The Human Spirit: So, like, I am offended

When it comes to suicide bombers, I admit I have a hard time lightening up.

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
Dear Amy Gutmann, President of the University of Pennsylvania: Several weeks have passed since you posed for a photo with a student dressed up as a genocide bomber at your Halloween party. The picture was published around the world, and startled me in my morning Jerusalem Post. You see, I never take a bus or enter a cafe without looking around for one of these explosive-packing terrorists whose life goal is to murder as many civilians as possible, including me. In a particularly grisly bus bombing in Jerusalem, the terrorist schoolteacher positioned himself in a bus full of families to do the most damage. A friend on the bus had her baby blown out of her arms and killed. As one of the 280,000 alumni of the University of Pennsylvania, I've always been pleased that Penn isn't one of the campuses known for promoting anti-Israel sentiment. On the contrary, it's known to be a popular choice for Jewish students, including those who are strongly affiliated religiously. There are numerous cooperative programs with Israeli universities, and Jewish donors have also been extraordinarily generous to the university's development program. So your picture smiling with the pretend-bomber was both surprising and troubling. I KEEP thinking of Saad Saadi, a university senior and photographer for the Daily Pennsylvanian, planning his elaborate costume to be worn at a party thrown by the president of the university. It wasn't the sort of costume you could pull together 10 minutes before the party with a make-up kit. He explained, in the DP, "we were like, 'Yeah, let's dress up as terrorists. It'll be pretty funny… I didn't realize people would get offended or angry." The worst part was that he was pretty much correct. He wasn't stopped at the door, nor was he evicted by angry classmates. Reportedly, several students expressed distaste, but if there had been a ruckus you would have been alerted and had that extra moment to think before posing with him. Unhappily, other students even agreed to pretend to be terror victims like the murdered Daniel Pearl. What could they have been thinking? You explained that in the din of 700 students partying you didn't notice that Saadi had the distinctive headdress of those who call for the destruction of Israel and the United States. Saadi insists that you looked over his outfit and wondered aloud how he managed to get by security. After the incident, Saadi apologized if he'd insulted anyone, but said he might use the same costume again. And although you called his choice deplorable, you stood by his right to make it. The terrorist outfit became an issue of democracy and free expression. I'M VERY grateful for the education I received at the University of Pennsylvania, where serious book learning was combined with a spirit of social activism. My college years were times of debate and protest: about women's issues, about race and about the Vietnam War. At the offices of the Daily Pennsylvanian, where I was a reporter, issues of human rights were always burning. Yet I can't imagine anyone dressing up as Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, Sirhan Sirhan or David Chapman, or defending the right of students to become make-believe assassins. No one would have thought it funny or cool to dress as Governor George Wallace or Edgar Ray Killen, convicted of murdering three civil rights workers. What if a student had come to your party as a Klansman and asked black students to polish his shoes? Dr. Mengele making his selection? Muhammad Ata or David Irving or the rapist of the Central Park jogger? Would you have posed with a make-believe Pol Pot? But you evidently didn't include this wanna-be terrorist among the absolutely morally reprehensible, and that's a problem. I know this was just a Halloween costume party, and not a UN debate. But when it comes to suicide bombers, I admit I have a hard time lightening up; it's a Jerusalem thing. But even if you haven't, as I have, seen close-up and personally the result of ball bearings and nails shot off at high velocity, aren't you horrified every time you have to stand in a long line to have your bag checked, when you have to take off your shoes and pour out your perfume because a terrorist might want to kill you? I came to Penn from a small New England town where we conducted business by town meetings and had to pass examinations on the Constitution. To learn the mechanics of democracy, we used voting machines from the town hall for high-school student council elections. We also learned that not everything in running a democracy is written into the laws. Someone eventually has to make a call between expression of freedom and abuse of freedom. That's what we call leadership. According to Saadi, you did draw one red line: you wouldn't allow him to take a photo pretending to kill you. I'm glad you didn't let him take that shot, but I suggest that you drew the red line too late. You should have asked Saadi to go home and change, and you shouldn't have allowed the photo. Your timing may have been off because you didn't instantly identify the costume as morally reprehensible. I would be concerned also about the lack of outrage on the part of the students. On my desk in Jerusalem is a recently published guide to the University of Pennsylvania called "Proudly Penn," sent to alumni. The university is about to happily expand to newly acquired land in West Philly. And so you wrote, "We are showing the world that a great university is not only relevant but integral to addressing the important issues of our day. By increasing access, integrating knowledge, and engaging locally and globally, Penn will continue to be a formidable force for good, educating extraordinary students and responsible global leaders, and mobilizing cutting-edge research to address the complex challenges of our world and to improve the lives of individuals everywhere." Terrorism aims to defeat everything you hope to achieve. To quote Penn founder Ben Franklin: Keep thy shop, and thy shop will keep thee. The same holds true for universities.