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Spring 2002

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Why try to understand terrorists?
Author’s reply: Understanding is power
Boys and curls
Smoking and the canon

Why try to understand terrorists?

     One reason I won’t give Skidmore any money is because it would help pay the salary of Mary Stange [author of “U.S. ignores religion’s fringes” in the winter Scope]. I would not mind paying her salary if there were also people at Skidmore who offered a different opinion, but the school is a bastion of one-sided left-leaning political thinking.

     Mary Stange wrote, “Until we recognize how and why religiously ‘other’ people think and act, we will never function effectively in a global community.” First of all, I think we are functioning pretty well. Overall, the world is probably in better shape than it was 150 years ago—or even sixty years ago, when we were in World War II. Secondly, how is understanding other people’s religious beliefs going to help us function more effectively? If we understand the Taliban, should we require that all women wear veils?

     I have met Prof. Stange, and I have the highest respect for her opinions, but if Skidmore really wants to be a liberal-arts college, then it should start acting like one and offer various opinions.

Jonathan Burkan ’93
New York, N.Y.


     While driving to work on Sepember 11, I was an eyewitness to the attack on the second World Trade Center tower. I am still in disbelief. Professor Stange is right [in her essay, “U.S. ignores religion’s fringes,” in the winter Scope] that this was the act of barbarians or fanatics. And yes, we have failed to learn from our mistakes. But the mistakes she and I refer to are miles apart.

     If I hear you correctly, Prof. Stange, our mistakes center on our unwillingness to understand Islam; by better understanding Islam, I should understand why 3,000 people were killed on September 11. To me, our mistakes centered on our country’s failure to anticipate and thwart these incomprehensible acts of violence committed by members of “darker religious forces.”

     I do understand that we now live in a global community, and that the United States and its democratic values are not the values embraced by all. But the pure hatred shown us by desecrating our flag, killing our innocent citizens, and waging a cold-blooded war of terrorism in our country does not make me want to understand any more Islamic religious values than I already know. Instead, I want to see justice served and those responsible for this “network of terror” sought out and completely destroyed.

     Believe me when I tell you I am not for one minute embarrassed by these depths of religious or political passions that you refer to. Nor am I curious about the religious ideals of mobs taking over the streets of Middle Eastern cities to wage their “war of words” against the United States. A deeper understanding of their religious values will do nothing to stop their mission. I honestly don’t think that a better understanding of these forces will help me come to grips with what happened on September 11; nor will it make me relent in wanting to destroy those who feel it their right to destroy our values and our way of life.

     How would a better understanding of Islam have prevented September 11 from happening? The plot to hijack American jetliners, fly them into symbolic buildings, and take innocent lives in order to “send a message” to Western civilization was planned for many years. Prof. Stange, what piece of knowledge could we gain from a further understanding that would stop these atrocities?

     I urge you to visit Ground Zero and look at the devastation. Come see where innocent lives were lost because a darker religious force decided it could not accept our way of life. I also urge you to find some of the rescue workers there who are working around the clock to find the remains of those innocent people so their families can have closure. When you do, ask them if they feel the need to understand these religious forces any better.

Mark A. Gropler, parent ’02
Franklin Lakes, N.J.

Author’s reply: Understanding is power

     What you don’t know can hurt you. And what you refuse to understand can kill you.

     I agree with Mark Gropler regarding “our country’s failure to anticipate and thwart” the tragic events of September 11. However, those events were far from “incomprehensible.” As I argued in my essay, had the U.S. government paid closer attention to certain extremist trends in the Islamic world, it would have recognized that hostility toward the United States was building to the breaking point. And indeed, one need not be a Muslim extremist to take offense at the United States’ persistent siding with Israel against the Palestinians, or the deaths of a half-million Iraqi children as a result of U.S. sanctions. Our inability to see ourselves as we are seen by others has been a foreign policy problem since the ouster of the Shah of Iran in 1979. Note: the problem here is not Islam, nor some purported Muslim hatred of American freedoms; the problem is what our enemies perceive as the willful ignorance and complacency with which we prioritize “the West” over “the rest.”

     As for Jon Burkan’s comment about understanding the Taliban: The point of attempting to understand an offensive viewpoint is neither to endorse nor to legitimate it. The point is to gain the power to formulate an intelligent, well-informed critique of it.

     Writing in The Nation last December, Harvard theologian Harvey Cox commented: “…the truth is…all religions have their demonic underside. We quote Isaiah, not Joel. We talk about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, not Rabbi Meir Kahane. We favor St. Francis and his birds, not Torquemada and his racks. Alas, however, they are all part of the story.”

     Telling only a simplified story, one that lacks full understanding, leads to just the kind of black hats/white hats thinking—“if you are not with us, you are in league with the evil-doers”—that precipitates tragedies like the 9/11 hijackings.

Mary Zeiss Stange, Associate Professor,
Women’s Studies and Religion

Boys and curls

     In September 1972, when I was a very young freshman at Skidmore, I experienced what I have always remembered as my “not in Kansas anymore” moment (in my case, it was not in Michigan). On a quiet Saturday afternoon not long after moving into the infamous Moore Hall dorm, I was standing alone in the hall outside my room on the “coed” fourth floor when the stairwell door opened. Through the door walked a young man who had come up from the all-male third floor below. He appeared to have just emerged from the shower and was wrapped in a terry bathrobe. His wet hair was thick, curly, and long enough to fall below his shoulders—the kind of hair I had always envied. He approached me and asked, “Do you have any cream rinse I could borrow?” I gave him mine and then fled in embarrassment.

     When I received the most recent Scope, I was delighted to find the article about Michael Moss ’75 and his successful business; I especially enjoyed the photographs. May I say, Michael, many years have passed but you still have great hair.

Ellen Murphy Conway ’76
Falmouth, Maine

Smoking and the canon

     An article in the fall 2001 Scope caught my eye: the decision to forbid smoking in all campus buildings. This is the second report in twenty-five years that has stuck in my mind. The other? The abolition of the Shakespeare requirement for English majors [in the curricular reforms of 2000-01]. As a smoker and a reader, I find a disturbing connection between these two decisions.

     To me, both decisions reflect political correctness, a movement whose principles too often trample upon personal rights and freedoms. Of course, those who choose to avoid smoking or smokers have the right to decide for themselves to do so. But those who choose to smoke also have the right to do so, in the comfort and privacy of their homes, whether these be apartments, houses, or dormitory rooms. Intrusive jabs against freedom of choice, ordained by the College Government Association and others, are nothing less than “groupthink” of the self-righteous. And viewing the world in stark terms—good or bad, my way or the highway—contradicts the spirit of a liberal arts college, a place where individual rights should be valued and tolerance encouraged.

     Dropping the Shakespeare requirement for English majors is also misguided. I realize that the teaching of “the canon” has been under scrutiny for some time. It is my understanding, though, that the embers of that battle have died down, and reason and compromise have prevailed. In what strikes me as collective thinking and a weakening of the wills, Skidmore’s decision deprives a generation of students the opportunity to make their own decisions about the place of Shakespeare and other writers in our culture, as they will not have been required to read their works. How is one to decide for oneself if Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton have no relevance to our world if one does not read works by these authors?

     However, I thank those who made these decisions for helping me make a decision of my own: Rather than save money to leave for others in a scholarship fund or endowed chair, I shall spend all my money in retirement on living in the south of France, smoking Gitanes, and reading The Comedy of Errors.

Sean Dugan ’77
Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.


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