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Campus crowd clamors for insight

At a discussion at USF St. Petersburg, some call for responses other than - or in addition to - military action.

By JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 23, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- It was reminiscent of a generation ago, when college campuses nationwide boiled with discourse about the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.

But now the subjects were terrorism and the attacks of Sept. 11.

A "teach-in" packed a meeting room Thursday at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus, demonstrating that the days of academic activism are likely to return as America copes with what likely will be a long-term crisis.

Thomas Smith, a government professor and one of the event's organizers, gazed at the crowd, cocked his head and let a little surprise creep into his opening remarks.

"We had absolutely no idea this many people would come," he said.

Smith was one of a panel of five people in the USF community who have special knowledge about various aspects of the geopolitical challenges the United States faces in its war on terrorism.

USF St. Petersburg will reprise the event at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 3 at the campus activities center, Second Street and Sixth Avenue S. It's free and open to the public.

Special events coordinator Sudsy Tschiderer said 175 people, mostly students and faculty, stayed for much of Thursday's 90-minute forum. Another 50 to 75 at least passed through on their way to and from classes, she said.

"I would say this is clearly a topic that people are really, really interested in being informed about. They want information so they can increase their understanding, their awareness, their response," Tschiderer said.

The gathering's tenor was not so much one of sharp debate or calls for radical action. It was more a reflective occasion for audience members to better understand the Sept. 11 events.

"My expectation was that people would be more interested in what will be next. But people still needed to process it," said panelist Daanish Mustafa, a USF geography professor from Pakistan.

An emergent theme seemed to call for responses other than -- or in addition to -- military action.

Panel member Nahla Al-Arian, a teacher at the Islamic Academy of Florida in Tampa, described herself as a Palestinian-American who came here 20 years ago. She condemned the Sept. 11 attacks. "I felt ashamed of what so-called Muslims did," she said.

She said economic and social problems nurture the hatred that drives terrorists, and suggested that permanent security in America means looking beyond military response.

"Why don't we focus on another Marshall Plan to make people love us? Why don't we focus on sending our doctors instead of our pilots and soldiers?" she asked, drawing loud applause.

Several similar comments also drew applause, as did those of Darryl Paulson, a political science professor who spoke from the floor, not as a panel member. He cautioned against a blame-the-victim attitude toward the United States.

"You can criticize our foreign policy, but nothing justifies the action that took place" on Sept. 11, Paulson said.

No one at the meeting suggested that the attacks were justified. Questions and discussion generally focused on changing conditions that might lead to terrorism, possible surrender of civil liberties, media coverage, the apparent futility of past "wars" on poverty and drugs, and alternatives to war.

"Killing more people isn't necessarily the best way to deal with this," said panelist Mary Matthews, an environmental science and policy professor who specializes in central Asian issues.

Panel member Sharon Lash, a former health program worker for the United Nations, lived in Afghanistan for five months before the 1998 U.S. cruise missile attack there.

"All Afghans are victims to the Taliban," she said, adding that many see the United States as the only nation that can help them.

"(Afghanistan) is a failed state," Lash said. "There is nothing left to bomb there."

Mustafa, who first took the teach-in idea to USF administrators, challenged the audience to look critically at media reports. Pakistanis, for example, have been portrayed on television as "loony-tunes, cantankerous, fixing to run around and slit some throats," though there are only a few extremists in a nation of 140-million, Mustafa said.

And mullahs, he said, have no business declaring military jihads, such as those Taliban leaders continue to threaten.

"It's absolutely infuriating to me," said Mustafa, who said the only person who could declare a military jihad would be a representative of a global Muslim government -- "which hasn't existed since the seventh or eighth century."

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