On the morning of Sept. 11, 2015, two members of Brandeis Democrats, three Brandeis Conservatives and other volunteers collaborated to put together a memorial to remember the lives lost on that day in 2001. They placed close to 3,000 flags on the Great Lawn early that morning in what was supposed to be an apolitical display of remembrance. Later on in the day, however, unidentified people turned the display to a political statement, repositioning the flags to say “PROUD OF IRAQ?”
The Great Lawn had been reserved through the university for the arrangement. The flags were also private property. The students who had set up the memorial devoted hours to putting it together. There was significant student outrage after the vandalism of the memorial was noticed, but those responsible have not been found. On a day of remembrance and mourning, an insensitive political message was made at the wrong place at the wrong time. Although free speech is an inherent right that must be protected, this vandalism attempted to drive a stake through the unity that was formed when both liberals and conservatives put aside their differences for a day.
To Brandeis students and members of the broader community who lost friends and family on that day, any desecration of a memorial can be offensive. Although the rearrangement made a powerful statement, this was not the proper means to that end.
If those responsible wanted to invoke their political views on the War in Iraq with an arrangement of American flags in the way they did, their right to free speech allows them to do so. The same message could be made on another day without vandalizing a memorial that students worked tirelessly to put up. Of course it is an act of defiance and it says something about how strongly people feel about Iraq, but what else were the perpetrators hoping to accomplish? They tried to invoke politics. Inadvertently, they invoked grief.
Any 9/11 memorial should remind us of those lives lost and unite us against those who wish to do us harm. The direct U.S. response to the attacks, being the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides of the conflict, was disastrous, and people have a right to be angry about it. People have a right to speak up about it, but a memorial is not the right place.
This vandalism of the memorial has made clear the lack of space for political messages on campus. If there was a wider avenue for expression, perhaps the perpetrators would not have felt the need to desecrate the memorial. We need to make sure that free speech is available for everyone on campus so that students do not feel as if vandalism and other similar acts are necessary to get their opinions across.
Furthermore, private property and reservations of campus space need to be respected, especially when ideologically dissimilar students put aside their differences to memorialize the lives lost 14 years ago. Vandalism is not a form of free speech. Desecration is not a form of free speech. It is disrespectful and it drives grief. It is, most of all, offensive. Next time, the perpetrators should keep that in mind before they try to make an apolitical memorial a political statement.