Students ask: Too much, too little, or too late?

by Amy Zoss

As the realities of war have set in, students across campus have struggled to find meaning within the ongoing clash of contrasting viewpoints.

“It is kind of overkill,” said senior Emily Rouse. “All this anti-war, pro-war – it’s just so mentally draining, so physically draining.”

Rouse starts crying. Her husband Jason is a Marine in the 1st Battalion on the front lines in Iraq. It has been a while since Rouse has heard from him, and she said it is their six-month anniversary.

“I’ve stopped watching the news, stopped reading the paper,” said Rouse. “I just cannot be involved with this war anymore. I just want it to be over with and for him to come home.”

The students against the war say this is part of what their protests are about.

“This is not a just war and I don’t want our soldiers fighting in an unjust war,” said senior Joe Roth. He said he supports the troops and that’s why he wants them home.

Crossing the lines

Roth helped organize the effort to erect 150 white crosses on the lawn west of Smith Chapel two weeks ago.

A faculty member, whom Roth would not identify, offered to pay for the materials. The next day, the students started building the 12-inch crosses. About a dozen students worked from early morning until early afternoon to put them in the ground. Someone tore the crosses down in the wee hours of the morning, barely 12 hours later.

“It was upsetting that we couldn’t express ourselves without that message being destroyed,” said senior Jennifer Hoffman, who helped set up the crosses.

According to the students who set up the crosses, they were intended to be a neutral statement – a way to get people to think about the consequences of war. An e-mail Roth sent to the Simpson community explained the intentions for the display. Apparently, not everybody believed the message.

“We were told that it was perceived as just a veiled anti-war statement,” said Hoffman. “We just wanted to bring home the fact that war is about death-death is a part of war. People in small-town Iowa tend to forget that people are dying.”

Sophomore Amber Speck’s husband is in Iraq with the 1st Battalion, 7th Division Marines. Two months ago she started a support group for the spouses of military personnel serving in the war.

When she first saw the crosses, Speck said, “It was like a stab in the heart.”

“I think they [those who set up the crosses] should have spoken with people who were more directly involved. Also, it came from people who had been actively protesting the war, so it was hard for me to see it as a symbol of honor for our troops,” said Speck.

While the group of students that put them up hoped they would stand for a while, Hoffman said they realized something might happen to the crosses.

Hoffman and Roth are both residents of the PAC house, where two signs and a banner were stolen from the property and a rock was thrown through a window in Roth’s bedroom.

“The stolen signs and rock thrown through the window, combined with the crosses being torn down kind of hardened me in ways I’m not entirely happy with,” said Roth. “I’d appreciate it if no more rocks came through my window.”

Professor of English Todd Lieber called the destruction of the crosses “sort of KKK-ish.”

“I wish the people who had done it would have come out and said who they were,” said Lieber.

The students had been granted permission by the college to put up the crosses, unlike the protesters who spray-painted a peace symbol on the grass in front of College Hall or the protesters who spray-painted anti-war slogans on the windows of McNeill Hall and Cowles Gymnasium. Roth called the spray painting on college property “not appropriate.”

“Anything destructive defeats the purpose,” said Roth.

David Wolf, an instructor of English, said whoever tore down the crosses could have put up a sign saying “God Bless America” in the same space.

“You don’t vandalize an existing message,” said Wolf. “I think that’s the wrong way to go about it.”

Roth said he had received several nasty e-mail messages about the crosses and about his anti-war position. Quoting a message that said, “I heard you were an RLC guy – you’ll like Lucifer, he’s a lot like Saddam,” Roth called the responses “emotive and immature.”

“It upsets me because people are afraid to ask questions. We have a right to question, so we should do so,” said Roth. “I feel I’m doing my duty by asking these questions.”

Pinning down issues

The students handing out pins in BSC the past three weeks don’t believe the crosses should have been destroyed or vandalized.

“The violence that happened to the crosses – that’s not acceptable to me,” said Wendt. “That’s not right. That’s not respectful.”

Wendt wishes the tone of the debate would shift. “I don’t think it needs to be about politics. It needs to be about people,” she said.

Katie Draheim-Byrd is involved with the ribbon campaign. She posted flyers around campus, enjoining students to support the military personnel. She sent e-mail messages in support of the war. Like Roth, Draheim-Byrd received nasty e-mail messages, including one that told her she would have “the blood of innocent Iraqi citizens” on her hands, she said.

By Draheim-Byrd’s estimates, the ribbon campaign has put together more than 500 pins at a cost of about $.75 each. The pins are paid for by donations.

Like the intended message of the crosses, the symbolism of the pins has not been universally accepted. While they said the response has been overwhelmingly positive and people always say they “support the military personnel,” Draheim-Byrd, Wendt and Rouse all talk about people who said they wouldn’t wear the ribbons because of the red, white and blue colors.

“They said, ‘Well, I support the soldiers, but I don’t support them in those colors.’ To me, red, white and blue are the colors of our country, the colors of our flag that men and women have died for,” said Draheim-Byrd. “I don’t understand that.”

Speck said she supports wearing the pins as a way for people to make a statement.

“I think the ribbons are an awesome way [to show their support],” said Speck. “People can be reminded to pray for the troops, pray for our President.”

Speaking in support

On the second floor of Barker Hall, freshman Andrew Mitchell and some of his friends duct-taped a sign on the outside of the building that said “PRO WAR.”

“We were tired of the anti-war and no-war-for-oil statements,” said Mitchell. “We felt it was time for somebody to say something.”

However, Mitchell supports the anti-war protesters’ rights to speak up.

“We don’t want to bash these people,” said Mitchell. “I’m glad they are taking a stand for what they believe in.”

He doesn’t see the anti-war and support the military position as necessarily incompatible. “These people are not trying to contradict themselves,” said Mitchell. “They are sincere, and that’s okay. I just want people to appreciate the freedoms we have because we have fought for those freedoms.”

Sarah Powell, a sophomore whose brother Kyle is fighting in Iraq, said when she first heard we actually were going to war, she was disappointed. She said there must be a reason Bush decided to go to war, and she would support his decision.

“It sucks that we’re at war, but we’re at war,” said Powell. “We might as well support our government and our troops, because it is happening.”

Reconciling differences

Roth said he would like to find a way for everybody who holds a view about the war to make a statement. He said the people who threw the rock and tore down the crosses may have been exercising a form of speech, and “the last thing I want to do is end all dialog.”

“The up side to that is that there is always going to be two sides to any issue, and Simpson has done a good job of having those sides represented,” said Draheim-Byrd.

Draheim-Byrd said she felt it would be difficult, though, for people who hold such opposite views to come to an agreement.

John Fry, assistant professor of history, believes that the freedom for students to express their views on campus in ways that aren’t destructive is central to the liberal arts mission.

“Certainly, the mission of a liberal arts school is to provide for a free exchange of ideas,” said Fry. “Anybody who does graffiti or busts up a bunch of crosses has no concept of civil disagreement.”

Fry hopes one of the lessons from Tuesday’s tolerance forum is a model for how to disagree. “The people on the panel have widely divergent views-but we can sit down and talk about them without getting angry, without calling each other names,” said Fry.