We must respect and protect spirit of the U

Recently a government official commented the goal of terrorists was to alter behavior through fear and thereby cause a people who are free to be less free. If the issue is one of freedom versus fear, then it involves not just a few buildings on the East Coast, but also every aspect of our society, including the University.

The World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., were not the only institutions that were targeted. Centers of research were also put on high alert. Somehow that brings the events close to home, considering the University is one the preeminent centers of research in the country.

Perhaps some of the meaning of the recent events is to cause the University community to pause and consider the nature of freedom and how it must be defended. The University has traditionally been a forum for the exchange of ideas: Not only a place for a variety of ideas to meet head on, but also a place for diverse peoples to meet and converse, to compete and cooperate.

The underpinning of all this has been not just a commitment to excellence in scholarship but, equally important, a strong commitment to the free exchange of ideas. There are many forces that can erode these commitments. Fear is one of them. The danger of terrorism lies not just in an accomplished act of terror, but also through the spirit of fear that comes with it. This attitude of intimidation can come to dominate a country, or even an institution, without the perpetrators actually executing any of their threats.

What then must this or any university do to resist this spirit that seeks to alter behavior not through persuasion – which respects freedom of choice – but through fear? Simply put, universities must redouble their efforts to create an atmosphere of respect and freedom for diverse people with diverse ideas as they strive to prove themselves in terms of academic excellence.

The idea any group on campus can assert their cause by force, threat of force or any form of intimidation must be resisted. It must be recognized such efforts constitute forms of terrorism, also.

The responsibility of those in authority is to secure a safe and open campus. Unfortunately, college administrators have not consistently carried out this responsibility.

A recent example of such failure occurred earlier this year when many campuses were intimidated by violent student protests against the publication of David Horowitz’s ideas concerning slavery reparations. Very little was done by anyone in charge. This was not an isolated example.

Quite often, government and other officials are not able to speak on campuses due to forceful student protest. So much can be done to ensure there is an open and fair forum for every point of view. Instead, anti-free-speech bullies frequently end up calling the shots.

The passive response on the part of college administrators toward campus terrorism is a long tradition that dates back to the 1960s and has contributed to the demise of freedom on universities and colleges. It is a pity this is the case, because young demonstrators often hold valid points of view. Their frequent recourse to violent and undemocratic methods, however, undermines a fair hearing of their views. Unfortunately, there usually are no responsible and mature leaders to show them a better way.

Administrators are not the only ones who can do something. All honest and well-meaning individuals must redouble their efforts to speak out and courageously defend the truth. Teaching or studying at a university is much more than just securing for oneself a better economic position in society. While you are here at this university, you are playing a role in a great institution of the free world. Hopefully, that role is one of furthering its freedom. In order to do that, we all must stop taking that freedom for granted.

Here are some things you can do: Write letters to the newspaper. Defend your point of view through thorough research and excellent scholarship. Attend and participate in campus debates. If there is no debate, start one. Listen to opposing points of view and engage yourself in civil discussions concerning the ideas. Expect others to listen to you, too. If we don’t listen to each other, much of what we now have will be destroyed.

What happened on the East Coast was a wake-up call for all of us. If we don’t wake up to the threats to freedom even here at the University, then we, too, become types of sleeping agents who help promote an inimical rule of fear.

Michael O’Connor is an alumnus and former University teacher. He welcomes comments at
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