Accessibility links

Breaking News

Debating New US War on Terrorism - 2001-09-26

Many universities across the country have become focal points for protesting the war on terrorism recently proclaimed by President George W. Bush. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, such protest hasn't come without cost. Two faculty organizers of a "teach-in" held on campus last week have received threatening phone calls and e-mails.

The teach-in, held at the student union building, was put on by the Progressive Faculty Network, a group with about 30 active members. The event's organizers say they unconditionally condemn the terrorist attacks, but also say the attacks didn't happen in a vacuum. Art professor Elin Slavick is one of the organizers. "They're not attacking us because they hate Americans, or because we're free," she said, but because of our foreign policy. And we wanted to offer this broader perspective of why this could have happened. There was no real discussion in the media."

Much of the teach-in focused on providing historical background for the attacks including the fact that the U.S. helped train Osama bin Laden during Afghanistan's war with the Soviets in the 1980s. Anthropology professor Cathy Lutz says during the last century, the U.S. military engaged in both overt and covert operations to pursue American economic interests around the world. "And in the process of doing that we have often waged terror campaigns, either ourselves or through proxy armies that we have trained and equipped," Ms. Lutz said.

Another speaker at the meeting, a former Army Ranger who is now a communist activist, called for militant and conscious resistance to the war. The organizers say the teach-in was, for the most part, well received by the 800 students who attended. One who wasn't happy with in, however, is sophomore Jim Bailey, who works on the conservative student newspaper The Carolina Review. Speaking for himself and not the newspaper, Mr. Bailey said he has a problem with an event that seemed to encourage militant protest against government policy at a public university and, therefore, at taxpayer expense. It leaves him wondering about the limits of free speech.

"I'm a guy that's 100 percent behind freedom," Mr. Bailey said. "But when we're afraid of what people that get into a radical state of mind can do, then we have to think about at what point we stop sponsoring that radical exchange of ideas?"

Jim Bailey says he's grappling with the issue of First Amendment rights and giving it careful thought. But other critics of the teach-in have been much less benign, among them art professor Elin Slavick. "Well, the day after the teach-in, I had a message on my machine, and it was screaming at me that he would call the chancellor and the vice chancellor and the development office," Ms. Slavick said, "and every state official, until I was terminated which I know means fired, but it's a very intense word. I mean, 'firing' wouldn't have made me as nervous. But 'terminated' is death, too."

Professor Slavick received several similar calls in the next few days. So did another faculty member who was scheduled to speak but ended up canceling her appearance.

That makes the organizers suspect that the calls didn't actually come from people who attended the teach-in. Instead, they think the calls were prompted by a critical press release written by two University of North Carolina (UNC) students and posted in a conservative on-line newspaper called Front Page. Scott Rubush, a UNC alumnus, is an associate editor there. He calls the teach-in "a pep rally for the Taleban," and says the organizers should be fired.

"Yeah, I mean, I actually suggested that to the chancellor myself. You know, these people are using their resources to attack the foundation of America," he says. "I don't know if it's 'the' answer, but it's certainly something we should consider. Certainly censure at the very minimum should be in order."

But Mr. Rubush says he had no knowledge of the threatening phone calls and says he doesn't support those tactics. Still, the phone calls have been a source of concern for the teach-in's organizers. Cathy Lutz says she worries about having her patriotism questioned and about possible infringements on the right to dissent in this post-September 11 climate. "When someone who is targeted for their political views is attacked," she says, it makes all of these hundreds of other people who share those views feel threatened as well. And it controls people's behavior. It makes people less willing to step forward and say what they feel."

One person who hopes that won't happen is UNC chancellor James Moeser. He notes that the school has sponsored a large number of events in the wake of the terrorist attacks, including a memorial service that was attended by more than 10,000 people. The chancellor says he personally disagrees with many of the viewpoints presented in the teach-in, but supports the organizers' right to assemble.

"It's one thing to answer, for our government to respond and bring these people to justice," Mr. Moeser said. "For others to take it upon themselves to condemn others for the points of view and threaten their lives is as much an invasion of American principles as flying an airplane into a building."

Mr. Moeser says it's the university's job to allow a wide range of ideas to be expressed.