Protest, But Don’t Walk OutSince the adoption of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441 last November, which promised serious consequences if Iraq failed to fully cooperate with the United Nations, the MIT community has witnessed and participated in a dramatic series of protests against military action in Iraq, and more particularly against unilateral U.S. action led by President Bush. With his specific declaration that March 17 would provide a ‘moment of truth’ for the situation, Bush has insinuated that this long-anticipated military campaign against Saddam might finally begin. Groups across the country, including MIT’s own Anti-War Coalition, to promise to walk out of class at 11:30 on the day war begins.
This war may provide a dramatic demonstration of the power of freedom and democracy. Democracy in Turkey has meant that a U.S. attempt to purchase military access to the nation has been stymied, in contrast to the unpopular acquiescence of unelected leaders in the rest of the region to our military presence. Protesters have freely and vocally expressed their dissent around the world, prompting The New York Times to declare public opinion a superpower alongside the United States; the free media have openly given voice to all opinions. Recent polls suggest that leaders Bush and Blair may be voted out of office for failing to follow the will of their constituents - for even if they refuse to change their course on hearing dissent from the masses, the ballot box empowers us, the masses, to pronounce judgment upon them. Indeed, in this open debate, silence and complicity are nowhere to be found.
Acting so that our voices are heard is our privilege in this nation, and it is vital to the functioning of our democracy that we not keep our opinions and dissents silent at this threshold to war. Yet we must differentiate between constructively participating in an important debate and acting out unthoughtfully in destructive rebellion. Choosing to protest by launching an attack of nonparticipation in academic pursuits is an instance of the latter. It is a wholly inappropriate response to the start of war, and it reflects disturbing assumptions about civilized and reasonable means of disagreement in a free society. Designing a protest that is centered on the specific act of abandoning class makes a statement that the act of learning at college deserves attack.
College is among the final steps in a path leading students to be productive members of society. In our classrooms, our minds are expanded and we obtain the tools and abilities that enable us to live freely, prosperously, and responsibly. Because walking out on class brings the process to a grinding halt for all participants, it is an act of symbolic destruction; instead of breaking windows and burning buildings, the protesters will cripple classrooms. Turning to destruction when you do not get your way is simply not acceptable in any society that values reason.
MIT is doing its best to gracefully handle future protest on whatever scale it may come, and they’re not doing a terrible job. Chancellor Clay’s letter to the community, the work of a slightly nervous administration, outlines fairly tolerant guidelines for any walkout, noting that while students are free to leave class, they will be held accountable to their academic duties, and must complete all assignments and tests.
The decision to walk out on class is not simply an act of dissent against war; that intention can be and has been expressed via many constructive methods. Protests here in Boston have been frequent and vibrant, and individuals have vigorously debated the prospect of war in every newspaper. Students have access to other actions of equal impact that they may perform in protest; it is discouraging that they have chosen to attack classes specifically.
Disagreement cannot be an excuse to abandon reason for destruction as our means of interacting in society. Bringing classes to a halt, however, does precisely that.