Birgeneau recounts 9/11, discusses day’s lasting effects

On Friday, reporter Victoria Pardini sat down with UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau to talk about where he was on 9/11 and how he sees the tragedy still affecting the world today.

The Daily Californian: So where were you on 9/11?

Robert Birgeneau: So, sort of for people of my generation, there are two really dramatic events which one never forgets. For me, the first one was the assassination of President Kennedy, when at that time I was a graduate student at Yale, and I won’t go through the details, but I remember it was an African American woman who informed me and I remember her facial expression, et cetera. And so that was Kennedy’s assassination, and the other one is 9/11 and at that time I was in Canada, at the University of Toronto, I was president of the University of Toronto. I was in my office and the phone rang and it was a friend of mine from MIT who said, “Turn on your television immediately,” and I turned on the television and it was before the second plane had hit the tower, and I was in the middle of a meeting and I had someone with me and I remember looking as if this must be like, you know King Kong, some science fiction thing, this could not actually be happening.

Then it turned out that this had huge emotional impact on me and on all of us because it turned out that on the plane that I watched crash was a young man who I knew well, who was a friend of my son’s, had played soccer with my son, and his family were deeply committed to breaching the gap between Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and work actively on it. And I thought, you know, how ironic to have this kind of young man on the plane.

The second thing, which was much more positive, was that I had a colleague from Stanford who I had invited to come to Toronto and he had been in Jordan in the Middle East where he was trying to help them with their scientific programs, and he flew to Boston, and then if I hadn’t invited him — and he made a last minute decision to come — he was going to be flying to LA to see his daughter and he would have been on the plane to LA. Instead of getting on the plane to LA he got on the plane to Toronto, and so he arrived and then we found about what was happening.

Meanwhile his wife didn’t know what plane he was on, so his wife, back here in California, down in Palo Alto, was in a panic because he might have been on the plane to LA, which was one of the ones that crashed, and it took us more than half a day to get a telephone call through for him, down here, down to Stanford, for him to tell his wife, no, he wasn’t on that plane, he was in Toronto and everything was okay. So I also felt like a savior that day as well.

But it was so dramatic emotionally and it was just… I know everyone feels this. It’s not that we felt invulnerable, whether it was in the United States or Canada, but we couldn’t imagine this happening, and it was really I think an important wake-up call for the entire western world that we don’t live completely separated from other worlds who may view us very differently than we view ourselves.

DC: And then out of curiosity, I know you were in Canada at the time, so how was experiencing that from a different country?

RB: Well I, you know, if you ever needed any event to bring together two different countries this was one, and I think the response in Toronto was, you know, overwhelming support for the people in New York and for the United States, and people in Toronto, of course then immediately started looking at the skyscrapers in downtown Toronto, and wanting to know, you know, is corporate Canada going to be one of the next victims of this.

DC: How did it impact you in the short term and the decisions that you made?

RB: So of course we were concerned about our family, then about the particular family where the young man on the plane had died, and he by the way left behind a wife, two young children and his wife was pregnant, right, so there was a lot of communications back and forth with these families in Boston to try to figure out what was going on.With my friend from Stanford, who was visiting, we actually had to make some arrangements because he couldn’t actually get back to California, because there were no airplanes flying and it took a full week, so it was a lot of sort of really practical stuff, dealing with people who were very directly affected by the bombings, and then of course we called around to a lot of other people because we had lived around New York and in Boston for all of our adult lives so we knew a lot of people who could have even been in the building.

And it turned out there were so many stories of our friends, people my generation therefore who had young people who were working in Manhattan and who might have been in the World Trade Center that day if it had turned out you know, were there at a different hour or such like.So in addition to the around 3,000 people who were killed, there were so many other people who might have been except for a little bit of luck of canceled appointments.

DC: In the past 10 years how has it affected you and changed who you’ve become and the decisions that you’ve made?

RB: I think everybody in any position has been affected by this. I must say, you know, I think we’ve had to work much harder to maintain an equilibrium in, among other things — say here on the Berkeley campus — but it’s true in Toronto as well to make sure that Muslim people and Muslim students were treated fairly and not victimized because of the acts of a few extremists. And also, you know I think in our world views, it really has changed our world views, and not everyone loves us and not everyone admires our society, and we’ve had to learn to deal with the reality of that.

