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Iraq war protests lag on campus

Peter Ninneman | Friday, December 2, 2005

Despite the clamor of demonstrations and protests immediately following the declaration of the Iraq war in March 2003, a relative silence has swept over campus since about the ongoing military conflict.

Last September, the Notre Dame Peace Coalition held a candlelight vigil for the more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers – and more than 10,000 Iraqi civilians – lost in the war. The event attracted individuals from different political backgrounds, organizers told The Observer in a Sept. 10, 2004 article.

Now, although the death toll for American soldiers breached 2,000 earlier this year, there have been no recent visible demonstrations or vigils on campus.

Political science professor David Nickerson said the political activity on campus last year was “probably the result of the [presidential] election.”

“Bush’s performance in Iraq was important to both campaigns, and the election was close,” he said. “So activists on both sides were more likely to protest.”

Others attribute the lack of demonstration to coinciding, significant news.

“I think a great deal of the silence [regarding] Iraq this semester was because of other stories that have overwhelmed the nation, such as Hurricane Katrina [and] the Libby indictment,” said Colin Taylor, co-president of the Notre Dame College Democrats.

Taylor said “crass 24-hour media outlets,” which he said habitually favor murder stories over Iraq coverage, are also to blame.

Political science professor Louis Ayala said students may not even be watching news, and major media outlets tend not to gear their chosen coverage toward the student demographic.

“I wonder just how much knowledge there is among students about what’s going on right now [in Iraq],” Ayala said.

Peace Studies professor David Cortright offered his thoughts on student knowledge and intent. Cortright serves as president of Fourth Freedom Forum, a group that explores the nonviolent resolution of international conflict through research, public education and dialogue with experts and media communications.

“Many students oppose the war and want U.S. troops to come home, but like many Americans they are unsure about when and how military exit should take place,” he said.

Catherine Kent, vice president of the Notre Dame College Libertarians, said there is a general political apathy at the University linked to the absence of lasting protests and demonstrations.

“People do care – although perhaps not as much as they should – but it is difficult to see how demonstrations or protests in South Bend could have a viable effect on the persuasions of policy makers in Washington and interest groups in major cities,” she said.

Kent and Ayala agreed that when students weigh the costs and benefits of remaining politically informed and active, they generally don’t see the benefits as coming out on top, tending to deem only the immediate results worthwhile.

“When opposition to the war did not end it within the time frame in which it was expected to, many people lost their fervor and moved on with their lives,” Kent said.

Despite popular belief, Nickerson said college students are generally not activists.

“There are only a handful of campuses known for activism, [such as] Madison or Berkeley -students don’t come to South Bend to protest,” he said. “I’m sure students are talking and arguing about the war [in smaller venues]. Many college students enjoy debating and arguing.”

Ayala agreed and said he didn’t think Notre Dame was out of the “mainstream.”

“The consensus is similar to the rest of college campuses,” he said. “For whatever reason, most students don’t see this policy of impact as having any influence on them [and] they don’t see it as being worthy their resources.”

Nickerson said in order to stage a large-scale activity, both organizers and willing participants are necessary.

“Most college campuses exhibit a dearth of both right now and Notre Dame is no exception,” he said.

Ayala said although “sustained effort leads to gradual change,” students tend to misunderstand the value of protest.

Laura Fox, co-president of the ND Peace Coalition, said the group has participated in numerous events off-campus, but has “neglected” to hold a lot of on-campus events.

“We’re going to do our best to promote more activism [next semester] … and maybe work with other political campus groups,” she said.

Although campus groups have not organized any visible demonstrations on campus, some Notre Dame students have taken a more proactive approach to political involvement by attending rallies in Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

Members of the College Democrats also attended Cindy Sheehan’s visit to South Bend earlier in the year. Sheehan, the mother of late U.S. Army Specialist Casey Sheehan, attained national media attention when she demonstrated against the Iraq. War at the George W. Bush’s Texas ranch earlier this fall.

Notre Dame College Republican co-president Emily Kennedy declined comment Thursday.