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Responding Like Robots

Guest Column
Shandon Hart

September 11, 2001, was a day that will be indelibly marked in our memories. As of the writing of this letter at 11 AM on September 12, many still do not comprehend the sheer magnitude of the tragedy that has occurred. It is sad that for many MIT students, September 11 will be remembered as a day when business carried on as usual. It is not my primary intent to criticize the administration for its actions in this confusing time, but rather to encourage each of us individually to look inward and reflect on our own feelings and reactions to this stunning event.

The historical significance of this event has been compared to that of Pearl Harbor, and this is one case where the media is not being melodramatic. The one-day death toll will likely dwarf the number of people who have been killed in the ongoing conflict in the Middle East over a period of many months. We are inundated with news drama every day, but we must not let that desensitize us to truly important events when they occur. This may very well be one of the five most significant events in the history of the United States.

While my own observations of students have been limited, the indifference that I have seen among many at MIT speaks volumes about all of us. I have heard that some students did not even fully know about the events until their classes were over for the day, and many certainly did not have time to appreciate the full extent of what was occurring. As we all know, MIT students are normally insulated from the outside world and the events and issues facing humanity on a day-to-day basis. We instead prefer to focus on algorithms, genomic sequences, and band diagrams. This may be okay most of the time, but we should not be so robotic that we do not recognize a world-changing event when it slaps us in the face. While some of our research may eventually help other people, our reaction to this crisis indicates that most of us are motivated primarily by self-interest. MIT as a whole fosters this ignorance and self-absorbance. When we don’t even have time to take a break and let the news sink in, how could we expect anyone to appreciate the enormity of this occurrence?

The deadliest attack on U.S. soil since the Civil War has just occurred, and MIT’s response has been confused at best. It is understandable for the administration to be confused at a time like this, as many of us are. But we should not expect students to be focused on the normal routine in the face of this tragedy.

The fault does not lie with administrators alone, as many students would apparently prefer to continue with the routine of classes and research. These students should be encouraged to take a step back and consider how this will affect all of us and what this says about America and the world we live in. MIT has never been a very nurturing or caring institution, and we shouldn’t expect that MIT can show its students how to grow and mature. That is not MIT’s job.

But MIT can make the choice to give its students some time to reflect, and to interact with peers or loved ones so that we may develop and learn in our own way. Today, more steps are being taken to provide time for mutual support and reflection. How should we use this time? Should we just treat it as a fun day off? Again, it is not my primary intent to criticize the details of the administration’s actions, but rather to address the larger question of how we should use this time and how our reactions show our true character. If there is fault in our response, then it lies with each of us individually. Our character is not defined by how well we follow the rulebook. Our character, individually and collectively, is defined by how we respond to situations for which there are no set rules, situations which are unprecedented. So far, many of us have revealed ourselves as automatons, walking computers who have little feeling about things that don’t directly affect our petty experiments. We are unable to process the enormity of an event for which we have no programmed response. What many at MIT may prefer to see as bravery, as carrying on in the face of terror, is instead a manifestation of ignorant pride, self-absorbance, and fear.

We at MIT are too proud to admit how much this will affect all of our lives, and instead choose to selfishly focus on our problem sets or experiments. In many cases we are too self-absorbed or unfeeling to lend an encouraging word or a listening ear to those around us. And we are afraid to reflect on these events because of what it says about the condition of the world and humanity as a whole. These facts lead to the most important question of all: what is our primary motivation as individuals? It is fine to make altruistic statements, but what truly motivates us on a day-to-day basis?

Our true character is revealed not by our words but by our actions. What is the most important thing in all of our lives? This is a very personal question, but it is a question that is of incalculable importance for each of us to answer. Let us not shy away from this question because we are afraid of the answer. If the answer to this question ultimately finds its roots in pride or self-interest, then the sad truth is that there is little that differentiates our characters from those terrorists who yesterday committed unspeakable acts of horror.

Shandon Hart is a graduate student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.