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Life out here - A viewpoint by Bret Kofford: The wrong targets

September 19, 2001

I didn't like him from the moment I saw him.

He carried himself with a rare conceit. He insisted he be called "Peter J.," not Pete, not Peter.

I called him Pete.

He was in his early 30s, 10 or so years my senior. Soon after arriving at the university he had a motley entourage that followed him around the department and the campus.

Once I asked one of his followers what the group admired so much about Peter J.

"He was at Woodstock," was the simple answer.

Peter J. liked using that rhetorical stance, too. When he got into arguments, he often would say, "I was at Woodstock," hoping to end the discussion with that point holding sway.

He and I conflicted over how the campus radio station should be run. I was the station manager. He tried to have me overthrown. He thought he had the ultimate replacement, that being himself. He ultimately lost, although I had to deal with the big deal of his having been at Woodstock (something I ultimately came to doubt).


Soon after his failed radio station coup, he had a new cause. Americans had been taken hostage from the embassy in Iran. The hostages were paraded in front of hateful crowds and publicly abused. It was horrifying. Americans were angry, and rightfully so.

Peter J. started organizing "Bomb Iran" rallies on campus, with "Bomb Iran" sung to the Beach Boys' tune "Barbara Ann." Peter J. and others would speak to crowds about what we needed to do to Iran, to Iranians, to Arabs, to "towel heads" in general. Crowds of angry students would roar in approval.

Peter J. beamed with squinty-eyed delight at his newfound power. He strutted around campus with a more arrogant carriage than ever.

Shortly after all this commenced, members of the large Middle Eastern contingent on campus started being attacked by groups of thugs/students.

I told Peter J. that I knew some of these Middle Eastern guys, including an Iranian with whom I played basketball and a Pakistani who did some typing for me. I told Peter J. my Iranian basketball partner was the person who had been attacked outside the campus library by four or five guys. (Reports were he took some hide from at least a couple attackers. He was a big, tough dude.) I told him the Pakistani was a sweet man with a wife and a little girl and another baby on the way. I told him my Pakistani friend was afraid for his family.

I told Peter J. that if he got to know these guys, he might like them.

"You're consorting with the enemy," he answered.

I wish my response had been something deep like, "No, you are the enemy, because you are tearing out the heart of American ideals," but I was so angry I didn't have my wits about me. It's been 20 years, but I recall my ever-so-clever retort was something like, "You're an idiot."

I did have my more rational moments, though. Once, shortly after one of his rallies, Peter J. came strutting by me in the halls of our department.

"Woodstock," I said, flashing him the peace sign.

The rallies continued but the crowds started to thin as the crisis went on for months and as news of the campus beatings spread. Peter J. and his friends finally gave up on their rallies. Within months Peter J. had lost his status on campus and walked around being viewed by many as the pathetic piece of crap he was.

Peter J. and his rallies changed my politics forever. I saw how being part of a crowd could turn into mob behavior for a few disturbed people with an excuse. I saw how a man full of hate determined to create a constituency could ascend to a position of prominence during such times. I saw how good people, religious people, were abused because of their heritage, their appearance.

I saw true fear in my friends' eyes.

So I am not a crowd-joiner. That doesn't mean I am any less patriotic, that I don't love patriotic songs (I particularly love "Stars and Stripes Forever"), that I don't think something horrible was done to this country and some wretched, hateful people must pay. It just means I grieve, and simmer, in a different way.

A fellow employee was passing out red, white and blue ribbons in the newsroom the other day. Most people put on the ribbons. I didn't.

"I don't do that kind of stuff," I said to a colleague. "It's fine if people do, but it's not something I'm comfortable with … give me a knife and let me go behind the lines and slit some sons of bitches' throats. That I'd do."

(See, even mean, cynical people have a place in these times.)

There is a lot of consolation and resolve in rallies and ribbons and candlelight vigils. These things are needed for many of us as we gather ourselves, both to recover and charge forward as one.

At the same time there are already people trying to exploit our national anger. Little despots will rise from the rubble. They'll see an opening for power, for getting adherents. Some political commentators are already doing it. Some "religious" leaders are already doing it, continuing their internal jihad. Some local fools are already doing it, blaming Democrats, Republicans and Jews in this newspaper. Muslims and Sikhs are being harassed and assaulted in the Land of the Free, and the Home of the Brave.

Americans need to come together to fight an incomparable evil. But in doing so, we must not compromise the rights and principles that have made this country great. We must try our best to stop those who become part of a mob that is blinded by rage at the wrong people.

If we do not, that incomparable evil wins, because we move away from being the true United States of America and move closer to being like that evil.

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