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Remembering—and learning from—9/11

The Lehigh community gathers outside the Alumni Building on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Vic Comras, a former member of the United Nations’ Al-Qaida Monitoring Group, told a gathering of Lehigh students, faculty and staff on Monday that 9/11 “reminds us of our vulnerabilities. If we let down our guard, we will be vulnerable to terrorism.”

In 2010 alone, he said, there were more than 10,000 casualties worldwide from terrorism. “Terrorism continues to plague the international community,” said Comras, who retired from the United States Foreign Service with the permanent rank of Minister Counselor in 2001 after 35 years, and now consults on security and financial issues.

Comras, author of Flawed Diplomacy: The United Nations and The War on Terrorism, came to campus as part of Lehigh’s observance of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Earlier in the day, former Lehigh staffer Kim Plyler recounted her harrowing, first-person tale as an eyewitness to the plane crash at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

On Sunday night, a brief memorial service sponsored by the Chaplain’s Office was held in Packer Memorial Church, followed by a candlelight walk to the Alumni Plaza, where the names of the eight alumni and four parents of alumni who lost their lives on 9/11 were read. And on Saturday morning, Lehigh’s Association of Student Alumni (ASA) organized a special interfaith community service event at the Burnside Plantation of Historic Bethlehem.

The solemn reading of names took place Sunday night at the permanent memorial that was dedicated in 2006 by ASA, which led efforts to plant 12 golden rain trees along a walkway outside the Alumni Building, with plaques bearing the names of those lost. The Lehigh community members who died in the tragedy were: alumni Philip Guza '67, Allison Horstmann-Jones '92, Garry Lozier '78, Gregory Malone '81, Robert McLaughlin Jr. '93, Edward Pykon '90, Scott Saber '86, and Thomas Sinton III '82; and parents Alan Merdinger (father of Jill '02), Sareve Dukat (mother of Athena '97), Philip Calcagno (father of Kristine '88 and Karen '91), and Jeffrey LeVeen (father of Jeff '97).

Dealing with terrorism

On Monday afternoon, Comras traced the growth of terrorism since the 1968 hijacking of a flight from London to Tel Aviv via Rome, outlining the history through the murderous attack on the Israeli team at the 1972 Munich Olympics to our present situation.

“Terrorism in the 1980s,” Comras said, “was probably the most active of any of our periods.”

The U.N.’s approach to terrorism evolved over the decades, and by 2001, “the U.N. was much more able to deal with terrorism in a constructive manner,” Comras said.

The United States has initiated many measures to prevent terrorism, but shortcomings still exist, Comras said. There is a lack of a clear definition of terrorism, no consensus on who are terrorists, and ineffective application of U.N. counter-terrorism measures, Comras said. 

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan presented a defensive strategy consisting of five D’s: dissuade, deny, deter, develop and defend. Comras proposed that six C’s should be added to his strategy: clarity, commitment, capability, cooperation, accountability and consequences.

“We need an offensive capability to deal with terrorism,” Comras said.

Comras spoke in Lamberton Hall, which served as the center of Monday’s 9/11 memorial events, sponsored by the Global Union and the LU/UN Partnership. CNN’s original coverage of the attacks was shown throughout the morning, and posters were available for students, faculty and staff to share their memories of the day.

‘Nowhere in my American mind did I think it was a terrorist attack’

At her lunch-hour talk, Plyler—who was living in Fairfax, Va., in September 2001—recalled how, upon hearing that the first plane had crashed into New York’s Twin Towers, she assumed it was a drunken pilot.

“Nowhere in my American mind did I think it was a terrorist attack,” she said.

So she went ahead with plans to have lunch with friends at the Pentagon, even though there were warnings against doing so. Pregnant at the time, she decided to park in the south parking lot because it was closer to the building, and she wouldn’t have to walk a mile to get to the building from the north parking lot. The security guard told her that she was not authorized to be there.

Plyler said that when she got out of her car to show the security guard that she was pregnant in hopes of being able to stay in the closer lot, she looked up and saw a plane coming lower and lower toward the Pentagon. The plane came so close that she was able to see a woman’s face in a window, she recalled. She made eye contact with the woman, and the intense fear she saw on her face haunts her to this day, Plyler said.

Shaken, she drove home. Several hours later, after she had a chance to collect herself, Plyler said she went out to her car and opened the trunk. Bags of emergency essentials such as food, flashlights and toilet paper filled her trunk. Unknowingly, she said, she had stopped at the grocery store on her way home from the Pentagon and purchased survival items. She wouldn’t have believed so, but a receipt with her signature confirmed it.

As painful as the memories are, Plyer said, it’s important for her to share them.

“Reflect, remember, then take action and move forward,” Plyler said.

Photos by Ryan Hulvat

Story by Courtney Buchanan

Posted on Tuesday, September 13, 2011

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