As my boots first hit the Iraqi desert in 2008, I had little doubt of my force’s superiority. After all, we were the good guys. As an interrogator with months of cultural awareness training, force status briefings, and numerous exercises placing my cunning and intellect against that of the “terror leader,” I was fighting for the right side. So, in the days that followed, as control of intelligence operations at the Coalition’s High Value Detainment Camp, Compound 5, transferred to my hands, I approached the detainees from my arrogant, American-centric view. I delved into the detainee files — failed suicide bomber, Saddam loyalist, terrorism financier, murderer. No doubt, the creatures before me were monsters, and I needed to get information from them to save innocent lives.
But during my year of captivity, this myopic perspective began to shift. One sultry night, I sat chatting with an insurgent leader whose name regularly made international headlines. As we began our goodbyes, he said, “Sergeant Hawke, every night they put handcuffs on me like an animal to take me back to the cell. Tonight, may I walk like a man without the handcuffs?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “The command has set the requirement and I don’t have the power to change that.” He looked up at the sky for a moment. Then, with a smile, he said, “In me, your command sees only a prisoner. I wear this yellow suit and also have no power. But in my heart and outside these walls I am much more than they see. Perhaps you, too, are more than your command perceives.” With that, the guards arrived, handcuffed the killer and led him away.
In time, case numbers became faces and field reports became story time; I began to see aspects of myself in all but the worst of the detainees. Together, we spent countless hours discussing religion, politics and education. We theorized about Iraq’s potential and shared in the dreams of a peaceful future. Just as they wanted different lives for their children — university educations and economic prosperity — I hoped none of my younger brothers would ever carry a rifle in a foreign land. The black and white of good and bad grew more and more grey, and even “innocent” became hard to define. With continued interaction, our ideological and cultural differences gave way to our intrinsic similarities. I soon realized the monsters I once abhorred were often decent men. To this day, I would still call many of those men my friends.
In life, our perspectives shape our reality. As global interaction expands, we discover the value of maintaining close ties with peoples whose views and beliefs are not our own — in exploring the other perspectives in and around our nation. Fortunately, as a global university, Yale inspires the very cultural curiosity necessary to combat ethnic egocentrism. Even on campus, our diversity is staggering and our global network astonishing. Programs throughout the Middle East, Asia, Europe and South America exemplify Yale’s global commitment, expanding our perspective in the hope that, instead of vilifying those who are not like us, we come to understand them.
Yet many on campus seek to stifle our expansion. These voices say Yale shouldn’t embark on an endeavor with the National University of Singapore because the “authoritarian state with strict curbs on freedom …” as Human Rights Watch referred to Singapore, doesn’t share our values. They claim we should indefinitely ban the Reserve Officer Training Corps from campus until the military meets our standard of equality. And in acts of “solidarity” they overwhelm many of the ideological outliers invited to speak on campus, rather than foster a productive discourse. If we follow their advice and superciliously cling to our single-sided viewpoints – even if these are “progressive” — will we ever move forward?
By acting as though the world revolves around us, we risk isolation from the world evolving around us. In refusing cooperation based on a sense of moral superiority and an unwavering commitment to equality, we lose opportunities for open discussion and the exchange of ideas. We do not have to agree with the radical and tyrannical views of the world. However, as students and academics, we should want to maintain the flow of ideas, learning and sharing as much as we can with the failed suicide bomber, the oppressive regime, and even our own military. Instead of creating monsters of those with whom we disagree, we may find a common footing. And if given a chance, the killers before us may just become our friends.
Alex Hawke is a sophomore in Berkeley College and an Eli Whitney student. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.