Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Monday, April 2, 2007
From This Issue
Volume 84 • Number 4
Spring 2007

Delving into Disasters
First-year seminar puts a human face on modern catastrophes
By Sherri Kimmel

In 2000, when Kim Lacy Rogers first taught her class exploring the impact of 20th-century catastrophic events on survivors, she focused on war and its aftermath. Teaching it this fall, five years after 9-11, three years after the advent of Gulf War II, two years after the Southeast Asian tsunami and one year since Hurricane Katrina, the course had even more depth and urgency.

In her first-year seminar Catastrophe! War, Disaster and Lives, the professor of history walked 12 new students through the landmines of modern life.

“We did a lot of reading about war, trauma and misery—things we need to examine,” she says. “It’s easy to become numb in an overmediated culture, particularly regarding warfare. People have treated war like a giant Western [movie]. In this class we looked at who suffers when the bombs are dropped.”

Students read books, wrote responses and discussed readings about disasters caused by human intervention into the natural and social environment. They also learned—most for the first time—about a genocide in Armenia in 1915 that shared commonalities with two better-known ones, the Rwandan one in 1994 and the Holocaust of World War II.

While students absorbed the new materials that Rogers presented, they made other discoveries through their own research and resulting oral presentations and papers.

Adnan Solaiman, a Pakistani Muslim raised in Saudi Arabia, focused on hate incidents against Muslims since 9-11. FBI statistics revealed, he says, that 20 to 30 crimes per year occurred before 9-11; in the first three months afterward, 700 occurred. “That’s more than a 1,000 percent increase,” he says, shaking his head. After that initial spike, the average has been 150 hate crimes per year, he adds.

Personal experience helped enrich his project, for an uncle has experienced discrimination in the United States since the terrorist attacks, and Solaiman has been called a terrorist—in California, where he attended high school, and in Carlisle.

“In my paper I talked about the indirect effects of 9-11 on Muslims,” says Solaiman. “It helped me to define what it means to be a Muslim-American. I’ve been juggling two perspectives since 9-11. Just because you’re Muslim doesn’t mean you will blow someone up. I show that Muslims are doctors, teachers … I feel sorry for those who see things so single-mindedly.”

Family experience also informed Hai Xu’s choice of topic—the Japanese invasion of China during World War II. His grandfather had lived through the “Rape of Nanking,” and Xu is from the city that is now called Nanjing.

“I read books and journals and can categorize the Chinese attitudes: remain silent and surrender or bravely defend China,”  he relates. “One million chose to work for the Japanese. Most of those who submitted should not be reprimanded today. If they didn’t surrender they would be killed.”

Throughout China, and particularly in Nanjing, where an estimated one million Chinese were killed between 1937 and 1938, the Japanese are still reviled, Xu says. It’s a stance he doesn’t embrace. “To prevent more genocides, we must view society as a harmonious world. Radical resistance toward the Japanese at present might be dangerous.”

While Xu rejects a culture of hatred, he embraces one of memory. He says there are deniers of the Nanjing massacre, just as there are Holocaust deniers. Then he half-smiles and pauses at a realization. “Today [Dec. 13] is the anniversary of the start of the rape of Nanjing. Alarms will ring today all throughout China to let people never forget.”

Unlike Xu and Solaiman, Daron Dey of Woodbridge, Conn., chose a subject that was largely unfamiliar to her. “The topic came up in class about how Vietnam veterans were shunned and spat upon [when they returned from the war]. It was a cool topic—how a nation reacted when the soldiers came home. As a result of my research, my point of view changed completely.”

Through reading books such as Stolen Valor and The Spitting Image and conducting an interview with a Vietnam-veteran friend of her grandfather’s, Dey learned that soldier mistreatment was exaggerated and distorted.

“The facts don’t support the stereotypes,” she explains. “Three percent described a homecoming experience as ‘not at all friendly.’ Most felt there was no hint of hostility, and 75 to 80 percent of Vietnam vets who claimed to be spat upon never served in Vietnam.

“I found this was a tactic used by Bush I during the first Gulf War—to introduce the spitting image to prevent the anti-war movement from being powerful,” Dey continues. “Nixon and Agnew used it as well.”

While her Vietnam-veteran research turned her head around, she found the class’s genocide unit most shocking. “It swayed my interest toward human-rights work.”

All three students described a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., as their most memorable out-of-class experience. “The tangible items had the biggest impact—uniforms, shoes, pictures, videos,” Dey says. “The atmosphere was really shocking.”

Solaiman agrees. “These were powerful images and showed it could happen to anyone. I remember a quote in the museum from FDR or Truman, something like, ‘Do everything you can to make sure it never happens again’—and it has happened multiple times since. I’m a lot more interested in world events and genocide now.”

Which is exactly the effect Rogers desired: “My hope is that as a result of this class and others, the students will become more sensitive to what violence does and why it’s the responsibility of ordinary people to be responsible for what their governments do.”


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