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Noteworthy Endeavors

The Great Debate

Current affairs become campus affairs

Most Tuesday nights, freshman Anna Quider can be found sitting at a long table on Hillman Library’s third floor, intently scribbling calculus proofs. Quider—with a dual major in physics and astronomy and the history and philosophy of science—likes to study in the General Collection, near the neatly arranged stacks that hold row after row of tightly shelved books with their dusty-paper scent of long-held knowledge.

She usually begins her weekly calculus homework on Tuesdays. This way, if she’s lucky, she may have the weekends free. “Two whole days,” she says, “to just relax and catch up with life.” Quider’s friends tease her that Hillman tends to be her campus home, not Tower A. More than once, friends have smuggled dinner to her during her late-night sojourns with books. She especially loves the chicken and broccoli from Oakland Avenue’s Szechwan Express—#3 spiciness, please.

But on this Tuesday night, Quider is missing from her table at Hillman. Instead, she and several freshman friends are sitting in the auditorium of nearby David Lawrence Hall listening to a debate about the prospect of a U.S.-led war against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

“I don’t know much about the Middle East,” says Quider, “but I was hearing rumors that women might be drafted, with no college exemption. I realized I needed to know more about what’s going on. I’m all for protecting America and American interests, but at the same time I support human rights.” She went to the debate looking for information.

Quider’s friend, Coniah Grimes, who hasn't yet declared a major, set aside his Chinese homework to join her at the debate. And Swathi Namburi, corresponding secretary of Pitt’s Model United Nations, has also delayed her homework to hear tonight’s panel discussion. She’s pursuing a double major in microbiology and political science.

The three Pitt students sit near the middle of the auditorium, surrounded by several hundred people. The crowd includes smooth-faced high-school kids, the college crowd, baby boomers, and white-haired elders. Pitt students, faculty, and staff are scattered throughout the seats.

The debate, titled “What Should the United States Do About Iraq Now,” is cleverly labeled to account for any current situation. As in Well, given that the situation changes hourly, what should we do about Iraq NOW? It also manages to allow for the wide-ranging and discordant views of the panel participants, who are a contentious lot. The panel consists of Angela M. “Bay” Buchanan, president of the American Cause and former U.S. treasurer; Robert G. Hazo, chair of the Middle East Policy Association and director of Pitt’s American Experience program; Jack Kelly, national security writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade; and Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht (LAW ’62G, MED ’56G, CAS ’52).

Oddly, the conservative Buchanan and the liberal Hazo are both against an impending attack on Iraq, while Kelly and Wecht argue that Saddam Hussein should “go,” and now is as good a time as any.

Hazo: I was asked recently, ‘What is President Bush thinking when it comes to Iraq?’ My reply was, ‘Why do you assume he’s thinking?’ The result of a war on Iraq will be one of the most intractable conflicts in human history.

Kelly: Saddam Hussein’s atrocities are well documented. He’s known as the ‘Butcher of Baghdad’ for good reason. The attitude among some in the West seems to be support for the torturers and contempt for the victims.

Buchanan: We have done a good job in containing Saddam. So, what has changed? I do not believe a case has been made. Where’s the evidence? Let’s not go to war on the wings of lies.

Wecht: This man is a danger and a threat to the international world. It’s a farce to sit back and let France ridicule us. Screw Belgium! With Hitler, the world waited. With Herzegovina, the world waited. Americans have shown that we can move. It’s going to be one hell of a mess, but it can be done.

And so it goes...

Quider and her friends joined the crowd, sometimes in rapt silence and sometimes in mixed applause, occasional snickers, even groans at this or that well-placed jab, depending on individual sentiments.

“I’m a fact-based person,” says Quider. “The debate seemed to be a battle of facts versus emotions. The pro-war people seemed more emotional. ‘Bad things may happen unless we take action.’ For me, there were more facts supporting why we shouldn’t go to war than why we should.”

The debate lasted two hours and ended without any tidy package of consensus. Moderator and Graduate School of Public and International Affairs Professor Donald Goldstein acknowledged, “You’re not going to change your minds. But we’ve got to respect each other’s opinions. This is serious stuff.”

Afterwards, Quider and her friends walked the block back to Tower A, discussing some of the issues raised by the debate. Although it was 10 p.m., Quider pulled out her calculus book and tackled some equations. At nearly midnight and in separate residence halls, she and Swathi sat at their computers exchanging thoughts about the Iraq situation and the concerns stirred by the debate.

“Among the students I know,” says Quider, “there’s a lot of uncertainty. People don’t know what to think. So many of us were influenced by September 11th. There are a lot of emotions involved. People don’t know how to sort out the facts from the emotions.”

Quider, who grew up in a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y., received a Chancellor’s Scholarship to come to Pitt, and she’s a University Honors College student. The panel debate prompted her to approach Honors College Dean Alec G. Stewart about organizing an informal discussion group around current events.

Stewart supports Quider’s idea. “Here’s this person who’s basically interested in technical areas,” he says. “Yet, she suddenly discovered something that was congruent with being a great citizen. She’s not the same person after going to that debate on Iraq. She’s a more rational citizen.”

He also believes it’s a near-sacred responsibility for any university of quality to offer a rational forum for public discourse, as long as the discussion doesn’t politicize the university as a whole. “A university is a 24-hour-a-day forum to get at the truth about issues,” he says. “These students learned what a university is about at its best. And this debate is an example of that in a political context, where it’s not nearly as simple as doing an experiment. Where it isn’t clear where truth or justice or the right way sits. This is a tough issue.”

When she returns to Pitt as a sophomore this fall, Quider hopes to organize a regular current-affairs discussion group on campus. In the meantime, she will continue her pursuits in the absolute truths of science, but with a far less absolute view of the world from her third-floor corner in Hillman.
Cindy Gill

From left: Swathi Namburi, Anna Quider, and Coniah Grimes, at the William Pitt Union.

Breakthroughs in the Making

Battling Cancer: In the waiting room of Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, children who are bald from chemotherapy treatments wait for researchers to develop a drug that will terminate the growth of their malignant cells. John S. Lazo, chair of the Department of Pharmacology in the School of Medicine, holds the funding that may lead to a cure. In April, he became chair of the American Cancer Society Extramural Grant Council that allocated $110 million to cancer researchers nationwide in 2002.

A Fair to Remember: It was a young crowd by William Pitt Union standards. More than 100 young ladies, from the ages of 9 to 14, had gathered there with their parents:Pitt faculty and staff members. The parents and children looked inside a computer, heard a simulated infant’s heartbeat, created digital pictures, and took part in many other science and technology activities. They managed to eat lots of brownies, too, at last April’s “Take our Daughters to Work Day Celebration,” hosted by the University. TechSERVE sponsors the technology fair to encourage the youngsters’ interests in science and technology.

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