Hopkins turnout puts aside worries of apathy

September 23, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

MY FAVORITE newspaper says there's political apathy on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University, but I don't know. Somebody with a conscience filled up all those seats in the big Shriver Hall Auditorium the other night after Cindy Sheehan gave up her vigil outside George W. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. And a few hundred of the allegedly apathetic stood up and promised to join her at tomorrow's march in Washington.

The march is aimed at stopping the war in Iraq. The reaction at Hopkins is said to be: Wake me for my 8 o'clock on Monday. Fliers have been circulating all over the Homewood campus inviting participants but, as The Sun's Sumathi Reddy reported this week, the Hopkins Anti-War Coalition had signed up only 45 people.

Maybe Tuesday night's emotional gathering will raise the numbers. But I don't know. Every poll says most Americans have figured out the bloody lies that took us into Iraq, and every poll says angry fingers are pointed at President Bush, who hasn't moved from his insistence that the war in Iraq is an act of nobility, and hasn't acknowledged the political manipulations and bumbling incompetence that put us there and wouldn't meet with Sheehan when she waited for several weeks to talk with him about her son, who was killed in Iraq.

But my favorite newspaper reports apathy at Hopkins - and other campuses in Maryland - so I don't know. Shriver Hall was packed with about 500 people, and the mix was pretty impressive: plenty of college-age kids, plenty of older folks and, of course, the indomitable anti-war horse, the Rev. Chester Wickwire, 92, who waved to the crowd from his wheelchair. He's been arguing against America's misbegotten wars since he was the longtime chaplain at Hopkins and kids were being sent off to the swamps of Vietnam.

Maybe that's the reason for this reported apathy. This isn't Vietnam, it's Iraq. This isn't Vietnam, where young people faced a military draft; it's Iraq, where everybody gets a pass. Let somebody else fight the war. Let other generations stand up when it counts. This generation of young Americans has a rendezvous with their financial portfolios.

But I don't know. At Shriver Hall the other night, emotions ran high. Sheehan was the last of about a dozen speakers. There were soldiers who fought in Iraq but said they didn't know why. There were those, like Sheehan, who had lost relatives there. They told their stories in trembling voices and embraced each other for support.

One woman carried a blown-up photograph with a caption that read: "My husband is not an acceptable loss." Another said her son was in Iraq, "but he doesn't know why he's there, other than to stay alive." Another said her stepson was killed there and recounted two Marines arriving at her front door with the worst news in the world.

"Is he hurt? Is he hurt?" she asked.

No. Not hurt.

So the newspaper article the other day says there's apathy on campus, but I don't know. Student leaders from College Park and Morgan State and from St. John's College in Annapolis all report a lack of political passion on campus, a sense that many students decry the war but are too busy to do anything about it.

Partly, that's the modern American passivity. And, partly, it's the selfish human instinct that silently asks: If I'm not personally threatened, then why get involved?

Some of that Hopkins gathering this week included the generation that grew up in the Depression and came of age in time to fight World War II. They didn't have a choice about political involvement, or about understanding there was something greater than their own puny lives. Politics was there in their kitchens, where they worried if there would be enough food on the table. It was there every time the mail arrived and they wondered if the War Department had a message from the front lines.

Their children, the baby boomers, grew up in a time when the nation finally found its conscience on civil rights. They were the first to attend racially integrated schools. The politics of the day was right there in their daily classrooms. They came of age when a military draft summoned them to Vietnam. And the lies and the deceit of that war roused them because their lives were on the line, and so they went out and helped change the course of history.

This generation of young adults has seen national tragedy, but hasn't been asked to pay a price for it. Everybody watched the terrorist attacks from the comfort of their living rooms and then went about business as usual. Go out and shop, this White House urged, and then it sent America to war on the cheap. The quick answer was that Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said a smaller army was a sleeker, quicker army. But that was only part of it: A smaller army means you don't ask for a draft.

You ask for a draft, you invite people to get involved. And, when you send them off to war with a procession of lies and manipulations, you invite their rage.

So I don't know about this generation of college kids. My favorite newspaper reports a lot of campus apathy, but I saw something else at Hopkins the other night. It went beyond Cindy Sheehan, whose heartbreak over her son might have started something big and important. It was all those people, young and old, who filled the big Shriver Hall auditorium, and stood up and promised to go to Washington because they have a rendezvous with something vital, something that touches their lives across a great distance, which is called a national conscience.

michael.olesker@baltsun.com

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