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civic rite
Joe Previtera '04 (left) debates Max Buccini '06 (right, white shirt), at protest of Chomsky's lecture. By Justin Knight
peace warrior Noam Chomsky fills the gym

A few minutes before 7:00 on the Sunday evening of the Iraq war's first weekend, with casualty reports from U.S. troops' advance on Nasiriya occupying the news, some 40 protesters, most if not all of them college age, stood behind police barriers on a dark patch of pavement outside Boston College's Power Gym. "Free Iraq!" they shouted. "Stop tyranny! They're dying so you can live in freedom!"

The occasion of their protest was a lecture to be delivered on the war by MIT professor Noam Chomsky, the linguist and left-wing political advocate, and they held signs that said things like "Chomsky, Friend of Saddam" and "Chomsky Is a Sophist, a Corrupter of Youth." One sign, mildly puzzling, read, "Prof. Chomsky, Who Are You Donating Your Fee To?"

"He's an avowed socialist," explained the sign-holder, Hal Mackins '04, a member of BC's College Republicans, which organized the protest. "So it would be hypocritical for him to keep his [speaking fee]."

Did Mackins mean to say that Chomsky shouldn't be paid for his work, or that, if paid, he should give the money away? How would he support himself?

"He could join a commune," suggested Mackins, who went on to complain that the Republican group had "a permit" from the Office of the Dean of Student Development "to picket on the gym steps, but they put us back here, which is interesting because the Global Justice Project [a campus antiwar group] is out on the quad and in the Dust Bowl all the time, and they don't make them stand behind a barrier."

Inside the gym, an audience more than 1,000 strong waited to hear Chomsky. The crowd spilled out of the bleachers, with perhaps 200 people sitting on the polished floor, surrounding the four video cameras on tripods that stood ready to record the lecture. Admission was ostensibly by ticket only, and the thousand passes, free to anyone with a BC ID, had run out in less than two days, with the last ones distributed on Thursday morning. "The lecture had been planned for a while," said Kate Nash, a graduate assistant who served as liaison between the Student Development office and the sponsors of the lecture, the Global Justice Project and the undergraduate government (UGBC). "But because of the war, it piqued a lot of interest in BC's student community."

The crowd was indeed overwhelmingly of student age, but not entirely.

Christopher Ward of nearby Brookline, by all appearances a senior citizen, said he'd been admitted sans ticket, while a middle-aged couple from Australia with connections to Boston University but not BC said they had tickets but wouldn't reveal how they had gotten them. A burly fortyish man in a black sweatshirt bearing the logo of a heating oil dealer refused to give his name, but he also admitted to having no connection with the University. He said, "I work down the Cape, and [Chomsky] has a place down the Cape. I once cut down some trees for him. I read some of his books—he's very well-published. If you go to amazon.com, there's something like 15 of them."

At about 6:45, Robert Sherwood, dean of student development, announced from the lectern that while Chomsky's views weren't necessarily those of the University (in fact, like many other institutions of higher learning, Boston College took no official stance on the war), he had "a right to be heard without disruption. I ask you all to be respectful. I don't have any reason to believe anyone won't be, but anyone who is disrespectful will be asked to leave."

Sherwood may have had at the back of his mind campus rumors of a walkout to be staged by the College Republicans. As it turned out, no walkout materialized, though the rumors did have a kernel of truth. "A member of our club brought up the idea of a walkout as a way to let people know that not everybody agreed with Chomsky," said Kristina Kelley '03, chairman of the campus GOP group, but after brief consideration, the students rejected the idea. "We decided a walkout would just be rude," explained their treasurer, sophomore Sara Ann Mehltretter, "and we want to promote further campus discussion from both sides."

(continued below)


Over the course of the U.S. combat operation in Iraq, BC faculty and students mounted almost daily antiwar protests. They were quiet, small demonstrations (the largest drew fewer than 200 participants) and did not affect the business of the campus. At a demonstration in the final days, shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, for instance, a few dozen faculty and students gathered in a circle on the quad chanting low-key slogans ("Think about it, think about it") while a student played bongos and an admission tour passed through.

A petition calling on the University to take a stand in opposition to the war garnered 1,254 BC signatures. Members of BC's Jesuit community gathered each Wednesday in the early evening for a peace vigil on O'Neill Plaza. And on April 14, the ad hoc group Faculty and Staff for Social Justice held a symposium on the war, at which pizza was served.

