25 years after Lockerbie, looking back, acting forward
Two Syracuse University students console one another during a memorial service for students that perished in the crash of a Pan Am jumbo jet in Scotland. The service attracted over 500-students to Hendricks Chapel on the university in Syracuse, New York, Wednesday, Dec. 21, 1988. (AP Photo/Michael Okaniewski)
‘If you became president tomorrow, what would you do to stop terrorism?”
That’s the hardest interview question I’ve ever been asked.
It was during my junior year of college at Syracuse University, when I was applying for the Remembrance Scholarship, an award given annually to 35 seniors to honor the Syracuse students who died in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 alongside 235 others over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. With 189 Americans killed, it was the largest terrorist attack on the United States prior to 9/11.
Of course, the four-person team interviewing me knew that I couldn’t offer anything that would truly solve the problem. But the purpose of the question, I believe, was to evaluate how I think about the world, and to make me realize what being a Remembrance Scholar was really about. Several weeks later I was selected as a scholar and spent the fall of my senior year discussing with 36 fellow students (34 seniors and two freshmen on scholarship from Lockerbie), how we could best honor the lives lost and, even in a small way, make a difference in the world.
The scholars’ primary duty each year is to organize a week of events every November centered on Pan Am 103, culminating in a rose-laying ceremony at the Place of Remembrance, a half-circle wall at the entrance of campus with the names of the students etched in limestone.
“Your sons and daughters will be remembered at Syracuse University as long as any of us shall live and so long as the university shall stand,” then-Chancellor Melvin Eggers declared in 1989, when a grieving student body returned to campus for the spring semester.
Each scholar is also given a victim to represent. I represented Rick Monetti, a 20-year-old from Cherry Hill, N.J., whose parents had become actively involved in the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 group after his death. (Rick had been born on Sept. 11, 1968, and his father gave a heartbreaking interview to Syracuse’s college paper on Sept. 12, 2001, about how hard the families had fought to prevent another act of air terrorism.)
The class of scholars after mine came up with the motto “Look Back, Act Forward.” Although my class didn’t come up with this, I believe our actions embodied the idea. Our Remembrance Week efforts centered on awareness, as most of the students on campus then weren’t alive in 1988 and their understanding of terrorism was dominated by visions of 9/11.
I took on the task of going through the library and choosing a Pan Am documentary to screen one evening. In the movie I chose, there was gut-wrenching footage of one mother collapsing in a fit on the airport floor as she learned her child had been killed. Another mother spoke about an art project she’d completed called “Dark Elegy,” in which she made sculptures of the victims’ mothers posed in the positions they’d been in when they learned their children were dead. One year, the haunting sculptures were displayed on Syracuse’s Quad.
Amid all of this darkness, however, we as scholars learned that light emerged. We learned about friendships formed among the victims families, and we saw firsthand the connections forged between Syracuse and Lockerbie, which opened the eyes of people in both places to a larger world.
I learned that while I could never truly understand the grief the families or the university felt, I could do my small part to bring something better to the world.
At its heart, the program is really about the idea that actions, armed by knowledge, can make a difference. While they fought to share their loved one’s legacies, these families also lobbied for and won tangible changes at the highest levels of government. Feeling powerless over what happens to us is no way to honor Rick and the 269 others who died.
“It’s important to remember, but it’s as equally important to think about what you’re doing as you’re going forward,” Judy O’Rourke, who runs the scholarship program, told me earlier this week. “Each one of us has a passion or skills or talents and what we do makes a difference.”
Rick Monetti, the student I represented, put this message about living purposefully in his own terms, found in a journal recovered with his luggage and returned to his parents.
“So analytical tonight – feeling old at 20, that lost innocence of youth. Don’t sit back, make the most of everything. Do all you can while you can. Life is a one-time deal,” he’d written sometime that fall. Rick had won several awards for sports journalism in high school and was considering turning it into a career. He’d also been a member of his high school’s Students Against Drunk Drinking group and a multi-sport athlete.
Today, when 2:03 p.m. hits, I’ll remember my experiences as a scholar, I’ll remember Rick, and I’ll remind myself that living and acting with purpose can make a difference.
“You can’t ever re-do what you missed the first time,” his journal continued. “The opportunity is here, stop looking past it.”
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3390 or email@example.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)