The heckling of an injured war veteran at a town hall event last week has drawn national media attention, to the surprise and discomfort of many involved.
The veteran, Anthony Maschek, GS, was arguing for the return to campus of a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program at the University Senate’s second public forum on the subject.
“It doesn’t matter how you feel about war. It doesn’t matter how you feel about fighting. Other parts of the world are plotting to kill you right now when you go to bed,” Maschek said at the town hall Tuesday night. “It’s not a joke … these people, seriously, are trying to kill you. They hate America, they hate you.”
Some audience members booed. More laughed. A couple of students yelled “racist” as he left the microphone. But many students in attendance said the majority of the room applauded Maschek, who was awarded a Purple Heart for his service in Iraq.
Maschek and others said they are baffled by the framing given the story by media outlets like the New York Post, Fox News, and The Huffington Post and the especially vicious comments that have appeared on those sites.
“Columbia got slammed. Nobody’s happy with it,” military veteran Jose Robledo, GS and a University Senator, said.
Robledo said other senators found a news article about the town hall where some commenters threatened to come to Columbia and shoot students over the reported treatment of Maschek. He said that while this seems unlikely to happen, the senators informed Public Safety of the threats.
“In reality, the students who heckled Anthony … are not representative, not only of the anti-ROTC movement, but of the University,” said Robledo, a supporter of ROTC.
Ron Mazor, CC ’09, Law ’12 and the co-chair of the University Senate’s Task Force on Military Engagement, which is sponsoring the town halls, said that the response to Maschek’s speech was an “outlier.”
“We have a very clear policy on having commenters, speakers and the audience refrain from derogatory language or insulting language,” Mazor said.
Paco Martin del Campo, CC ’11 and a member of Lucha, a student group which is opposed to ROTC, was at the town hall Tuesday night and said he understands why some might have yelled or booed.
He said that Maschek’s remarks implied that Iraq has attacked the United States, and that Iraqis are thus among the people who want to kill Americans. But since Iraq did not attack the U.S. on September 11 or since then, Martin del Campo said, Maschek’s statement seemed to imply that all Muslims want to kill Americans.
“We shouldn’t let the unfortunate incident take away from the actual points that were being made,” Martin del Campo said.
Maschek said during his remarks that he had been shot nine times in Iraq and spent two years recovering in Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
In a statement that he sent to the media on Monday night, Maschek said he feels no animosity towards Columbia.
“Comments by a small number of individuals at the town hall meeting have not changed my positive experiences at Columbia,” Maschek wrote. “Thus far, my fellow students have been very interested in hearing about my past life and military experiences. Columbia has been attempting to get more veterans to share their experiences here, and the atmosphere here has been supportive despite the actions of a very small minority of the town hall participants.”
Robledo added he has met with members of Lucha and other opponents of ROTC, and that they are concerned about the negative image of ROTC opponents created by media reports. Robledo noted that he is worried about military veterans being portrayed as “victims of the big bad Columbia machine.”
He added that since the New York Post published its article, “everyone’s on the defensive,” and that this makes it harder to have a serious debate.
Martin del Campo said that the media reaction has been “designed to make it seem like people who oppose the military are unpatriotic.” He added that while he hopes ROTC supporters will “not try to demonize” those opposed to ROTC, that he thinks his side will act a bit differently after all the media attention.
“We’re obviously going to be more aware,” he said. “And at the next town hall, we won’t be disrespecting people.”