A slightly more confrontational exchange of views could be found in the Heights student newspaper, on the editorial and letters pages. There students aired their opinions, pro and con, under such headlines as "The Only Solution" ("With a despot like Hussein, when does it come to a point where enough is enough?"); and "Economic Interests Underlie Military Action"; and "Staying Pro-American" ("No one really wants a war, not even pro-war individuals"). But a consensus was hard to discern. And so also were the views of upwards of 90 percent of faculty and students, who seemed to remain through the course of the war a very silent majority.

The situation was not unlike that at other universities. At Harvard, the quest for signs of political unrest led one local news crew to mistakenly videotape the freshman welcome, under the impression that it was filming restive students.

Anna Marie Murphy

(continued from above)

After Sherwood's admonition and a brief but glowing introduction by BC sociology professor Charles Derber, Chomsky took over, to a standing ovation. In the lecture, as in all his public utterances on the topic dating back to the 1960s, Chomsky took the darkest possible view of U.S. foreign policy, citing among other examples: the decades-long effort to destabilize Cuba ("the Cuban missile crisis was rooted in a campaign of international terrorism aimed at regime change"); U.S. underwriting of regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala that murdered tens of thousands of their citizens in the 1980s, including Catholic priests and nuns ("in Central America . . . the main target was the Church"); U.S. support of Saddam Hussein himself, which lasted through his army's gas attacks on Iranian soldiers and Kurdish civilians and right up to the brink of the Kuwait invasion.

Noam Chomsky addresses a packed crowd in the Power Gym. By Justin Knight The current war on Iraq, Chomsky said, is of a piece with these past policies, reflecting a U.S. aim "to rule the world by force . . . . We will decide who is a potential threat to us and will attack and eliminate them." The war also serves the Bush administration's domestic purposes, by keeping the American people so afraid and distracted that they won't notice reductions in services for the general population or cuts in taxes for the rich and corporations. Washington's Iraq policy has alienated not only most of Europe, China, Russia, and the Muslim world, but also the international business elites who get together in Davos, Switzerland, for the annual World Economic Forum, Chomsky said. "Why do they hate us? It's a silly question really. But Bush has succeeded in making it a reasonable question, and the answer, Mr. Bush, is because of you and your cronies." Yes, the rhetoric at times got heavy-handed, also typical of Chomsky, though his quiet, unemotional delivery tended to soften the effect.

There were no protest signs waved inside the gym, and the crowd listened quietly until the lecture ended. Then came another standing ovation. Then a brief announcement from a young man in a PEACE T-shirt about campus antiwar demonstrations, which had been going on weekly or more often (see Homefront, above). Then a question-and-answer session with the lecturer.

Along with the rumors of a walkout had come hints of a plan for "aggressive" questioning. Alas, like the walkout, it was not to be. Most of the questioners, all college age, appeared to agree with Chomsky's views. The few attempts by questioners to throw him curves ended up hanging out over the plate, and he easily batted them out of the ballpark:

Q. You said the Republicans started a war to keep us distracted from domestic issues, but what about Germany and France, where unemployment is high and the populace unhappy? Isn't President Bush just a convenient target for their governments and media?

A. One: Unemployment in those countries is not much different from ours, especially when you factor in the significant slice of the U.S. workforce that is currently in prison and thus not included in our unemployment figures. Two: In Hungary, Spain, and Italy, whose governments support our Iraq policy, the people are even more opposed to the war than in Germany and France, with opposition at over 90 percent. Three: In the recent elections in Germany, both parties were compelled to oppose the war because the population was strongly against it. Four: Was the pope influenced by the media when he spoke out against the war? Or take the people at Davos. These are the guys who run the media!

Sophomore English major Kate Kreinbring, though antiwar and liberal, said she sympathized with the Republican questioners. "It was tough to argue with Chomsky," she said. "He's so much more educated on the issues than we are . . . . At times I found myself reeling from the facts he has at his command."

The Q & A session ran out of time after close to 45 minutes. A third standing ovation. People filed out of the gym, some speaking glowingly about the lecturer. But did he change any minds? Not those of Kelley or Mehltretter, the College Republican officers, nor that of freshman Wesley Hazard, who said, "I came in supporting military action, with some reservations. The lecture didn't inspire me to change my views, but I respected it for its clear, analytical nature."

Hazard added, as another point in the lecture's favor, that it had managed to bring together people with a wide range of opinions on the war. Really? What about all the softball questions? What about all the standing O's? "That," he explained, "was just the friendly BC atmosphere."

David Reich

David Reich is a Boston-based writer.

Photos (from top):

Joe Previtera '04 (left) debates Max Buccini '06 (right, white shirt), at protest of Chomsky's lecture. By Justin Knight

Noam Chomsky addresses a packed crowd in the Power Gym. By Justin Knight

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