It was a Bright, Warm Day

By Guest Contributor

One of Middlebury’s strengths is the drive with which students endeavor to make the world a better place. We don’t always agree on how to do this, and thus the College has recently witnessed impassioned debates on a number of important issues. Many, including myself, have been enriched by these discussions. Yet there are those who reject our community’s embrace of civil discourse in favor of so-called “activism.”

Whether out of egocentrism or simply blind passion, these people have alienated supporters and foes alike with their self-aggrandizing tactics and moral absolutism. They have broken the law and willfully disregarded College policies. So convinced are they of their own righteousness that they eschew the need to win over supporters through rational argument and compromise, preferring the familiar intellectual comfort of demagoguery.

I have very strong feelings about this issue. But these thoughts were far from my mind on the morning of Sept. 11, 2013. It was a bright, warm day, just as it was twelve years ago. It was not until that evening that I learned that group of individuals had uprooted thousands of American flags that students had carefully laid out in front of Mead Chapel as a memorial to those who died on that terrible day twelve years ago. A picture available online shows Anna Shireman-Grabowski ’14.5 shoving flags into a black trash bag.

To be honest, I’ve never been sure about how to feel about this annual memorial. On the one hand, I am proud that Middlebury students are still dedicated towards remembering the events of Sept. 11, 2001. On the other hand, I am uncomfortable with the implication that we need a display in order to remember the significance of the day — as if anyone could ever forget.

Yet that cluster of 2,977 flags has a deep symbolic meaning for many members of our community. Just as each and every one of us has our own unique tale of what we went through on Sept. 11, we each have our own ways of remembering our loss. The Middlebury community standards — to say nothing of common decency — demand that we respect everyone’s right to grieve as they see fit.

I had thought that this spirit of mutual respect was self-evident to all members of the Middlebury community. To my shock and dismay, it apparently is not.

Shireman-Grabowski and her co-conspirators have brought shame upon Middlebury and upon themselves. There can be no justification for their actions; they deliberately exploited a terrible tragedy to gain publicity. The Middlebury community welcomes constructive dialogue and collegial dissent, but it cannot and should not accept deliberately provocative action intended only to cause pain.

Shireman-Grabowski has attempted to cloak her petty vandalism in the veneer of moral righteousness. She claims that placing the flags in the earth constituted an offense towards the Abenaki people, and that this ostensible cause justifies the hurt she has caused. Leaving aside the fact that the Abenaki — with whom Shireman-Grabowski could not even be bothered to consult — reject her action, her own actions belie this rationalization as self-serving and dishonest.

There is in fact no evidence to support her bloviating claims; the Abenaki themselves are unaware of any burial sites in the area and the geology of the site seems to preclude its use as a burial grounds in any case. If Shireman-Grabowski truly cared about the rights of the Abenaki, she could have easily reached out to the organizers of the memorial ahead of time in order to share her concerns and work towards an appropriate compromise.

Indeed, organizer Ben Kinney ’15 proposed several such compromises to the five vandals even as they were the process of stealing the flags. But these people have no interest in compromise. After all, compromise doesn’t get your name published in the Huffington Post.

The College Community must now come to terms with these repugnant acts. We have already begun to do so. On the night of the vandalism, students united to re-create the memorial with flags they were able to recover. Other community members reached out to local and national media to make it clear that this heinous act does not represent Middlebury College. President Liebowitz has stated that the administration is beginning a disciplinary investigation. The other four individuals should be charged with theft and vandalism and banned from returning to Middlebury College. They have forfeited their right to meaningfully contribute to our community.

That leaves Shireman-Grabowski herself. After several days, she issued an online apology to members of the Middlebury community she harmed by her actions. The question now remains whether she and her cohorts will learn from their mistakes and accept our community standards embracing civil and collegial discourse or whether they will continue to gleefully defy our shared values in the future.

MAX KAGAN ’14 is from Freeport, ME.

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