Not your father's protest

March 22, 2003

STUDENTS at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring put out a press release at mid-month announcing that on the day war commenced in Iraq, they would walk out at 1 p.m. The 70-minute demonstration, said the release, "has been organized with the cooperation of school administrators," and "no civil disobedience has been planned."

When the students did walk out Thursday, some wearing "What Would Gandhi Do?" T-shirts in the soaking rain, they knew no one would be punished. Administrators were happy, too. They managed to channel anti-war sentiment into a teachable moment, a civics exercise that would have been sacrilege to a Vietnam-era protester.

The previous Saturday at the University of Virginia, perhaps 250 people demonstrated against the war at the heart of Thomas Jefferson's campus. On a fine spring day, these protesters were nearly outnumbered by spectators and players at a nearby student rugby game. Shirtless young men on fraternity row fired up barbecues, ready for a weekend of parties. The protest was impressive, but it was far from the center of attention.

When bombs actually started dropping, anti-war fervor on some campuses reached Vietnam levels as students from Towson to San Francisco took to the streets. But in the buildup to the Iraq invasion, protests such as those at Blair High and Virginia were common. They were formalized and polite, often staged in designated campus areas and seldom directed at campus authorities.

Indeed, a qualitative difference between the protests of 1967 and 2003 is that school officials -- and the authority they represent -- are no longer the enemy. In the 1960s, college leaders were considered tools of the warmongers in Washington. Occupying presidential offices was standard procedure.

Today it's a useless tactic; the president will offer tea and cookies. Only a few days before the Iraq war, University System of Maryland officials joined students in an angry protest, not against war in Iraq but against state budget cuts.

Do we attribute the lack of extreme student emotion about this war to general agreement that it's justified? That might be part of it. In what Alexis de Tocqueville called the "etiquette of democracy," those who agree with a government action don't have the loudest voices. But a more likely explanation is that students are turned off.

They're skeptical, even cynical, about government and what they can do to influence it. Voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds has declined by 13 percent since 1972. (There's been a parallel decline in the number of civics classes taught in public schools.) The pervasive opinion of young people is that the blob called "Washington" will do what it wants, no matter the feelings of citizens.

Ironically, this does not mean that students aren't involved in their communities. A report from the Carnegie Corporation this month said that though students are turned off politically, they're volunteering at higher levels than ever.

To channel some of this energy into politics, the report urged schools and colleges to provide broad civics education, and candidates to pay more attention to young voters. Nearly two-thirds of political advertising, according to the report, is geared to people older than 50.

If the war is prolonged, if large numbers of Americans return in body bags, if families are separated for months, no doubt campuses will heat up.

Of course, there's one unlikely development that would bring them to a boil: the return of the draft.

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