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Great Expectations

I arrived on the Harvard University campus just a few short weeks ago filled with ambition and expectation. Yes, I was nervous. Yes, I was not sure what to expect. But a graduate degree from Harvard, I knew, would open up countless doors. I would be able to change the world in personally and socially enriching ways. For many friends and classmates-interested in technology entrepreneurship, public policy, investment banking, or social service-that feeling of power was the same.
On September 11 we all received a terrible shock to the system. As I struggled unsuccessfully to contact my mother in New York City, I felt helpless and weak. Indeed, the vast majority of us were powerless. (By early afternoon my mother reported that she was safe.) Slowly, I learned of small ways to help: giving blood, making a donation, or supporting a friend in need.

As I continue to grieve and slowly come to grips with this tragedy, I am again beginning to appreciate the extraordinary gifts and power of Harvard University students. Undeniably, we are a bright and an accomplished group. Relative to others, we possess tremendous financial resources, an incredible diversity of backgrounds and experience, and an infrastructure that facilitates communication and action. Regardless of how we procured those resources, how would we use them? Will we be limited to these “small ways to help?”

At the very least, we must actively participate in a vigorous debate about the type of society in which we want to live. In the coming weeks and months our leaders will make decisions that will shape our world for years, possibly decades to come. These decisions must reflect our own considered judgments as citizens. Though I am unclear as to the answers, I believe I can frame some of the key questions:

Harm to civilians
Are attacks on civilians ever justified? If so, how do we identify those situations? Does our tolerance of casualties depend on the nationality of the civilians?

Personal Freedoms
vs. Safety/Security
What social goods are we willing to cede in the pursuit of greater safety? Specifically, how much weakening of privacy protection and due process will we tolerate? When we consider foreign policy and non-citizens, are we bound by our own definitions of civil rights? Do we condone assassination, for example?

US International Relations
How should the United States deal with the rest of the world: Isolationism? By fighting for justice and equality wherever it is threatened? `Realpolitik’-a totally self-interested politics? A more accommodating policy that tries to avoid creating fanatical enemies?

The American Community
How do we preserve and strengthen our often fragmented American community? What is it that unites us? How do we prevent violence and hatred within our own country-against Arab-Americans and others? Less obviously, are different groups within America reacting differently? For example, do Asian, black, white, or Hispanic people have different responses and attitudes? How and why?

Let’s start by trying to answer some of these questions. Then we can decide how we will use our power to make a difference. If you’d like to get involved in this way, or just want to offer feedback, please email me at richleimsider @hotmail.com.

I’ve never written to a newspaper before. My ideas reflect my state of mind over the past week: loose, disjointed, confused. But I have to believe that we have some power to make a difference, and with that power comes responsibility and obligation. Now, more than ever, our community needs our ambition and great expectations.

September 24, 2001
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