At first glance, it looked like a scene right out of my undergraduate days.
A student pushes his way to the open microphone in a public forum, armed with the most difficult question he can put to a politician. He has little regard for the formalities or protocol of the occasion – impassioned, excited, lacking discipline as a speaker, he even lets an obscenity escape his lips — and he shows little respect for the august personage he addresses. He does not want to be told that his time is up. He will speak until he is cut off, then do everything he can to keep speaking, if only to inject some controversy into the day’s otherwise dreary proceedings, catch the speaker off guard — and then step back to watch the whole room turn upside down.
That, at least, was how we did things at Berkeley in my day. We didn’t have video cameras – neither did the police – and we didn’t have YouTube, but that didn’t necessarily make us more authentic: we were nothing if not self-conscious. Our convictions were heartfelt and we were passionate when we spoke about them, but we also knew how to put on a good performance. So, at first, I thought I knew, or had known, Andrew Meyer, or at least was able to identify with him. He reminded me of what it was to be young and believe that the truth will out; he reminded me that I will never be that young again.
But what followed from Mr. Meyer’s standup performance at the University of Florida the other day could never have happened when I was a student at Berkeley: if the police had detained, let alone handcuffed and tasered a student who challenged a speaker, the place would have erupted. Who knows? The entire university could have been shut down for a week, if not longer, by student protests; there would have been daily face-offs with the police; faculty would have felt compelled to declare sides. The turmoil would have been general.
It’s a sign of the changed times, changed student priorities, a changed country, that nothing of the sort has happened in the wake of Meyer’s arrest. Some protestors gathered to register their unhappiness at the rough treatment he received; police officers have been placed on administrative leave, pending review; but campus life at University of Florida and elsewhere goes on as before. Judging from the videos posted online, students in the room seemed mildly amused or slightly annoyed by Meyer, but for the most part they stayed focused on the speaker at the podium, letting the police tackle, handcuff and taser the journalism major, who screams for help, begs for a witness, pleads for someone, anyone, to come to his aid. The only really interested parties, it seemed, were the amateur videographers, one of whom was wielding a camera Meyer had handed to her at the start of his performance, and all of whom were quick to post their handiwork on YouTube and other places online for all to see.
Now, things will run their predictable course. The online sensation will die down; the bubble in the blogosphere will pop. The university will complete its administrative review. Meyer, who has retained a lawyer, may sue, and will be heard of again only if or when his case comes to trial. Bloggers and civil libertarians will pick up on the first amendment angle of the story, or focus on the question of police brutality; I would hope that thornier, more difficult questions about police presence and surveillance at political events in the age of terrorism attract some comment. But I’m not holding my breath on that one. And what is for me the real story of what happened at the University of Florida the other day will go untold, because it’s a story that needs to be told from an angle on the action that none of the cameras captured – the point of view from the speaker’s podium. That was the privileged point of view enjoyed by Senator John Kerry.
Pan a full 180 degrees and you can see what the Senator saw – or, as he would have it, didn’t see. A veteran of “wars, protests and highly emotional events,” Kerry claims to have been “stunned” when he learned what happened in the hall. “I believe I could have handled the situation without interruption,” he commented, “but I do not know what warnings or other exchanges transpired between the young man and the police prior to his barging to the front of the line and their intervention.” In her blog entry for the Wall Street Journal, Mary Lu Carnevale takes him at his word. How could Kerry, from the front of the room, have understood the gravity of the situation at the back of the room? So, even as Meyer was being arrested, Kerry tried answering his question about the 2004 election with a lame joke: Meyer, he said, was “unfortunately…not available to come up here and swear me in as President.” Right: he was the guy being tackled then handcuffed by the police at the back of the room. But Kerry says that all that happened before he had a chance to step in and “handle” the situation, and once the police acted, there was little he could have done.
“I don’t know what transpired,” he is quoted as saying in a report by the Associated Press. “The police must have had a reason to make their decision.” Now, Kerry says, it’s no longer his affair. When asked whether the police used an appropriate level of force, the Senator replied, “That is a law enforcement issue.”
Put aside, for the moment, that Kerry’s joke about Meyer’s unavailability doesn’t make sense unless he saw that the young man was being detained by the police. Maybe it was a clumsy attempt to re-establish decorum before the Senator grasped what was happening. (But it’s hard to believe that he didn’t see what was happening, especially when you consider things from the angle in this video.) Be that as it may, there are several more serious problems with the Senator’s account, the most important of which is what I would call Senator Kerry’s moral abdication from the scene.
First, he takes refuge in ignorance: he didn’t know what was happening at the time; but certainly he would have done something had he known. There was no need for the police to intervene. Or, on second thought, maybe there was a need for police intervention; so just to be safe, Kerry takes cover in another position – a sort of watered down version of the old doctrine of raison d’etat. The police must have had their reasons. (Certainly, Senator, they always do.) Finally, having learned all the facts, Senator Kerry won’t comment on whether tasering an aggressive questioner is appropriate. That, after all, is a law enforcement issue, and is best left to the police to decide.
Are these really the dodgy arguments of a United States Senator, who is responsible for making laws and who bears the awesome responsibility of safeguarding our liberties? Say that Senator Kerry had figured out what the ruckus in the back of the room was all about: are we to believe that he would have intervened on Meyer’s behalf? Would Kerry have called off the police? These are questions the Senator’s account is meant to deflect. Can we imagine the Senator standing at the podium in the full authority and power of his office, and instructing the police to unhand the miscreant? Say for the sake of argument that he did. The police might have let Meyer go; civility would have triumphed. But having done no such thing, Kerry surrenders all authority, all presence of mind, all knowledge of what’s right and what’s wrong, to the university police. The Senator has left the room, put it as far behind him as he possibly can. Even now, the Senator could intervene, and demand that all charges against the foolish young man be dropped. A likely scenario? No.
A blogger on the New York Times website has noted that the incident left Senator Kerry “looking aloof,” a charge leveled at him during the 2004 election. To be sure, this latest incident offers yet another example of the character issues that gave voters doubts about Kerry, and made him easy prey for the swiftboaters. Aloofness, however, is not really the issue. This is about courage, and about magnanimity – greatness of soul. A word from Kerry could clearly have altered the entire situation, and can still alter the entire situation, but he has chosen, instead, to hide behind the police, and hope that no one comes looking for him.
Magnanimity is the virtue exemplified in stories of political assassinations, when the target of the assassin’s bullets pleads with his guard to do no harm to the man who shot him. Martin Luther King is said to have issued such instructions, as is Gandhi; President McKinley pleaded with the secret service not to harm Czolgosz even as he lay bleeding from the assassin’s bullets. True or not, we like these stories because they tell us that the fallen figure acts in death as he does in life: his concern is for those around him, he is true to his principles, his commitment is to peace and order.
Nothing so grave happened to John Kerry at the University of Florida. No crazy assassin or fiery anarchist confronted him. A student simply wanted to put a question to him – and garner some attention for himself in the process. It was a stunt; and more often than not we adults indulge this behavior in the young because we want them to be passionate and we like, even admire their fervor and idealism. It reminds us of what we have lost or what we find difficult to keep – the faith that mere words or a single question can change the course of events, or right a historical wrong. Once upon a time, John Kerry had the same faith, or so his official biography would have us believe. Now, it would seem, he, like so many others of his generation, has put all that behind him.
Maybe none of us will ever be so young again. Maybe from here on in, the police will handle everything.