My Turn: Why preach to the converted on their turf?

Posted: Tuesday, September 25, 2001

On Tuesday, Sept. 18, I and others attended or listened in on KTOO to a community forum reflecting on the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on New York and Washington D.C. The forum's panel was impressive with a half-dozen community leaders including Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, Mayor Sally Smith, Sen. Kim Elton and Rep. Beth Kerttula.

OK, I'm a conservative, so it came as no surprise to me that I didn't agree with a lot of what was said. Still, I have to admit I approved to some extent of the broad overall themes. I don't want to see a war, and I have to admit some actions taken by the U.S. have caused grief to citizens of other nations.

There is no doubt that just about everyone present at Perseverance Theater is well-meaning and sincere. Yet, there was something far too shallow about the whole exercise. When it ended and I turned the radio off, I felt disappointed.

Why did such a respected panel of community leaders choose to hold the forum in such an insulated environment? Perseverance Theater is far from the center of Juneau a long drive from the Mendenhall Valley, and KTOO reaches a smaller audience than, say KINY.

The political range of panelists was limited as well. Were the more conservative members of the Borough Assembly invited? Panelist Dixie Belcher was listed as a "peace activist." Appropriate, certainly, but wouldn't including a veteran or Coast Guard or National Guard officer have been equally appropriate?

There is no reason the forum couldn't have been held at, say, Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School, or Bethel Assembly of God, or at the Switzer Village rec room, or at Pappy Poe's Pork Place, for that matter.

As I sat quietly thinking after the broadcast, I brought to mind a few voices I would have enjoyed hearing in the discussion mix: Thomas Merton's, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and my dad's.

Thomas Merton, in his book "The Seven Story Mountain," recalled his thoughts as the Second World War advanced. He began the war as a conscientious objector, a peace activist, but found he couldn't square this belief in the face of seeing Jewish classmates with family members enduring the Holocaust. In the end, Merton fought in the war.

Solzhenitsyn wrote of the evil of war versus the evil of the consequences of not fighting a war.

I also would have enjoyed hearing the remarks of my dad, a retired City University of New York professor, atheist and socialist. As a kid growing up in New York, my dad took me to marches on Washington, to collect food for Biafra, to help organize a grape boycott for the United Farm Workers, to campaign for George McGovern. He and I went to the first Earth Day demonstration, where I threw a rock at an evil, polluting car before he yanked me by the arm and took me immediately home saying, to begin with, "what the hell are you doing? Are you some kind of idiot?"

Now my dad is 87, and slowly losing his eyesight. He thinks and speaks very clearly, though. He told me the day of the attack he walked along the Hudson River in front of his house and watched the Twin Towers burn in the far distance. He told me he knew we would go to war because we really didn't have much of a choice.

The day of the attack I wandered around downtown Juneau feeling sick and numb. That night I watched Woody Allen's classic movie "Manhattan," just to see those beautiful views of the city I grew up in, all foggy and in black and white.

There's a scene in the movie where Allen's character interrupts an intense, very serious discussion. A man with glasses and a neatly trimmed beard says "excuse me, but we were talking about orgasms."

It's classic Woody Allen. The gag, of course, is that something human and emotional is reduced to an inane intellectual discussion by people completely blind to the irony and absurdity of it.

In a lot of ways, Tuesday's forum reminded me of that scene.

Juneau loses out when such a concentration of our respected leaders choose to preach to the converted on their own comfortable turf. Snoopy and Lucy, in one of their dialogues, spoke of people "who love mankind, but can't stand people."

I was heartened Thursday to read that many Southeast mayors affirmed their support for Juneau as Alaska's capital. If our community leaders are going to tend this good will, they need to do a little better than Tuesday's forum. They need to reach out a little to those of us who believe it's OK to drill in ANWR or see America as a great nation, or show the flag or support President Bush.


Richard Schmitz is a freelance writer, trail guide, aide to Rep. Jeannette James and online surplus trader.

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