Letters to the Editor: Syrian Rebels, US Shootings, SAIS Cartoons and SAIS Europe

Read Time:8 Minute, 14 Second

In response to “What if the Rebels Did It?” published in the SAIS Observer the week of September 10th.

Dear Editor,

In the September 9 issue of the Observer,  the article “What if the Rebels Did It?” argued that Americans should be open to the idea that Syrian rebels, and not the Assad regime, were responsible for the August  21 chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, which killed nearly 1,400 people. This idea was misguided then, and the Sellstrom report released this week by the UN makes it plain that the Assad regime was behind the attacks.

Even before the report’s release it was apparent the rebels lacked the coordination and technical skills necessary to successfully mount an unstable chemical agent on a rocket and there was no evidence to suggest they possessed sarin in the first place.

Furthermore, one would need to explain why the largely Sunni rebels would want to launch chemical weapons into a Sunni suburb, given that any potential international response was far from certain.

After the Sellstrom report published the compass bearings of the rockets, The New York Times and Human Rights Watch independently traced the rockets’ origin to Mount Qasioun — headquarters of the Assad regime’s most elite troops, the 4th Armored Division and the Republican Guards.

The Assad regime’s culpability does not make intervention a wiser choice, but it is important to avoid creating false equivalencies between the government and the rebels, especially when the facts point clearly to the Assad regime’s guilt.


Jeffrey S. Wright

SAIS BC 2014, SAIS 2015

Concerning the recent shootings in the US.

Dear Editor,

A young man with mental problems leaves his house with a gun. Minutes later, shots ring out. Thirteen people are hit and fall to the ground.

One could be forgiven if you thought the previous sentences described the recent shooting at Washington’s Navy Yard that left 12 people dead. Unfortunately, I am referring to another shooting in my hometown of Chicago a few days after the Navy Yard shooting.

You may not have heard of it because, miraculously, even though a three-year-old boy was one of the victims of a military-grade rifle shot, no one was killed. Perhaps the other reason is because the shooting happened on Chicago’s South Side where shootings and murders are so common it does not even qualify as news.

Since 2001 there have been 6,106 homicides in Chicago. That is the rough equivalent of two 9/11s.  That is also more than 2.5 times the number of Americans that have been killed in Afghanistan.  The Iraq War saw roughly as many US soldiers killed (4,489) as civilians killed in Chicago (4,267).

Despite a murder rate of 18.7 murders for every 100,000 people, Chicago is not even in the FBI’s list of 25 most dangerous cities in America.  Our very own Washington, DC is 21st on that list.

Since violent crime tends to be heavily concentrated in the poor, African-American neighborhoods of our inner cities, it could be arguably safer to be a young, black man in uniform in Afghanistan than to live on Chicago’s South Side or in Southeast Washington.

Here at SAIS, we study the problems of the world from wars in the Middle East to poverty in Africa to the debt crisis in Europe.  But how many of our classes teach us about the problems we have at home in the United States? Do we know that 15% of our population, roughly 46 million people, lives in poverty, basically the same rate it was in 1983? Or that median income is the same now as it was in 1989?

As IR students, we know more about the rest of the world than the country we might one day represent. I am certainly no better. After two and a half years in the Peace Corps, I know more about the nooks and crannies of El Salvador, no safe or prosperous place either, than my hometown of Chicago.

It is not a stretch to say that most of us grew up in middle class or better-off families, many from the East Coast of the United States. But if we don’t learn about the problems of our own country in our classes nor from our fellow students how can we know America?

We are taught by neo-cons and liberals alike that America must be the policeman of the world and that after 20 years of free trade the US is sitting at a higher utility curve. However, many of our own citizens would like America to be the policeman of their neighborhood and would like to know how a quarter century of economic growth passed them up.


Benjamin Locks

In response to the cartoon “How SAIS sees SAIS” published in the SAIS Observer the week of September 23rd.

Dear Editor,

I certainly recognize the need for a community to be self-critical through humor, which can encourage an honest reflection on the stereotypes it holds by forcing public recognition of the existence of those stereotypes. On that level, the cartoon “How SAIS Sees SAIS” is not inappropriate despite the controversy it may have aroused.

However, the problem I had with the cartoon is the assertion that those stereotypes exist in the first place. As a first-year M.A. student, I definitely had no idea they existed, nor did I think to consider what SAIS collectively thought of any particular national or ethnic group. For new DC students, these stereotypes now exist only because the cartoon declared it so.

SAIS is a small community with an immense amount of turnover. Half of the student body leaves each spring and another half arrives at the DC campus each fall. By reproducing these stereotypes the cartoon only ensures they continue into the future. What may have been particular to a specific time and place persists for another cycle. If not for the cartoon, perhaps these stereotypes could have quietly, and quickly, faded away.

Sincerely yours,

Paul Leuck

In response to “SAIS BC, Now SAIS Europe” published in the SAIS Observer the week of September 10th.

Dear Editor,

I’d like to express my disappointment as well regarding the name change of the SAIS Bologna Center to SAIS Europe, following up on fellow classmate Brenna Allen’s piercing and accurate assessment. I echo her concerns regarding the purpose in renaming, especially given some of the glaring drawbacks of the rationale, such as: “footing with the DC campus,” “[Italy’s] post-war significance,” “serious[ness]” and “added value.”

Call me crazy, but I am not sure how “branding” equates with any of the stated reasons. The students on the continent were and are excellent: they were doing well in Bologna and show no signs of lost momentum state-side. Italy offers plenty of post-war significance, if not in its current political status then certainly in its standing as one of the world’s great cultural references.

As for added value, how does stamping out one measure of the university’s uniqueness, the name of a small European city, raise the overall value of SAIS? If anything, seeing Bologna Center underneath our school’s name makes SAIS more interesting. Maybe the narrative of our program’s history needs a buff and shine rather than this unfortunate revision.

This past spring I heard something similar about branding and the larger university’s initiative to unite its many schools. Among them was a greater emphasis on the Hopkins name. For what it’s worth I’d like to share my take on how branding really works, using myself as the case in point.

I first learned about SAIS some time ago when searching for housing in DC. During my search I met a student who was moving out of her house to attend “SAIS in Nanjing.” I had never heard of SAIS at that point but was convinced of its stature given her obvious intelligence, enthusiasm, the area of study and the location.

When I first began considering graduate school, I attended a graduate school fair in Boston. Though I did not speak with a SAIS representative there, I picked up a brochure for the Bologna Center and thought wow, how special is it that this high-powered program also has a center in Italy.

Even though it would be years more before I would gather the courage to apply, I did not base my decision to attend on the name. That doesn’t mean others have not, only that in my case I was attracted to the idea of the Bologna Center.

Perhaps the re-branding is a vote of confidence for Bologna. In the city it’s not uncommon for people to refer to SAIS as la scuola americana, a frame that came in handy when asking for directions back to school when I was often lost amidst the city’s narrow streets during the early months of the first semester.

Perhaps more of the many Erasmus students will consider SAIS courses, or SAIS’ European identity will bring it into greater partnership with one of Europe’s oldest institutions (Universitá di Bologna) just across the street.

However, my sense is that many of SAIS’ ambitious projects on the continent, “if,” “when” and “as” they materialize, will be more the product of deliberate hard work and the reputation that flows from such momentum and good will and less the “if you build it [or in this case, rename it] they will come” model of change. If I’ve learned anything here in my first three semesters, it’s that SAIS is already ready for the former, reflecting a depth of purpose and commitment, and frowns on the latter, which may or may not.


Andrew Miller

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