Apathy, not activism, floods campuses as interest in the war in Iraq wanes

Students claim they lack a connection to the effort

April 09, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

On college campuses across Maryland -- where the exchange of strong ideas and opinions is not only expected, but encouraged -- there is largely a collective silence concerning American involvement in Iraq.

"When we first entered the war, people were protesting and there was a lot of discussion in the classroom," said Brooke Barrash, president of Towson University's College Republicans, which supported the war. "Now that we've been there for some time, people don't pay attention. It just seems like old news."

Even with the intensified fighting of recent days and the grisly images of the mutilated corpses of Americans, the passion of the war's early days is absent.

It's a very different atmosphere than that of college campuses in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"There was no apathy during Vietnam," said Don Kleine, a 74-year-old English professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, who remembers bomb threats and thousands-strong rallies after he came to the campus in 1967.

"The students back then had interest," he said. "Now they're interested in their grades and then getting a good job when they get out. They're interested in having a good time."

And they don't have to worry about being drafted.

"If there were a draft, it would make a lot more people pay attention to the war," said Nicole Wooten, 19, a sophomore biology major at Morgan State University.

"But right now, it doesn't directly impact people. We're in school, while other people are over there fighting," she said. "I don't know anybody over there fighting. If I did know someone over there, I'd be following the war much more closely."

At the University of Maryland, College Park, fresh chalk messages lined the walkways yesterday, telling students how to vote in campus elections. Two women sold lollipops to raise money for Alzheimer's research, and a Thai group distributed literature.

The only signs of sentiment about the conflict were in the ragged paper remnants left taped to lampposts, stained by rust and rain. One read: "Fund education, not occupat" -- the last three letters torn off.

Before the war -- when students thought they could affect the outcome -- varying protests and support rallies sprang up, but they quickly faded once the United States invaded and issues became muddier.

"What do we tell people to do if we don't understand the situation?" said Simon Fitzgerald, a 22-year-old who is pre-med at the University of Maryland.

On March 5 last year, Fitzgerald helped organize an anti-war rally on campus that drew more than 700 people, but little has followed. The same happened at the Johns Hopkins University, where near-weekly rallies last spring soon disappeared, though the student newspaper has been full of opinion pieces, many opposing the war.

"There isn't the buzz in the air that there was a year ago," Fitzgerald said. "That might change if something frightening keeps appearing in the newspapers every day."

Delana Gregg, a peace activist and 26-year-old graduate student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is frustrated by the silence.

"We have to keep awareness up because it's not ending," said Gregg, who spent 27 months in Lithuania as a member of the Peace Corps. She studies education at UMBC and mentors public affairs students, encouraging them to talk about Iraq.

"It's a topic of discussion, because I refuse to not let it not be," she said from her campus office, where pictures of her husband, Thomas Gregg, sit behind her on a shelf along with an album from their Jan. 16 wedding.

Just months ago, her 28-year-old husband was studying history at the school. Today, he is at a training camp in Arizona, studying how to operate unmanned aircraft in Iraq, where he will be sent in the fall as a military intelligence specialist with the Maryland National Guard.

"It's the most terrible thing that could have happened," said Gregg, who opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and now opposes President Bush. "We have to make sure more people know and remember that this is happening."

Still, many express strong personal opinions, though they haven't taken them to the streets.

"I'm a political science major so I follow it really closely," said Laura Zeender, vice president of the Student Government Association at Howard Community College. "It's an important issue to me, I think, to be in Iraq and to do what we're doing. I don't think it's trying to impress our way of life on another nation. It's trying to give them the opportunity to have their own government."

At St. John's College in Annapolis, known for its classics-based curriculum, students "spend more time thinking about the war than actually protesting it," said Cameron Healy, an anti-war sophomore from St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore.

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