within the security and comfort that the privilege of a Williams degree will help to provide. We will not be able to claim the words of Professor of Rhetoric Carroll Lewis Maxcy’s 1926 eulogy:
“And some, in answer to the call of country, have gone out to battle for the common rights of men against the enemy. Some of them will not return to me, for they have given all they had, and now they rest at the foot of a simple cross or lie deep below the waves. But even as they passed, the music of the chimes was in their ears and before their eyes were visions of the quiet walks beneath the elms.”
I am not suggesting that Ephs commemorate Osama bin Laden’s death by enlisting in the armed forces; my own plans do not include military service, though I respect and honor my friends from home who made that choice. But I do suggest that we carry an extra obligation alongside our privilege: to serve not just the causes of wealth, power or fame, but to hold ourselves to a higher standard than that expected by society, the market or our peers.
Loyalty, kindness, helpfulness and their peer traits won’t buy season tickets at a Yankees game, but they are the lynchpins of a successful society: One of the great hallmarks of Williams is that I can leave my laptop out and alone in a common room without fear (though there are notable exemptions: take care!) or that we can toss our jackets on the stairs during First Fridays without requiring a coat check system to ensure that we get our outerwear back. In dedicating ourselves to building the better America that Nate Krisoff sought to protect (or for international students, the causes of freedom and justice that he sought to defend), we can honor his memory and those of the many others that perished on my birthday. We can turn the celebration at this death into a more timely and long-lasting benevolence that will pay dividends down the road.
Is this overly optimistic? Probably. I have no doubt that even on this campus, problems and struggles will continue for years to come. A Muslim chaplain will not solve all of the issues that Muslim students face, just as Campus Safety and Security can hardly prevent all thefts or sexual assaults from occurring. The United States will soon come down from its post-kill euphoria, just as the good-natured feelings of September 11 only persisted for about a month. Our task is to maintain those convictions, even when they are under the threat of convenience or malfeasance; there will often be no reward for doing the right thing, or even heavy costs like what Krissoff paid.
But regardless, let this not be a week about fireworks, politics or the celebration of a terrorist’s death. Let this be the week that we can be reminded which causes are worth dying and sacrificing for. We will not always uphold these values perfectly, but there are angels to guide us on our way.