PHILADELPHIA -- College campuses, which served as key incubators for the antiwar
protests of previous decades, are spawning a new generation of activists opposed
to a U.S. attack on Iraq.
But unlike their counterparts in the Vietnam era, whose opposition grew slowly
over the 1960s, today's antiwar activists, using cell phones and the Internet,
are moving almost as quickly as President Bush.
From a petition-signing campaign at Haverford College and forums at St. Joseph's
University to the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University students arrested
after a recent sit-in at Sen. Rick Santorum's Philadelphia offices, engaged students
and faculty are prodding worried classmates to speak out in opposition to military
“I feel it's awful what we will be doing in Iraq,” said Sarah Morris, one of
the Haverford student organizers. That position, she said, “is not being represented
in the media.”
Today's students have tools their Vietnam-era counterparts never dreamed of:
Swarthmore students started a flashy Web site called Why War?, while University
of Pennsylvania activists recently brandished cell phones on Locust Walk to let
fellow students make calls of protest to members of Congress.
At Haverford, founded on the Quaker principle of nonviolence, Morris and others
wrote a petition against war with Iraq. They argue that a preemptive strike, based
merely on a perceived threat, would violate international law; that the United
States has provided no concrete evidence that Saddam Hussein poses an immediate
threat; and that U.S. action without United Nations support could increase the
danger of terrorist reprisals.
The petition also argues that a preemptive strike would set a dangerous precedent
in international relations, by which any country could “claim the `right' to attack
the United States based on the perceived threat of our weapons of mass destruction,
without providing any concrete evidence of that threat.”
So far at Haverford, which has 1,120 students, more than 300 students, faculty
members and staff members have signed, including Haverford president Thomas Tritton.
The document was e-mailed to members of Congress from the Philadelphia region,
and to the White House.
Morris said that she and others at Haverford were also trying to bring speakers
to campus to generate more debate on Iraq.
“It is hypocritical of the U.S. to conduct a preemptive strike,” said Haverford
professor Walter Smith, another of the petition organizers. “I certainly feel
strongly that unless there's clear evidence of a threat, it's not justifiable.”
Andrew Main, a Swarthmore sophomore, founded Why War? after the Sept. 11 attacks,
to counter the nation's quick rush to retaliate militarily. His group brought
speakers to campus, posted position papers against war on a Web site, and helped
65 students attend an antiwar rally in New York earlier this month.
“It's not clear this war will make us safer, and there's no exit strategy.
And there's no clear indication Saddam has the weapons Bush says he does,” Main
argued. “The Persian Gulf war definitely had more justification. There was clear
aggression by Hussein.”
Main's parents, who attended Yale University in the early 1970s, told their
son about putting flowers in the gun barrels of National Guard troops during protests
against the Vietnam War. Main said his peers today are starting to “pick up on
the fact that this issue is significant.”
Not everyone on area campuses is taking an antiwar stand. David Copley, a Penn
sophomore and member of the College Republicans, said his group planned to write
opinion pieces for the student newspaper in support of Bush's policy. And when
troops mobilize, he said, campus Republicans will hold rallies of support and
distribute yellow ribbons.
“I think the majority of people on campus are with us on this one,” he said.
“It's just a few extremists who oppose action.”
Many of today's undergraduates were in first and second grade during the Persian
Gulf War. American military action is new to them. Some professors say today's
students, raised amid domestic comfort and calm, are still largely uninterested
in the political world. The professors predict that will change as campuses hold
teach-ins and lectures on Iraq.
“When we're out on Locust Walk, we get the occasional comment like, `Get a
life,' and a few ROTC students say we're un-American,” said Penn student Melissa
Byrne, a member of Penn For Peace. “But there's not a rush to support Bush's plan.
A lot of students say they're confused and concerned. A lot of them feel it's
unsafe to speak out against it, but then they see us out there and realize they're
not freaks to be opposed.”
Byrne gained activist experience during the anti-sweatshop movement that swept
campuses in 2000. Penn for Peace and other campus groups are organizing bus trips
for students interested in an Oct. 26 antiwar march in Washington.
Steven Hood, a politics professor at Ursinus College, said the Iraq situation
was permeating classroom debate. “There's not a day that we don't discuss it,”
he said. “It's very much a hot topic.” Some students have even asked if essay
assignments could be tweaked to include discussion of Islam.
Of course, not all students feel the same way. Even at Haverford, a few students
tried (unsuccessfully) to get an amendment attached to the antiwar petition so
it would support a war.
Copley, the Penn sophomore, said, “Generally speaking, I'd be uncomfortable
with America doing a preemptive attack, but Saddam has so many violations of United
Nations resolutions that it's a necessary evil.”
He said most proponents of Bush's policy have not been as vocal as the antiwar
students because they're not trying to stop something. “It's a lot easier to be
against war than for it,” he said. “And we're not in favor of war, but we are
in favor of helping the Iraqi people.”
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