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Sometimes You've Just Gotta Take a Stand

A Parting Shot

By Jonathan S. Cohn

"DADDY, where were you the night before the war started?"

Someday, my kids will ask me that question, just like I asked my parents where they were during the Cuban Missile Crisis and what they were doing when Kennedy was shot.

I'll tell my kids I was not where I was supposed to be--curled up with Shakespeare and Sophocles, studying for a morning exam on tragic drama. I'll tell them I was not where I was expected to be, either--huddled around the television set, watching Ted Koppel count down the minutes to the United Nations deadline for Iraq's pullout from Kuwait.

Instead, I'll tell them, I was at the intersection of Mount Auburn and Dunster Streets, flirting with frostbite and death at the hands of some unsuspecting driver, trying frantically to reach Harvard Square before the clock struck midnight. There was a candlelight vigil for peace there, and all of the sudden, I had decided to go.

I've never been particularly fond of public demonstrations. I'm not a pacifist, a non-interventionist or even an activist. At the time, I didn't even oppose the use of American force to push Saddam out of Kuwait.

But I do remember that I was scared. Real scared. So scared that I ran out of my room wearing only a sweatshirt and windbreaker to ward off the subfreezing wind chill. So scared that the cold didn't do anything to stop the nervous sweat running down the small of my back.

Something terrible was about to happen--something terrible that could very well threaten my life. And there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it.

JOURNALISTS are used to being outsiders. We spend our time watching other people's lives. We thrive on conflict and human suffering, and then, for lack of a better term, exploit it so that fellow outsiders can peer in and gasp with us. Along the way, some of us at least try to impart some lesson about justice, and hope that the lesson isn't lost amid the squawking.

Surprisingly enough, that's the way it's supposed to be. Our editors and journalism professors tell us that we have to remove ourselves from our subjects. We have to be "objective." Our job is scientific, almost mechanical. We are here to tell what happened. We needn't care about it.

And that's always been fine with me. I've always wanted to be a journalist, but--until very recently--only because I liked the art of reporting and writing. It was an experience with my father's photocopy machine--not an exposure to some grave social injustice or a desire to change the world--that sucked me into the trade.

Sure, I've had my opinions. I thought my high school's "values" program taught against everything in which I believed. I thought Harvard's faculty could be doing more to hire minority and women scholars. I thought undergraduates could be a lot more tolerant of their fellow students of different gender, skin color or sexual orientation.

I just never acted on these opinions as an individual, or let them drive my writing as a journalist. I was perfectly content to let other people fight it out while I recorded the story from afar. I figured I was doing my duty. I patted myself on the back for being "open-minded."

I SUPPOSE my proclivity for neutrality--or passivity, if that's a better word--has a lot to do with my personality. On the playground, I was the peace-maker who kept the bullies at bay. At home, I was the diplomat who made sure Mom and Dad always got along. I wouldn't take sides in disputes; I'd just make sure they got resolved so that everyone could be friends again.

When it came to politics, I acted the same way. Sure, I believed government ought to do more to promote economic equality. But, heck, I had a new car when I was 16 and my Ivy League tuition set aside before I even graduated from high school. I was never forced to do anything, so I'd talk endlessly about ideals. Wasn't that enough?

I saw gender discrimination all the time, and it bothered me. But I never had to face this discrimination myself. So when I witnessed it at school or at play, I would turn the other way, confident that I was doing the "right" thing by merely refusing to participate in it.

It was so much easier to sit quietly, listen and say it wasn't worth getting all hot and bothered about. It was a position that put me at little risk. I suppose it was a position that I could control.

I PROBABLY shouldn't complain; that attitude has gotten me far in life. I've always had a lot of friends, in high school and college. I even became editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper at Harvard--in part, I'm sure, because I had very few enemies.

To be sure, neutrality served me well as a reporter. Sources trusted me because I didn't profess to have even the semblance of an opinion about things.

But the air of passivity continually got me into trouble this year when I tried to manage affairs at The Crimson. Time after time, my desire to remain above politics and avoid taking stands caused grief for everybody around me.

I remember how I presented my "objective" opinion about why a newspaper could justly print the names of gay men arrested for having anonymous sex in a public bathroom. It opened the men to heinous discrimination. It ran contrary to my sense of justice. But I justified it because it sounded like "good journalism."

It's not that I necessarily disagree with my stance, I just regret going about the issue the way that I did. Time after time, I have found myself considering what sounds correct instead of what sounds right. More often than not, that has meant neutrality, which in turn has meant complicity. My refusal to take a stand for my principles has done nothing more than enforce the status quo.

THESE DAYS, there's a new sign hanging in The Crimson's newsroom. It quotes Freire: "Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral."

I think it's a new sign. Who knows? Maybe it's an old sign, one I long ignored because it looked like another piece of pointless propaganda somebody hung up to impose their values upon me.

But I definitely noticed the sign last week when I was thinking about the war. I don't think I noticed it because I had some sudden realization about the nature of life, but because this time I was feeling powerless.

