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September 24, 2001

Panel Offers Views on September 11 Aftermath

Americans, an interdisciplinary group of professors said Wednesday night, have two wars on their hands - developing an appropriate response to the tragic events of Sept. 11, and learning how to handle the war within the country's borders, which finds Americans striking out at their fellow countrymen and women because of the color of their skin or their last name.

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And still another war is brewing, according to Ernie Zirakzadeh, a political science professor - a war the American people must wage against those who would use the tragedy to infringe on citizens' civil rights.

"The requests by members of the administration, by the CIA, to ease rules regarding phone taps and to erode other rights we have as a people, this is a real danger," Zirakzadeh said. "These actions can have a chilling effect, even if they're not overt. We have to be alert and watch how things change over time" and be prepared to fight to protect those rights.

Zirakzadeh was joined on the panel, organized in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, by five other professors from the college and Rhoda Howard-Hassmann, the Gladstein Visiting Professor of Human Rights. Held at the Konover Auditorium, the event drew several hundred students as well as a smattering of faculty and staff.

What's occurring in this country, said Felicia Pratto, an associate professor of psychology and one of the event's organizers, is typical of the group behavior she sees in her research, especially when power is involved.

"Some try to denigrate others. Another group wants to expand - who is in our group and who belongs with us. They want peace. The third reaction is blame, and this, too, is a common reaction," Pratto says.

While many Americans now belong to the middle group, as seen in the overwhelming response of people wanting to help the victims and their families, too many others, the professors agreed, fall into another category.

"The people who gave of themselves to go to the scene didn't ask who were those they rescued. They acted in the larger group that we all belong to, they were mindful of their relationship to the human group," said Bandana Purkayastha, an assistant professor of sociology. "But some are now using profiling to keep other people out of their group."

Profiling in all its forms is wrong, said Zirakzadeh.

Zirakzadeh, whose family roots are in several Middle Eastern countries - he was born in Oklahoma - also recalled the profiling and discrimination he and his family were subjected to during the Iranian hostage crisis 25 years ago.

"My wife and I couldn't cash our checks. We couldn't eat in good restaurants. My brother was threatened with castration. Ten years ago, during the Gulf War, my son came home crying because he was harassed at his school in Mansfield," he said. "Profiling is not merely inconvenient. Profiling inflames people toward prejudice."

Americans also must be mindful that the country's past has not always been humanistic, panel members said.

"Most people assume we're good, that we do good things and we do good things around the world. It's part of the Grand Narrative - American exceptionalism. As John Winthrop described it, America is 'the city on the hill,'" said Frank Costigliola, a professor of history.

But, he said, there is an underlying text to that belief.

"Although we hate terrorism, a look at history shows we have practiced it. President Eisenhower approved the assassination of Lumumba in the Congo; we've tried to kill Castro; the CIA ... trained and armed Osama bin Laden, who terrorized the Russians until they left Afghanistan," Costigliola said.

"Especially in the Arab world, we are not the shining city on the hill. They have complaints that we supply Israel with arms, we station troops near Mecca and Medina, their holiest cities; we have a stranglehold on

Iraq and enforce no-fly zones," he added. "Yet we have done little to help the extremely poor people in these countries."

The country's leaders "need to remember that even as we can pulverize other nations, we too can be pulverized," he said.

The panelists agreed that any attempts to root out Osama bin Laden and other terrorist groups in the world must be legal, legitimate, and done in conjunction with other nations.

The current emphasis on war worries Canada and Western Europe, said Howard-Hassmann, the Gladstein Visiting Professor, who teaches sociology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. She says political rhetoric is making the potential for the deaths of innocent people less personal.

"Euphemisms are dangerous," she said. "'Taking people out' means killing. 'Collateral damage' means killing. If we mean it, say it, otherwise it takes the human, the person, out of it," she said.

Howard-Hassmann said the terrorists should be captured and tried in an international court of law: "That would seem to be the proper venue for crimes against humanity."

Richard Veilleux

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