Campus activists mobilized on Iraq

P By James M. O’Neill

pHILADELPHIA (KRT) – College campuses, which served as key incubators for the antiwar protests of previous decades, are spawning a new generation of activists opposed to a U.S. attack on Iraq.

But unlike their counterparts in the Vietnam era, whose opposition grew slowly over the 1960s, today’s antiwar activists, using cell phones and the Internet, are moving almost as quickly as President Bush.

From a petition-signing campaign at Haverford College and forums at St. Joseph’s University to the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University students arrested after a recent sit-in at Sen. Rick Santorum’s Philadelphia offices, engaged students and faculty are prodding worried classmates to speak out in opposition to military action.

“I feel it’s awful what we will be doing in Iraq,” said Sarah Morris, one of the Haverford student organizers. That position, she said, “is not being represented in the media.”

Today’s students have tools their Vietnam-era counterparts never dreamed of: Swarthmore students started a flashy Web site called Why War?, while University of Pennsylvania activists recently brandished cell phones on Locust Walk to let fellow students make calls of protest to members of Congress.

At Haverford, founded on the Quaker principle of nonviolence, Morris and others wrote a petition against war with Iraq. They argue that a preemptive strike, based merely on a perceived threat, would violate international law; that the United States has provided no concrete evidence that Saddam Hussein poses an immediate threat; and that U.S. action without United Nations support could increase the danger of terrorist reprisals.

The petition also argues that a preemptive strike would set a dangerous precedent in international relations, by which any country could “claim the `right’ to attack the United States based on the perceived threat of our weapons of mass destruction, without providing any concrete evidence of that threat.”

So far at Haverford, which has 1,120 students, more than 300 students, faculty members and staff members have signed, including Haverford president Thomas Tritton. The document was e-mailed to members of Congress from the Philadelphia region, and to the White House.

Morris said that she and others at Haverford were also trying to bring speakers to campus to generate more debate on Iraq.

“It is hypocritical of the U.S. to conduct a preemptive strike,” said Haverford professor Walter Smith, another of the petition organizers. “I certainly feel strongly that unless there’s clear evidence of a threat, it’s not justifiable.”

Andrew Main, a Swarthmore sophomore, founded Why War? after the Sept. 11 attacks, to counter the nation’s quick rush to retaliate militarily. His group brought speakers to campus, posted position papers against war on a Web site, and helped 65 students attend an antiwar rally in New York earlier this month.

“It’s not clear this war will make us safer, and there’s no exit strategy. And there’s no clear indication Saddam has the weapons Bush says he does,” Main argued. “The Persian Gulf war definitely had more justification. There was clear aggression by Hussein.”

Main’s parents, who attended Yale University in the early 1970s, told their son about putting flowers in the gun barrels of National Guard troops during protests against the Vietnam War. Main said his peers today are starting to “pick up on the fact that this issue is significant.”

Not everyone on area campuses is taking an antiwar stand. David Copley, a Penn sophomore and member of the College Republicans, said his group planned to write opinion pieces for the student newspaper in support of Bush’s policy. And when troops mobilize, he said, campus Republicans will hold rallies of support and distribute yellow ribbons.

“I think the majority of people on campus are with us on this one,” he said. “It’s just a few extremists who oppose action.”

Many of today’s undergraduates were in first and second grade during the Persian Gulf War. American military action is new to them. Some professors say today’s students, raised amid domestic comfort and calm, are still largely uninterested in the political world. The professors predict that will change as campuses hold teach-ins and lectures on Iraq.

“When we’re out on Locust Walk, we get the occasional comment like, `Get a life,’ and a few ROTC students say we’re un-American,” said Penn student Melissa Byrne, a member of Penn For Peace. “But there’s not a rush to support Bush’s plan. A lot of students say they’re confused and concerned. A lot of them feel it’s unsafe to speak out against it, but then they see us out there and realize they’re not freaks to be opposed.”

Byrne gained activist experience during the anti-sweatshop movement that swept campuses in 2000. Penn for Peace and other campus groups are organizing bus trips for students interested in an Oct. 26 antiwar march in Washington.

Steven Hood, a politics professor at Ursinus College, said the Iraq situation was permeating classroom debate. “There’s not a day that we don’t discuss it,” he said. “It’s very much a hot topic.” Some students have even asked if essay assignments could be tweaked to include discussion of Islam.

Of course, not all students feel the same way. Even at Haverford, a few students tried (unsuccessfully) to get an amendment attached to the antiwar petition so it would support a war.

Copley, the Penn sophomore, said, “Generally speaking, I’d be uncomfortable with America doing a preemptive attack, but Saddam has so many violations of United Nations resolutions that it’s a necessary evil.”

He said most proponents of Bush’s policy have not been as vocal as the antiwar students because they’re not trying to stop something. “It’s a lot easier to be against war than for it,” he said. “And we’re not in favor of war, but we are in favor of helping the Iraqi people.”