Sixties style feel to Powell debate

Thursday, September 21, 2000

If we didn't know Mike Palecek better, we would dismiss it as a publicity-hungry stunt by a Congressional wannabe fighting an uphill battle for name recognition.

Instead, it is turning into quite an interesting debate, albeit one that wasn't intended or perhaps welcomed by its hosts.

Palecek, Democrat challenging powerful Tom Latham for the U.S. House, announced this week that he will join the protest against the presentation of General Colin Powell at Buena Vista University Friday. Apparently, so will Father Frank Cordaro, Iowa's best known military protester and something of a renegade in his own church's view, and others. The Catholic Peace Ministry of Iowa had already voiced its protests and planned to visit the campus as well.

Palecek says he will join the protest group because of Powell's role in the Gulf War, as well as in hopes of drawing attention to continued U.S. sanctions against Iraq that he said are claiming innocent lives.

Were it any other politician, we would write it off as a publicity stunt. Candidates are known to show up unusual places and say unusual things to make a dent in the polls and hit the evening news.

Palecek, however, was doing just this kind of thing years before he ever thought of running for office. The former Cherokee newspaper editor has been thrown into prisons around the country over the years for aggressive protests of military power. Cordaro, too, has stepped to the edge more than once, and done time for it. Their convictions - or at least the way they have chosen to express them - has cost them both dearly. One can question their past methods, but not their conviction.

We certainly didn't expect what seems to be emerging here. BVU has hosted a president who made the decision to send troops into the Gulf War with nary a peep of controversy. Another who declared a terribly controversial embargo of U.S. crop products got nothing but a hero's welcome here in the heart of farm country.

The series has featured a Supreme Court justice from the midst of the abortion debate era. Former leaders from South Africa and Israel who may have become peacemakers, but were not always that. We have never seen so much as a lonely protest sign.

Palecek says that the Gulf War was about oil and world economic dominance, and that sanctions aimed at Sadaam Hussein are instead taking a toll on innocent children. He says that the point he wants to make at BVU Friday is that killing cannot be used as a means to attaining wealth and power in the United States. He is not alone in those feelings.

Just when it seems the social protest has gone the way of bell-bottom pants with day-glo flower patches, this evokes a taste of the sixties and early seventies, both in the wonderful commitment people made to demonstrating what they thought was right, and perhaps in somewhat misguided blame.

In the past, it was a few who spit on returning Vietnam soldiers because they didn't agree with the politics they didn't make. In the same sense, Colin Powell didn't declare war; he did a job.

You don't have to see him as a hero, but neither should anyone ignore the opportunity to hear what a historic figure has to say - or try to prevent the speaker or the university from having the right to freely speak and choose.

It is a lecture dedicated to freedom, after all. It would be very wrong to try to silence one opinion on it, in order to further another. At the same time, the protesters have every right to air their opinions as well. There's room for all to be heard.

Protest is not a bad thing. It could be an educational experience for the students at BVU to be exposed to a challenging discourse. It speaks well for the university that two of the key protesters in this situation have been welcomed in to speak directly to classes.

For young people today who may never have faced the real realities of their country at war, it would be good to realize both that war has played a role in the freedom they enjoy, and that it has taken a steep human toll. They will make up their own minds, ultimately.

If there is to be a demonstration, however, let it be a peaceful one. General Powell is an invited guest here, and should be treated with that kind of respect. We do not need another incident like the one with blood thrown and an airplane battered, as in another incident Cordaro was involved in. We do not need people sent to jail to make a message. Talking to young people is a far more effective strategy.

It is only fitting that if we are here to speak about peace and understanding, that all sides converging here should embody those ideals in the way that they present their respective messages.

That's the spirit that is worth recapturing here. That's what freedom is about.