The panel discussion, entitled "Understanding the Attack on America" and sponsored by the General Alumni Association, was intended to help students, local residents and alumni find answers to the questions confronting them in the wake of Tuesday's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
But many attendees left frustrated after the discussion was punctuated with cheers, boos and displays of temper.
The evening began on a note of solidarity as the Rev. Steve Stanley, campus minister at the Chapel of the Cross, reprised his remarks from Wednesday's campus gathering. "All of us try in one way or another to make sense of experience," Stanley said. "We can draw some encouragement from knowing we are not alone wrestling with horror and hope that comes out of this."
The eight panelists then spoke for a few minutes each. Most of the remarks focused on the political elements of the situation, especially the motivation of the terrorists and the need for retaliation.
"We have a horrific event, and retaliation is unlikely to be the final event in the cycle," said history Professor Sarah Shields. "It seems to me that one of our jobs as Americans, let alone historians, is to try to figure out why things happen in the world."
History Professor Michael Hunt also stressed that the way to prevent tragedies in the future is to understand why they happened. "The terrorist attack we just witnessed cannot be looked on as a psychotic attack from angry fanatics and dismissed as just that," he said. "While most Americans are not aware of our pattern of entanglement, it is widely resented in the Middle East."
Panelists also discussed the economic fallout likely to result from the attacks. Counselor Sondra VanSant offered a list of common ways to grieve.
After the panelists shared their opinions, the forum opened up to half an hour of questions and answers. But the discussion became heated, especially when moderator Ferrel Guillory -- director of the Center for Southern Politics, Media and Public Life -- tried to move on after a participant asked a question, prompting audience members to scream, "We don't need a moderator, we need answers!"
Melanie Cansler, a Durham resident attending the forum, said the question-and-answer portion of the night was the most intriguing -- and frustrating -- element. "It was interesting," she said. "Tensions were really high, and a lot of people had things they weren't able to say, because there wasn't time or because the panelists weren't really answering them."
Shields also expressed sadness that the group could not reach unity in a time of tragedy. "I'm finding it very disturbing we have a polarized group here. I don't think it's what the GAA intended."
But other panel members said they were glad to see such lively discussion, spilling out into the halls even after a performance by the Loreleis brought the evening to an end with silence and tears.
John Kasarda, director of the Kenan-Institute for Private Enterprise, said, "Strongly held positions forcefully expressed stimulate debate -- that's what tonight was all about."
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