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September 14, 2009 - 9:42am



"Most frightening is the fact that Le may have been killed by someone who walks among us, considering the basement of 10 Amistad St. is only accessible with a Yale keycard," write the editors of the Yale Daily News, as they ponder Annie Le's death - her murder - in the basement of a campus lab.

Now that her body has been found, the quiet rituals of grief - flowers massed along the building where she worked and died, candles lit in her name - replace the frenzy of press conferences.


First dread, and then horror; but also, now, the ceremonies of remembrance that will gradually rescue her from the dehumanizing circumstances of her death, and bring her back to the world in her full humanity.


The academic year has just begun, which makes this death especially painful. There is a piety we feel about the renewal of university life after the summer. The campus teems withall the power/ That being changed can give, as Philip Larkin, describing just-married couples, puts it in his poem, The Whitsun Weddings. It teems with people getting on with their lives seriously, excitedly. In his autobiography, Ted Kennedy recalls his father saying to him, "Teddy, you can live a serious life or a nonserious life. I'll love you just the same, whatever you choose... But you have to make that choice."


The specific wound of this sort of death is that the decision to live a serious life had been deeply, successfully made. Even the grainy surveillance shot of Annie Le entering the building where she did her experiments reveals her energetic forward stride: Her hair swings as she walks; she carries heavy-looking scientific equipment of some sort in both arms; she seems focused and intent. Her physical delicacy - she was under five feet tall and weighed less than one hundred pounds - is there in the shot too, but it's her confident happy progress through the world that we register.

The fact that Le was herself just about to be married, the fact that she represented an American success story (her parents emigrated from Vietnam) -- these sharpen the wretchedness.


There have been swine flu deaths at our colleges this season; there are, every season, campus deaths by intoxication, car crash, suicide. Always there is the misery that comes of considering the disappearance of the beauty, power, and innocence of youth.

The university campus is not a monastery, isolated from the uninnocent world; but it is a place apart. The university exists to give the exquisite ambitions of people like Annie Le spaciousness. She was lost in that space, and we will eventually find out how it is she was lost. Meanwhile, our vocation, as students and professors, is to honor her.


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