Is Anything Off Limits?

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg writes that educators must insist that even in violent conflicts, college and university campuses merit special protection.

April 16, 2007

Universities are not exempt from violence. From the National Guard shooting at Kent State University 37 years ago through the physical attacks on universities and assaults on academic freedom on every continent, there have been too many reminders to believe otherwise.  I wince more than most because I have been a university administrator for the same 37 years -- 30 as a university president.

My outlook has grown gloomier in recent years. Two events stand out particularly. The first was the bombing, in a cafeteria, at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 2002. The second was a bombing in January  at the Mustansiriya University, a Sunni institution, in Baghdad. “A suicide bomber and a car bomb killed at least 70 people and wounded 170 more at entrances to a once-prestigious university in Baghdad,” as reported by CNN.

I had become resigned to admitting that, to Palestinian terrorists, any Israeli target is acceptable just as, to Shia and Sunni terrorists, any Sunni or Shia target is acceptable. But this was only reason and experience speaking. Some more primitive, or wishful, part of my mind was trying to believe that terror had to stop somewhere, that the doorstep of the university or the mosque or the hospital was the boundary, that there are historic rules and norms of war. These two events put that belief, or hope, to rest.

A little optimism abided with me because I believed that the terrorists were few in number and nihilistic, but containable. Those involved in internal power struggles, however violent, had some rules of engagement. I learned otherwise in February when the Islamic University in Gaza, associated with Hamas, was attacked by members of Fatah and immediately afterwards Al Azhar University, next door and associated with Fatah, was attacked by Hamas. These were not acts of terror as I understand it, but battles in a civil war -- and they changed my outlook for the worse.

A Fatah spokesman said, “We didn’t attack the university because it was a university, but because [Hamas] gunmen were firing from there.” Even if this statement is true, it would be meaningless. Fatah and Hamas are fighting to control a Palestinian future. Destroying the institutions that give a state its value, like its universities, is nightmarishly absurd. It reminds me of Bên Tre in Vietnam where an American soldier was famously quoted as saying that “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

Is it naive or special pleading to define universities as different from other institutions and therefore deserving of different treatment? Even if we broaden the special category to include houses of worship and libraries, for example, does this make sense? A possible conclusion following from this premise would be that some places -- or, rather, their physical components -- are better or more deserving than others. That is not what I intend.

Acts of violence are not acceptable in a soccer stadium, a vegetable market, or a restaurant, nor even --  if this is possible -- slightly less awful than the same acts against a university. The victims are as dead or maimed irrespective of venue; moreover, the bricks of a classroom are no different morally from the bricks of a fish market.

But I do believe that the attack on an institution that represents the best values and aspirations of a society is in some ways different. The attacks at the two universities in Gaza did a great deal of damage to the physical plant of both institutions. But they also ripped the already torn fabric of Palestinian society yet again and in this way did more harm than if the rival gunmen had simply been firing at one another in and from two ordinary houses or office buildings. A Hamas leader, quoted in the same article, seems to have confirmed this idea, saying, “When we saw the university burning, it was like our hearts were burning because this institution is very dear to us.” After years of reading about mayhem in Gaza, this is the first time I have heard anyone speak in this way. Better had he admitted that the other university was very dear to Fatah, but his meaning remains clear.

Nothing will change the minds of terrorists. But others involved in violent struggles may be open to reason or, better still, feeling. Perhaps they can believe that there are some things, some institutions, that are off limits, not because of sentiment but on account of their value to their entire society and their future, regardless of faction. As educators, we should encourage discussion on these issues and impart on the next generation of leaders an urgency to seek solutions to these conflicts.

This may be a naive expectation, but it is the only way I retain any hope at all. If warring sides can agree that a university is off limits, maybe they will come to agree that the fish market and the bus station are, too.


Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president and professor of public administration at George Washington University.

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