Media Capture Faculty Views on America's New War

By Middlebury Campus

Author: Claire Bourne News Editor

In the weeks since Sept. 11, a handful of Middlebury College faculty members have been sought out by local media to provide commentary on a broad range of topics related to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

Associate Professor of Biology Grace Spatafora was featured twice on the WCAX-TV (CBS Channel 3) six o’clock news to discuss anthrax. On Oct. 10 she was interviewed for a special segment on the bacteria and on Oct. 12 she appeared live on the program to answer more questions.

Walid Saleh, assistant professor of religion, appeared on a WCAX-TV news special report about Islam and the effect the events of Sept. 11 have had on the Vermont Muslim community. Saleh was also quoted on the front-page of The Burlington Free Press in an article entitled “Classes Quench Thirst for Mideast History.”

Alan R. Holmes Professor of Monetary Economics Scott Pardee was approached by the same station to explain how the nation’s economic decline would impact the Vermont economy. In addition to this commentary, the station taped a segment on Pardee’s monetary theory class (EC475) during which students simulated how senior management of a firm that lost close to 700 employees in the World Trade Center (WTC) collapse would respond on the afternoon of Sept. 11.

“Colleges and universities are some of the few places where you will find specialists on areas and topics that are not part of the everyday life of ordinary Americans,” Saleh explained to The Middlebury Campus. Citing the College’s “international studies program, its language programs and its offering of courses on areas and cultures of the world,” he continued, “Middlebury College is in a unique position to help the greater area of Vermont.”

The Disease: Anthrax

Explained

Stories of anthrax infection have plastered news media homepages, consumed television news broadcasts and run for several weeks on newspaper front pages.

To compound local concern, a suspicious envelope delivered to the Middlebury College mailroom last Monday was confiscated and is currently under investigation by town authorities.

“There hasn’t been a case of anthrax reported in the past 100 years or so, so even one case, especially after the Sept. 11 incident, makes you wonder what’s going on,” said Spatafora.

“Last year I taught a seminar on the End of the World,” commented Saleh, “and we watched many apocalyptic movies. One was ‘Twelve Monkeys.’ Since the anthrax attacks I have not stopped thinking about that movie.”

He continued, “The technical know-how has caught up with us. Now madmen can get the knowledge to manufacture biological weapons and are able to destroy more than is imaginable.”

When asked what members of the Middlebury community can do to protect themselves, Spatafora said awareness was key. “I think it’s really important to be informed and then to take that information and process it and not to take that information and panic,” she asserted.

“I think we’ve all learned to screen our mail before we open it,” she continued, “but the main thing we can do is to go on with our lives. By all means, don’t be afraid.”

Spatafora said stockpiling ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic commonly referred to in the media as cipro, was not the answer. People who “overuse or misuse” antibiotics, she warned, are more susceptible to “virulent or mutant strains of this bug.”

Expounding upon the comments she made to Channel 3, she explained that anthrax was caused by a bacteria called bacillis anthracis. “When the environment becomes adverse for this bacteria it can stop growing and go into a dormant seed-like stage called spore,” she elucidated.

A handkerchief held over one’s nose and mouth would be “sufficient” to filter out spores that become airborne, she said, adding, “This is assuming that it’s going to be an airborne attack and that it’s going to be anthrax.”

Accessibility, Spatafora hypothesized, is the primary reason why anthrax, and not a deadlier disease like smallpox, is the current biological weapon of choice. “Only two vials of smallpox are left, one in the Center for Disease Control and one in Russia,” she said.

“This is clearly a terrorist act. They’re going right to the source. With as little material as possible, how can I affect as many people as possible? With a few isolated incidents, they have affected the whole nation,” she asserted.

Anthrax is a “good weapon” because it is anonymous, Spatafora explained. Investigators can trace the letters in question back to a mailbox, but at that point, they have to rely solely on reports of suspicious people in the vicinity.

