Former chaplain wary of U.S. policy

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin ’49 DIV ’56 returned to campus Sunday and spoke out against a hasty military response to the terrorist attacks on the United States, echoing his anti-Vietnam war rhetoric from his days as a spiritual and civil rights leader at Yale during the 1960s.

Coffin, Yale chaplain from 1958 to 1975, centered his discussion on the aftermath of the Sept. 11 tragedy at an Ezra Stiles College Master’s Tea. Coffin stressed that the U.S. government should take time to think about the moral implications of its foreign policy rather than responding hastily with military action.

“No one [in the Bush administration] has mentioned foreign policy once,” said Coffin, who was a leading civil rights and anti-Vietnam war activist at Yale and around the world during the turbulent years of the 1960s. “We have to bear some responsibility. American foreign policy is not scot-free.”

Coffin called the attacks on America a “terrible breach of international law,” and said the American response should be a “lawful one.”

He advised that the United States should gather “conclusive evidence to find out exactly who is responsible, and make sure that no innocent people in other countries are killed” in the U.S. reaction.

Coffin said the United States should provide clear proof of whoever is responsible for the attacks and then turn over responsible persons to be tried in their home countries.

He feared that hasty U.S. military action against Osama bin Laden could make him into a martyr.

Coffin had harsh words toward some government officials’ responses to the Sept. 11th attacks. He criticized Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 for saying Americans should not blame U.S. foreign policy for the attack.

Coffin, who first knew Lieberman when he was an undergraduate at Yale, said, “Lieberman’s ethical instincts were much more developed when he was an undergraduate, but now I’m afraid that the roles have been reversed and his political instincts have surpassed his ethical ones.”

When asked his opinions about the current wave of patriotism around the country in response to the attacks, Coffin said there are three kinds of patriotism: “uncritical patriotism,” “loveless criticism” and “a lover’s quarrel.”

He said Americans should be careful not to slip into an “uncritical patriotism” that unconditionally agrees with the government’s actions. Instead, he advised citizens to maintain a “lover’s quarrel” type of patriotism, loving the good aspects of American policy but opposing the bad.

Coffin was suspect about the unity resulting from the attacks on America.

“The unity that I saw in the first week after the attacks was very moving,” he said. “But unity based on folly, based on cruelty, must be fought like the plague.”

Coffin addressed other topics, such as the United States’ decision to withdraw from the World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, last month because of some nations’ criticism of Israel. Calling the U.S. government “chicken,” he said, “We are always asking everyone else in the world to compromise, but we won’t compromise.”

In addition to speaking about the current political climate, Coffin took time to reminisce on his years as a Yale student and then chaplain.

Coffin said, “I was happy to be at Yale in the ’60s, and happy to leave Yale in the ’70s when it got dull.”

He talked about the times when he was at Yale pondering his place in formal religion. The audience erupted in laughter when he told his stories of “being recruited by campus fundamentalists.”

He said, “They told me that I was on their prayer list. I thought, ‘How does your prayer list differ at all from your s— list?'”

Coffin told students their responsibility to the world is great because of their Yale education. He said student activism declined at Yale in the 1990s in part because there were no major causes to rally behind. But he predicted that Yalies will once again erupt in a furor of teach-ins and protests as a result of pending American action in response to the terrorist attacks.

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