The following is printed in the HBS 2002 yearbook’s Year In Review page. It is reprinted here for RCs and those who did not purchase a yearbook.
The unthinkable happens.
Minutes into an early day of the 2002 fall term, four planes at terrorist hands made dramatic turns off course, and with them went much of modern civilization as we have known it. It was the day our generation met its fate.
Down fell the symbolic pillars of capitalism as most of us watched on from our school, home and community – the symbolic hearth of capitalism – Harvard Business School. And with those pillars, we and people the world over lost family, friends, and colleagues of the past, present, and future.
As we looked on helplessly at the Spangler flat-screens at live CNN pictures of ghost-white survivors emerging from the smoke and ash, we saw and felt ourselves stumbling with them in uncertainty, fear, and a quick resignation to the simple values that underpin the foundation of our lives.
To fully comprehend the expanse of the chasm between September 10th and September 11th, 2001, would be to send one’s mind to the precipice of sanity. It is upon that precipice that we sit here momentarily in reflection.
In the way that seconds can determine lifetimes, those moments last September joined the ranks of November 21, 1963 and December 2, 1941, and delivered our generation the “Where were you when…” question that haunts and binds people everywhere through time. For several of us, our response begins, “I would have been there…,” or, “I knew someone there.”
During the following weeks, the U.S. President, himself a graduate of our school, promised the world on behalf of a wounded nation that the named suspect would be captured “dead or alive” and soon launched a military campaign to do so from a country whose leader during the election primaries our famous president famously could not name. Eleven months after 9-11, the administration has yet to make good on its promise.
And while the events around September 11th commanded the attention of laser beams, other events merited bright spotlights. By December, China had been admitted to the World Trade Organization after years of slow reform, diplomacy, and lobbying; the U.S. was in the throes of an anthrax panic from an unknown but likely domestic source; and George Harrison had died.
January ended with the president’s State of the Union address, in which he used the phrase “Axis of Evil” to describe North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. Critics complained of diplomatic insensitivity. Both the president and his critics would continue their refrains all the way to this publication, circling through time like a spiral, perhaps zeroing in on some unknown and unmet destiny.
And so it was in the midst of the whipping winds of war and terrorism, as if they themselves were not enough in the months following last September’s fallen pillars, that the bricks of capitalism began shaking loose. The #5 Fortune 500 Company and the president’s biggest political patron, once lauded as much on Wall Street as it was in the pages of HBS case studies, saw its house of cards that the world took for bricks fall into the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history. Then the administration’s Justice Department indicted – and eventually shut down – one of the world’s five leading audit firms and major HBS student pre-employer.
On the same day that Enron filed for bankruptcy, Israel was struck by the third Palestinian suicide attack in about twelve hours that killed 16 on a city bus in Haifa, Israel. Within hours, Israeli defense forces responded with military force in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and would eventually confine Palestinian Authority leader Yassir Arafat in his Ramallah headquarters. The president would eventually call for Mr. Arafat’s removal as he would for Saddam Hussein’s – and the violence continues.
Another fateful week in December brought more events of worldwide import. On December 18, UN weather agency reported that 2001 was the second warmest year in 140 years and that temperatures are warming more rapidly than ever.
Two days later, Argentine President Fernando de la Rua leaves office as riots ensue over economic crisis in Argentina.
Three days later, tests confirm that explosive material packed with wires had been hidden in the sneakers of trans-Atlantic airline passenger Richard Reid, who would later be tied to Muslim fundamentalists suspected of terrorist activity.
On New Year’s Day, Argentina elected its fifth president in two weeks.
Later in January, former Massachusetts priest John Geoghan is found guilty of molestation with further allegations of 130 more, therein plunging the Catholic Church into an unprecedented crisis that would lead to the Pope recalling all U.S. Cardinals to Rome in April for consultations and the media to speculate about the foundations of one of the world’s major religious pillars.
Five days after Geoghan’s conviction, Wall Street Journal Reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped in Pakistan while investigating Richard Reid’s connections to al Queda, and Pearl’s captors would later release a video of his savage murder at their hands.
The same day of the kidnapping, Kenneth Lay resigned as Enron’s CEO. The next day, January 24th, the world awoke to news that Arthur Andersen Partners had knowingly shredded documents related to their services to Enron.
Enron was just the beginning and wouldn’t hold its infamous record for long. Because along came WorldCom’s bankruptcy – bigger than that of Enron. And Adelphia. And K-Mart. And ImClone, which would also impugn the integrity of the icon of American hearth and home.
And Halliburton, whose former CEO now sits as the most powerful Vice-President in U.S. history, is now under SEC investigation for accounting practices the likes of which are discussed in FRC.
It is as if this “scandal-weary” country is just beginning to know the term.
We are learning that the legalities of such acts are not so instructive in a world where realities matter more than where legislators under the influence of big money draw the lines in service of that money. Ultimately, to employ dueling metaphors of Adam Smith and our great Professor Emeritus Alfred Chandler respectively, the “invisible hand” of the market would trump the “visible hand” of management.
And so investors, like some MBA-job-seekers, are still roiling in the pits of guilt and fear, cowering in wait for the next fist to punch.
A single one of these moments was unthinkable only a year ago. All of them are simply incomprehensible even now. And yet it is this unfathomable Gordian knot of time and civilization that we are left to examine for ourselves, and in our quiet moments alone, to mourn.
It is our challenge then, as the most well prepared young leaders in the world today from the world’s most preeminent educational and transformational grounds, to turn our mourning into morning again the world over.
The United States, the world’s great beacon of capitalism and democracy for over two hundred years, was not built on pillars but rather atop a hill. And it is on that solid foundation atop the hill that we will build again. Our pillars may crack or fall, but our foundations are unshakeable.