This time, it was me and not some nameless face standing at the bottom of that power pyramid. And from that perspective, I found, passivity and neutrality aren't so appealing.

Now, I realize that we can never treat the world with absolute "objectivity." As journalists, we must stop pretending we report and write in a vacuum and recognize that our values do motivate what we cover and the way we cover it. As human beings, we must begin to stand up for our values when they are threatened.

I only wish I had realized this five months ago, when there was still time to do something about the war in the Gulf.

EARLY ON, I supported the use of force to expel Saddam from Kuwait. I ate my daily diet of media reports and Bush Administration speeches. I quickly became convinced that we needed to act in the Gulf to preserve the world order and topple the man who might be the next Hitler.

Today, I've lost my confidence in President Bush and his coterie of National Security experts. I'm convinced that the Administration was committed to hostilities from the very start, even though peaceful alternatives may have existed. Bush dispatched the troops, set the terms and then dared Congress and the public to stop him. The public cowered, and Bush's army rolled on.

I'm also convinced that this war is going to be far more costly--both in terms of the geo-political order and human suffering--than any of us have been led to believe. Who knows what price we will pay for our sudden understanding toward Syrian treachery and the Soviet military crackdown in the Baltics (remember it was our forgiving attitude toward Iraq that got us into this mess to begin with). And God only knows how many people will die when Bush gives the go-ahead for the grand ground offensive into Kuwait.

I'm not sure what I would do if Congress called for a draft. I would want to resist out of anger, but my resistance would only shift the burden to somebody less well-off.

One thing is certain, however: I don't have to like this war. I have learned my lesson about passive acceptance, and this time, at least, I am not going to stand by in silence.

THE MEDIA ESTABLISHMENT really doesn't seem to care about the human costs of Operation Desert Storm. An NBC news commentator casually mentions that Iraqi civilian casualties number only 300 or 400 after a few days of bombing, and Tom Brokaw grunts in agreement that such losses are acceptable.

Gen. Colin Powell and the Pentagon establishment conspire to make sure the public never finds out just how awful this war really is. Military officials toe the White House line, and reporters parrot their propaganda to the people.

What frightens me is how many Americans seem to accept this government rhetoric without any meaningful questions whatsoever. Polls show the majority of Americans support the war effort and have no problem with the current press restrictions. Ignorance is bliss, as long as your neighbors are doing the dying.

Sure, some Americans are concerned. Polls show, for instance, that Blacks are markedly more lukewarm about the Gulf War than whites. Not surprisingly, Blacks make up 30 percent of the American forces in the Gulf and will do an equally disproportionate share of the dying.

But it's the same old story. The people raising objections--the people who will suffer--don't have the power to articulate their opposition fairly. And while the well-to-do say they're sympathetic, they're not going to do anything to change the status quo.

IT IS NO COINCIDENCE that our generation is the first to grow up, until now, without having witnessed the horrors of war. It is also no coincidence that this generation came of political age during the Reagan and Bush years, an era in which concern for the self has come before all else.

If there was a silver lining to the whole Vietnam experience, it was that the children of the 1960s learned the exact opposite lesson: that they could not passively accept any kind of injustice, even if that injustice didn't directly affect then.

They learned this lesson precisely because one injustice--the Vietnam war--affected them. The sense that they, too, could be vulnerable made a powerful impact on these young adults. It made them aware of all the other injustices around them and motivated them to do something about it.

In the 1960s, concern over Vietnam united students around a potpourri of causes, from civil rights to the environment. The alliance itself didn't last, but the underlying sense of duty--the sense that neutrality equals complicity-- endured for at least a while.

It was an extraordinarily painful lesson that cost Vietnam its virtual existence and the United States its very soul. It was a painful lesson this generation, unfortunately, seems determined to learn for itself.

I REMEMBER when I learned that lesson. It was on that cold Tuesday night in Harvard Square.

I remember arriving at the vigil only seconds after the clock above Cambridge Trust turned to 12:00. I waited around for a few minutes. I even joined the protesters in a few bars of "Give Peace a Chance."

It was something, I suppose. But it was too little, far too late. The time to stop this war had long since passed.

I envy the people who went to that rally and the ones held before it. They will always know that they spoke their minds from the start. They realized all along what they believed in, and they stood up for it.

The rest of us will have no such consolation. We may have had the opportunity to object, but we chose to let it slip away. We remained silent. Now we must face the consequences of our indifference.

IF THIS WAR turns sour--and I am almost certain it will--I suppose we can always tell ourselves that we didn't really believe everything we were being told, even though we kept our reservations to ourselves. I'm sure that will make us feel better in 30 years, when all we have to remember are a few pages in some history book and a military cemetary conveniently hidden in some far-away town.

I'm sure many of us will hardly remember back to the awful suffering that lies ahead. The human mind is very good at blocking out unpleasant things when they have happened to somebody else many years earlier.

Someday, we will all forget--and that is the scariest thing of all.

Jonathan S. Cohn '91 was president of The Crimson.

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