Opinion: Clarion Call

Sept. 11 figures in campus discussions on heath, discrimination, and racism

Clarion Call No. 152
The terrorist attacks on the United States and the subsequent U.S. war on terrorism were the subjects of a recent teach-in at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and were also referenced by North Carolina State University students during two recent campus events focusing on an entirely different subject, the racial climate.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, on Friday, April 19, the Dept. of Epidemiology sponsored an event entitled “The New War Economy: Who Will Pay?” The keynote speaker at this event was neither an economist nor a professor of epidemiology; it was Prof. Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Jensen’s claim to fame in this regard appears to be his status of being criticized for his opinion on the Sept. 11 attacks. On Sept. 14, Jensen wrote in the Houston Chronicle that the Sept. 11 attacks were “no more despicable than the massive acts of terrorism … that the U.S. government has committed during my lifetime” and “my anger is directed not only at the individuals who engineered the Sept. 11 tragedy, but at those who have held power in the United States and have engineered attacks on civilians every bit as tragic.”
Shortly thereafter, Larry K. Faulkner, president of The University of Texas at Austin, wrote a letter to the Houston Chronicle in response, in which he made clear that “No aspect of [Jensen’s] remarks is supported, condoned, or officially recognized by The University of Texas at Austin.” Faulkner, noting that “The First Amendment is the bedrock of American liberty,” also wrote that “Using the same liberty, I convey my personal judgment that Jensen is not only misguided, but has become a fountain of undiluted foolishness on issues of public policy.”

Jensen criticized the U.S. for its war on terrorism, saying the government was manipulating the emotional reaction to Sept. 11 and that the U.S. should have treated the attacks as criminal acts and therefore asked the world for police action against al-Q’aeda. “I didn’t just feel emotion about the people who died in the World Trade Center in September,” he said. “I felt overwhelmed by a feeling of sadness for what was coming.”

Also speaking at that teach-in was Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. Makhijani linked the war in Afghanistan to the U.S.’s realization following the oil embargo of 1973 that the nation “did not control oil, the most important commodity in the world.”

Two UNC-CH professors also participated. Anthropology Prof. Catherine Lutz, who participated in UNC-CH’s first war teach-in on Sept. 17, where she declared that the parallel to Sept. 11 was not Pearl Harbor but the opening of the Cold War and compared Henry Kissinger to Osama bin Laden, complained about the U.S. military budget. Lutz said that if the U.S. military budget were smaller, then “People who could have benefited from health research might still be alive today.”

Associate Professor of Epidemiology Steven Wing said that the increase in focus on bioterrorism preparedness in the field of public health had made the disparities in health care greater. He also suggested racial and class discrimination in the difference between government buildings shutting down under anthrax warnings while postal employees, many of whom are black men, were told to keep working.

On April 25 N.C. State hosted “A Campus Dialogue on Race,” which was moderated adroitly by William Leftwich III, former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Equal Opportunity in the Clinton administration. While overall the event was constructive, there were nevertheless some students who attempted to exploit the event. One such student, a black female, told how she was initially upset by the Sept. 11 attacks, but then said she realized that through them white Americans were finally getting a taste of discrimination. She said that Sept. 11 resulted from how white Americans treated members of the world community.

A week earlier at N.C. State, black activist students and professors held a “Speak Out Against Racism” April 15, generated by their anger over the Najja Baptist situation (on Feb. 19, a white girl angered by Baptist’s pre-class fulminations against America asked why he doesn’t “go back to Africa,” and the professor responded only by calling for more civilized discussion in class rather than subjecting the girl to expulsion or other disciplinary action). One student at the rally was angry that “Today in America we have a war on terrorism, but not a war on racism.” She said that if something similar to what was said to Baptist had been said to a Muslim, “there would have been an outcry.”

“Feb. 19 should have the same significance as 9-11,” she said.