September 29, 2003

Questions of conflict take center stage at Carter Town Hall

Eric Rangus

Prospects for peace in the Middle East, the meaning of the word “war,” the repercussions of the USA PATRIOT Act and a question from the youngest attendee ever to ask one were just a few of the subjects addressed by former President Jimmy Carter at his 22nd annual Town Hall meeting with the Emory community, Wednesday, Sept. 24 in the P.E. Center.

Accompanied by his wife Rosalynn, seated in the front row, and President Jim Wagner and Student Government Association President Euler Bropleh on stage, Carter opened his comments with a few brief statements on the work of the Carter Center before diving into the no-holds-barred question and answer session that is the highlight of the event every year.

The audience, which filled the P.E. Center floor and bleachers, was made up of primarily freshmen, but one of the first questions can from someone even younger—5-year-old Harry Kincaid, who wore a tie-dye t-shirt and was perched on the shoulders of his father. “I want to be president one day,” read the question. “How did you do it?”

Carter answered that he had had a lot of luck. He ran for president during a time, the mid-1970s, when many Americans were recovering from the Watergate scandal and did not trust the government. Therefore, his advice to the young man was simple.

“I promised to tell the truth,” Carter said. After the audience applauded, Carter had one more comment. “Good luck. Unless my grandson Hugo decides to run the same year as you.” Carter’s banter was a light-hearted moment during an evening that was somewhat heavy with talk on serious political issues.

The first question of the night asked Carter what he thought were the greatest challenges to Mideast peace. The former President began by outlining the situation between the Israelis and the Egyptians 25 years ago when the Camp David Accords were signed.

Both sides were flexible, Carter said. They wanted peace, they were led by men of integrity and courage, and there was a balanced mediator. “Nowadays maybe none of those provisions exist in their entirety,” Carter said.

“The United States has not entered into a balanced mediation role between Israel and the Palestinians,” he continued. “And a question must be answered by Israel. Do we want peace or do we want to maintain our settlements in the area that is controlled by the Palestinians? Peace or settlements?”

When asked if the word “war” was too easily applied to any conflict, Carter agreed, adding that it gives people a sense of despair, hopelessness and fear. It within the response to this question that Carter framed his opposition to the United States’ unilateral attack against Iraq.

“We have alienated people who could be our allies and could be sharing the responsibility now,” he said, adding that he would have supported an attack with international cooperation.

Carter also criticized the USA PATRIOT Act, calling it an unprecedented attack on civil liberties. “I don’t believe the benefits that might be derived from the PATRIOT Act nearly equal the damage to the basic human rights that have always made this country great,” he said.

Not all of Carter’s comments were political, though. In response to a question about how to stop the spread of AIDS in Africa, he challenged the audience not only to try an improve conditions for the poor around the world, but at home as well. He called the growing chasm between the very rich and the very poor the world’s greatest challenge. “The gap is getting wider, and the wider it gets, the less the rich people care,” he said.

Along those same lines, when asked if he had ever heard any advice that inspired him, Carter recalled the words of his high school teacher Julia Cole-man, who said, “Accommodate changing times but cling to unchanging principles.”

Carter then listed some of them. “Justice, peace, humility, service, compassion, and if you’ll excuse the expression, love,” he said. “Those are unchanging. I don’t always observe them, but I try to.”

Bropleh, in his remarks, called Carter “a living hero,” and thanked him for being the first U.S. President to visit his home country, Liberia. “It is my hope that you believe in Liberia and you can help us rebuild our country,” Bropleh said.

The evening also marked the largest public appearance to date of Emory’s newly rechristened immortal spirit, James W. Dooley. Dooley looked suspiciously like his predecessor, William M., but when a member of his entourage stepped to the podium to relate his thoughts they were quite distinctive—and punchy.

“I keep a copy of your 1977 Time Magazine Man of the Year Award issue with me in my coffin,” Dooley said through his sunglasses-wearing interpreter. “President Carter, your face is the first one I see when I awake. Sometimes it’s not the most perfect sight.”