According to Spatafora, who has been interviewed by broadcast and print journalists in the past few weeks, commended the American media for “trying to keep people from panicking.” She remarked, “They’re really trying to achieve an appropriate balance.”

The Religion: Heightened Interest

In the Channel 3 special report, aired on Sept. 19, Saleh affirmed, “Islam does not condone any of these acts.” He said that the religion upheld “a sanctity for life that cannot be violated.” In addition to Saleh’s commentary, the piece also highlighted an episode involving the Islamic Society of Vermont, where a man wielding a gun appeared at the group’s headquarters a few days after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. He left without incident.

Despite several instances of discrimination against Muslims across the nation, Saleh said in his interview with The Campus that Muslim students, faculty and staff members at Middlebury have not encountered such intolerance. He called the College community “both mature and responsible,” adding that the administration “went out of its way to assure the Muslim community of their support and concern for our safety.”

The Free Press reported on Oct. 18 that since the Sept. 11 attacks, seven students had signed up to take Saleh’s “Islam in the Modern World,” bringing the class total from 17 to 24. In addition, six adults from the local community are auditing the course for no credit. “I would call it a healthy curiosity, not an attempt to solidify prejudices,” Saleh told The Free Press.

Saleh said that he could not link this increased interest in his course to the terrorist attacks, elucidating that the interest in Islam at Middlebury has “always been there.”

“I am proud to say that the College has historically shown a solid commitment to the study of religion. Our interest in religion is beyond events and beyond the cyclical interest [resulting from] political events,” he maintained.

Saleh verified that he was not planning to focus his class on the events of Sept. 11. “It is too early to offer a detailed analysis of what happened on that terrible day,” he commented.

He did mention, however, that students in his class “would be more able to comprehend” the events in question after completing the course. The syllabus Saleh created over the past year and during the summer includes, for example, a unit on Wahhabism, the state religion of Saudi Arabia. This is significant, he explained, because suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden is a Wahhabi.

A unit on the Taliban movement has been added to the original course outline, and Saleh has been using newspaper and journal articles “to draw the attention of my students to the direct relation [between] the course and the events happening now.”

The Economy: Collapse and the Tightening Job Market

Pardee worked in the WTC earlier in his career and was present when terrorists struck the towers in 1993. He therefore answered Channel 3’s call for an expert to speak about the impact of the Sept. 11 events on the Vermont economy.

Pardee told the station that one immediate effect of the nati
on’s declining economy aggravated by the terrorist attacks would be a decrease in the number of tourists traveling to the state for the “leaf-peeping” season. He predicted an increase in overseas cancellations, not only for foliage viewing but for winter skiing, as well.

“The extent to which the national economy has stopped, the Vermont economy has stopped,” he said in an interview with The Campus.

The television station was also interested to hear that Pardee’s monetary theory class was working on a group project related to the economic impact of Sept. 11. “You are in a company that had 1,000 people in the WTC. It’s 3 p.m. on Sept. 11, and only 300 have checked in,” he presented the scenario to his students. He split the class into groups of five, each of which represented the senior management of a financial firm. “Each of you are now in a position where you have to decide quickly how to move on,” Pardee continued. Channel 3 was not present for the simulation, however the students replayed their presentations for the cameras.

“This proves that Middlebury students who are thrown into a situation where they have to think on their feet can do so,” Pardee said. As articles detailing companies’ actions immediately following the WTC collapse emerged, Pardee noticed that students had, for the most part, accurately assessed the situation in that they had recommended communication with employees’ families and with the firm’s customers.

In his interview with The Campus Pardee confirmed that the job market would be much tighter for this year’s graduating class. He said that students with “high GPAs and sparkling personalities” were still receiving job offers. For the most part, however, students applying for jobs in the financial sector will have “a harder time” than in years past, he continued.

Nevertheless, he commended the Career Services Office for its effort to support student job-hunters and mentioned that Middlebury alumni have been and continue to be particularly helpful in this domain. “A number of students are talking about the Peace Corps and other socially beneficial jobs” as alternatives, he noted.