DC: Was there a lot of that initial, I guess, Islamophobia? Was that kind of prevalent even in Toronto?
RB: I think there was some. It happened that the University of Toronto had a very large number of students from the Middle East, a large number of Muslim students, so we were able I think to deal well with that and actually the Muslim students even gave me an award, so I was actually quite flattered by that, for trying to — for working hard to maintain equilibrium for Muslim students.
DC: Let’s continue onto Berkeley, it’s kind of a different type of microcosm than the rest of the United States, but was there any kind of that lingering tension? I know you came in 2004.

RB: So, no, I think, you know, we’ve handled matters here pretty well. There’s always bad behavior by people on the extremes at either end, but I would say, you know, we have a Muslim Student Association here, I think we have a very healthy group and I think in general our students are very, you know, quite supportive generally. If you ask me, have I been surprised, I would say the one place that I’ve been surprised is — and you haven’t asked me about this yet, but one of the really unfortunate consequences of 9/11 is the continuing war in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, that has gone on too long and too many people have died on both sides, and I’ve been a little bit surprised that we haven’t seen more objections to those wars.

DC: On campus?

RB: On campus. And not just on campus, it’s not unique to Berkeley, but just generally. I would have expected more opposition to the war — I’d like to see more opposition to the war actually.

DC: How do you think the US has coped? I know that you weren’t in the States when it was going on, the decision to go into war, but I’m assuming you weren’t for the decision?

RB: You know, I really am embarrassed to admit that I was. I actually believed the misrepresentations so — you know, given what had happened, if Iraq really had weapons of mass destruction, I thought it was important that we make sure that the effect of those are canceled out. So I actually did support the incursion early on based on those lies. I didn’t like how it was done, I didn’t like the shock and awe, I thought it was really disgusting actually, and then of course when it emerged that it was all lies I was pretty upset and have been very unhappy since.

DC: Do you think that the nation’s coming any closer to solving any conflicts, or what do you think is the next step for the nation?

RB: I think we have to work really hard to bridge the gap of countries in the Middle East and I think we have to be accepting of their cultures and not try to impose our culture on them. It’s a huge problem that we have in our society, that there are too many of us that think we got it right and everyone else should convert to our approach. We’ve worked hard to bridge — you know we had some criticisms when we at Berkeley decided to partner with Saudi Arabia to help them with this new university the King Abdullah, that would treat men and women equally, and I decided that, not just I, but we decided that we should reach out and we should try to cooperate with the Middle East and especially with groups like, and people like King Abdullah who wanted to create universities where men and women really would honestly be treated equally, and we put a lot of energy into making sure that that would be the case.I often went to events at the Egyptian consulate, and actually the Egyptian Consulate General has two sons, both of whom are students at Berkeley, and every year have hosted an iftar for our Muslim students during Ramadan, so we’ve worked hard to try to have as supportive and positive an environment as we could possibly have here on the Berkeley campus.

DC: Do you get any negative feedback for how accepting you try to make Berkeley as a campus?

RB: No, I think that’s really a nice aspect of the Berkeley community that people want us to be an inclusive environment. I wouldn’t say, you know — we’re not perfect about it. I was just on the phone earlier, it happens by coincidence, speaking to one of our Jewish alumni who was concerned  about some of the incidents that he hears about. He didn’t say anything negative about Muslim people at all, none, zero, it was all just, “Are Jewish students being treated fairly?” and you know, we had a long conversation about that, and had discussed with him what are some of the issues that we faced, so we’re working on these issues all the time.

DC: How do you think that 9/11 will continue to shape the nation?

RB: In the same way that, you know, President Kennedy’s assassination shaped the nation, and I gave that example right in the beginning deliberately, there are few singular — and I should have added the assassination of Martin Luther King too — there are a few singular events that do shape consciousness and they shape them for the indefinite future, so I think that in the same way that Kennedy’s assassination has shaped our political attitudes for the indefinite future, I think that 9/11 will as well. And most especially, and, maybe it’s one good thing to come out of it is that to show that we’re as vulnerable as everyone else, that we can’t just send off American bombers somewhere or American troops to do something and think that we will be completely immune and we won’t be affected by this, and so I think understanding our own vulnerability is actually a healthy thing for our society.