All's quiet at UNC as war looms

October 18, 2002|By Jules Witcover

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Here on the University of North Carolina campus, reputed to be a Southern bastion of liberalism, you might expect an outpouring of protest and demonstrations against the prospective war against Iraq.

A year ago, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, teach-ins on the campus led by faculty members triggered blistering attacks from right-wing radio talk-show hosts. The university's chancellor was bombarded with e-mails criticizing the discussions that explored, among other things, root causes of the attacks.

Then, over the summer, the university became embroiled in a controversy over conservative protests about a course on the Quran.

This fall, however, as talk of war has heated up and there have been more teach-ins, there has been relatively little UNC campus turmoil.

That, at least, is what I gleaned from a roundtable discussion here recently with journalism students about President Bush's intention to use force, unilaterally if necessary, against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The students had thoughtful rationales for the low level of discussion on the campus over a decision that conceivably could affect them and their fellow students personally.

"Sentiment around campus is that we shouldn't rush into anything," one of them observed. "A fair number of people on campus sit back and say, `We're only 18 to 22 years old. We've been paying attention to what's going on in the world for only a couple of years now. We haven't had to worry because everything's been fine.' "

A schoolmate agreed. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she said, were "the first event in which it was made very real to us our country, our way of life, is not invincible. ... Watching all those people die on TV, people just like our parents, ... watching all that unfold on TV was pretty eye-opening and scary for kids our age."

But, at the same time, television, judging from these students' comments, appears to have provided them with a distorted notion of war. During the Vietnam War, one said, as a result of actual TV footage, "people had a real sense of American soldiers in swamps, with snipers in trees. Now, looking back at the gulf war, all I remember as a kid was watching those stark pictures on TV, like comets going through the sky. That wasn't scary, it was pretty. ... Now, the only misery I can conjure up when thinking of the war in Afghanistan is American soldiers trudging through an abandoned desert. That doesn't seem scary either."

From television today, she said, "you don't even know what war is. It's like some kind of prime-time television show. ... You watch it, and if you don't want to watch it, then you watch Friends."

Another student theorized: "I think most of the lack of protest stems directly from September 11. The tragedies of that day were so unprecedented that everyone turned to the government, and the government took the stance that we're going to take care of you. I wonder now whether people are having a hard time getting up to saying `no' to the government and the administration after they sort of sheltered everyone through the year of tragedy and coping."

Another student suggested that Sept. 11 actually may have made students here less willing to back a war on Iraq. "September 11 opened people's eyes to how much people are skeptical of America abroad and how arrogant people think America is," she said. "Going to war with Iraq without the support of the U.N. and other countries would be another embodiment of that arrogance and overconfidence."

As for thinking that protest can bring change, there was this comment: "I used to think that, but as I got a little older and a little more selfish, I'm sick of trying to change things. ... It seems there are not as many people trying. A lot of people are accepting as inevitable that we're going to have a war with Iraq. You wake up and people say, `Oh, are we at war yet?' "

Perhaps the casual attitude stems from the absence of a military draft, which spurred such student protest during the Vietnam War. Whatever the cause, all seems quiet so far on this campus front.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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