I read with pained shame the sad, misguided comments made by Yale foreign affairs experts at the Sept. 16 panel on terrorism (“Panel: Restraint with retaliation,” 10/17). And I read that their views are soon to be published in a rushed-to-print book. It is no wonder that Yale is known today for its removed, valueless and shallow understanding of foreign affairs.
Regardless of the real or perceived influence one state or coalition has in the world, mass murder is not understandable, justified or a likely Western approach to address disputes. Professor Paul Kennedy’s “counterfactual,” which insinuated that perhaps we too would resort to mass murder if we were to find our culture and foreign policy goals in the minority, was nothing short of disgusting. Our culture is, of course, in the minority — most people in the world live under authoritarian states or dictatorships. Furthermore, unlike the alternative, Western influence is hardly despotic, indifferent or oppressive.
Kennedy’s comments were cited in the Egyptian press this week — as support for the government-controlled media’s line that the United States had the World Trade Center attack coming. Kennedy was the only Western “expert” cited in the week’s printed media discussion, as far as I could tell.
None of the terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 mass murder of Americans was poor, desperate or bereaved, as former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott ’68 intimated. They were not even devotees to the tenets of Islam. In fact, these individuals all enjoyed privilege, wealth, and mobility before they murdered 6,000 individuals who supported their lives within the United States with taxes, social and security services, and health care. One pilot visited a major hospital on the east coast to check on his relative who was receiving the most advanced health care she could get in the world, just weeks before he flew a hijacked plane into the World Trade Center.
Kennedy’s and Talbott’s comments, if quoted accurately, are the equivalent of hate speech and have no place on a college campus. Their logic is part of the problem. As much as it may offend their “blame America” attitudes, the world today is dangerous not because the United States is too hegemonistic, but rather because it is not hegemonistic enough. The notion that most Iraqis, Chinese, North Koreans and Iranians all choose to live in repressive regimes is ridiculous. The idea that these people cannot be expected to want and practice secular democracy is racist.
It is a zero-sum fight today between secular democracies and lawless, openly hostile dictatorships who cite the West as an adversary to justify their oppression domestically. Oppressive dictatorship is not a lifestyle choice; these states must be ended and their people must be liberated if the West is to survive. Sometimes, foreign affairs are not as hard to understand as some claim.
As at least part of the current Yale community may remember well, the Yale faculty and the parents of slain Yale student Suzanne Jovin ’99 excoriated me for challenging my 1998 political science class to consider how terrorists might attempt to inflict massive damage on U.S. citizens and infrastructure. This was just a few months before the first such terrorists were, in fact, to arrive in the United States to plan their operation.
The optional class exercise was designed to expose Yale students to the realities of the world I knew well, particularly how information technology had made weapons technology available to anyone with a personal computer. The class devised a chemical weapons attack using a crop duster, a scenario we know today was considered by those who perpetrated the World Trade Center attack.
Jovin committed to the study of international affairs to change the world for the better, and she chose to write a thoughtful and farsighted senior essay in 1998 on Osama bin Laden. She noted with alarm his “fatwah” to murder Americans everywhere — not just soldiers abroad. She briefed her senior essay in a class presentation to a mortified group of Yale undergraduates in November 1998. It is profoundly sad that she is dead.
It is ironic that the Yale faculty is so naive of the world that it disparaged my teaching, and that my life was destroyed, in part, because of my prescience. If more universities had offered such classes, or if Yale College included more politically diverse faculty who understood the world, perhaps someone somewhere might have been alert enough to recognize and stop what happened in New York and at the Pentagon. Such forward thinking is exactly what Yale should strive to offer, not scoff at or, as in my case, belittle and stifle.
James R. Van de Velde ’82 is a former Lecturer in the Political Science department and a former Dean of Saybrook College.