Symposium smooth after controversy

By Mark Pesto / Senior Staff Writer

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Pitt’s Inaugural National Security Symposium went smoothly  yesterday despite controversy over the withdrawal of ex-panelist Norman Finkelstein’s invitation, according to organizer Brian Sisco.

“We’re focusing on who’s here, not on who’s not here,” Sisco said.

Expert panelists Dan Simpson, associate editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a former U.S. ambassador, and Marjorie Cohn, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, spoke in the afternoon to a crowd of 30 to 40 people in Ballroom B at the University Club.

Simpson, Cohn and Luke Peterson, a visiting professor in Pitt’s history department and the symposium’s moderator, discussed a wide range of national and international topics, from American foreign policy to the role of religion in the 2016 American presidential election. The event, hosted by the Graduate School for Public and International Affairs students, had the theme “Media, Democracy, and Citizenship.” Sisco said he wanted to hold the event as a platform for discussing issues relating to the media’s effect on policy, among other topics.

A little more than a week before the symposium, Sisco and the other GSPIA organizers withdrew an invitation to Norman Finkelstein, a contentious scholar and critic of Israel, who had been scheduled to appear alongside Simpson and Cohn. Finkelstein then accused Pitt’s administration of covertly cancelling his appearance because they didn’t like his scholarship.

Sisco maintained yesterday that the student planners of the symposium withdrew Finkelstein’s invitation because they couldn’t afford to pay him, and Interim Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner said the student organizers acted independently..

Peterson, who originally told Finkelstein that the University had nixed his appearance, said Wednesday evening — after previously declining to comment — that he had given Finkelstein erroneous information in his rush to inform him as soon as possible.

Finkelstein doubled down on his accusations in two blog posts Thursday, comparing Pitt’s attitude toward free speech to that of North Korea and comparing Peterson to Galileo, whom the Inquisition famously forced to claim that the Sun revolves around the Earth.

“The whole thing has been a really big misunderstanding,” Sisco said Thursday.

At the symposium, no one seemed to have Finkelstein’s allegations in mind.

The event’s discussion centered on “the role of media in shaping public opinion and influencing civic engagement pertaining to contemporary national security issues.”

According to Simpson, who was the U.S. ambassador to the Central African Republic from 1990 to 1992 and to the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1995 to 1998, the United States’ determination to interfere in other countries’ affairs makes it hated internationally. He said the United States should instead devote its attention and resources to improving infrastructure, healthcare and education at home.

“There is no doubt in my mind that it is our foreign policy that has created so many people who want to do us harm,” Cohn said, drawing applause from the audience.

Cohn attributed the United States’ interventionism to the entitled attitude of American supremacy.

“What gives us the right to be the world leaders?” Cohn asked. “People say I’m in favor of a two-state solution [to the Israel-Palestine conflict]. I’m not in favor of any solution because it’s not my business! It’s up to the Palestinians how many states they want!”

Cohn advocated for pulling American soldiers out of most international military bases.

“Why do we need to have 800 military bases around the world?” Cohn asked.

The symposium also included a morning panel on the same theme, featuring GSPIA students Cathryn Hoel, David Karg, Nauman Afridi and Joe Hackett, who moderated the panel.

One audience member, Anthony Petrucelli, traveled from Indiana, Pennsylvania, to attend the symposium. During a question-and-answer session, Petrucelli, a self-described “Jersey-born conservative,” told the panelists he thought they were unfairly blaming the United States for terrorism and the unrest in the Middle East.

Petrucelli said that the region had been conflict-ridden centuries before the United States existed.

“You can’t be diplomatic with terrorists,” Petrucelli, an Indiana University of Pennsylvania student, said. “You have to kill them before they kill you.”

Peterson, whose Ph.D. is in Middle Eastern Studies, disputed Petrucelli’s interpretation of the past.

“Your history is a bit strange to me,” Peterson told Petrucelli during a heated back-and-forth exchange.

Petrucelli hosts a talk show called “Petro’s Politics” on the IUP campus radio station and said he traveled to Pitt for the symposium because he often feels that moderators and organizers ignore conservative viewpoints during similar events. He wanted to air the other side of the story.

According to Petrucelli, although he felt the panel didn’t represent conservative perspectives, he appreciated the discussion and left with no hard feelings between himself and the panelists.

“I’m satisfied with how they responded,” Petrucelli said after the symposium. “We spoke afterwards, and it’s all good.”

Sisco, too, appreciated the exchange of ideas at the event.

“We just want to provide a platform for this discussion,” he said.

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