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Snapshots of Berkeley students in a time of war

| 09 April 2003

Berkeley’s student body is famous for its diversity, except in one area: politics. Most people assume that students at this home of numerous free-speech, Vietnam War, and anti-apartheid protests are outspoken anti-war radicals. Although I confess to thinking that when I started work here, recently I began suspecting that the reality might be a bit more nuanced. On March 19, when the bombing in Iraq began, I decided to walk around campus every few days and ask random students “How does the war affect you personally?” — and to post their reactions (and photos) on the campus NewsCenter website (http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2003/03/oped.shtml).

I worded the question that way so that even students who do not feel strongly anti- or pro-war — and there are more in that ambivalent camp than I expected — can talk about what they do feel. This is by no means a scientific survey or poll. Knowing some students don’t venture far from their departmental territories, I drop by outdoor gathering places from Sproul to Boalt to the Bechtel Engineering Center. If I’ve already gotten quotes from two male students, I start looking for a woman. I scribble notes while they talk, and include every student willing to answer the question, with only minimal editing. Some students are too insecure about their English, others in too much of a hurry, to answer.

Since the series began, we’ve received e-mails of both praise and criticism. The latter have accused us, funnily enough, of bias in opposite directions: “picking” students who are either too pro-war or not patriotic enough. I think such criticism reveals more about the biases of the writers than about my own or the students’. I snub neither students in Muslim head scarves nor ROTC uniforms.

Stereotypes aside, UC Berkeley is no different from the rest of the United States: there is a diversity of opinions here worth paying attention to. The “Point of View” website has gotten 16,000 hits since we launched it. I hope that means more people realize, as I have come to, that we shouldn’t try to predict—or attempt to censor—what our students have to say.