Not being a football fan, I had never heard of Pat Tillman until the news that the former National Football League player-turned-Army Ranger had been killed in Afghanistan on April 22. That was when I learned that two years ago Tillman turned down a three-year, $3.6 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals to join the Army. While his death was no more (or less) tragic than any other soldier's, Tillman surely deserved the title of hero that is so often wantonly applied to professional athletes. I wasn't planning to write about Tillman—until I clicked on a link from a popular weblog to a column whose title says it all: "Pat Tillman is not a hero: He got what was coming to him."
The April 28 column in The Daily Collegian, the student newspaper at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, reads like a twisted parody of an antiwar harangue. "You know he was a real Rambo, who wanted to be in the `real' thick of things," scoffs author Rene Gonzalez, a University of Massachusetts graduate student and occasional contributor to the Collegian. "I could tell he was that type of macho guy, from his scowling, beefy face on the CNN pictures. Well, he got his wish."
It goes downhill from there: "In my neighborhood in Puerto Rico, Tillman would have been called a 'pendejo,' an idiot…He was acting out his macho, patriotic crap and I guess someone with a bigger gun did him in…Tillman got himself killed in a country other than his own without having been forced to go over to that country to kill its people…he should be used as a poster boy for the dangerous consequences of too much `America is #1,' frat boy, propaganda bull."
Evidently, it never occurred to Gonzalez that if you're arguing for a fairly unpopular opinion, heaping insults on your country's war dead is not a promising tactic of persuasion.
But, beyond the name-calling, his column expresses a world-view mind-boggling in its estrangement from reality—a world-view worth examining because, while Gonzalez's rhetoric is extreme, his ideology may not be that far out of the "mainstream" on New England's college campuses. Notably, a counterpoint Daily Collegian column honoring Tillman stated that he "died in a war that many people don't support" and that "you don't have to support the war in order to support Tillman himself." In fact, about 90 percent of Americans—though only about 50 percent of college students—favored the war in Afghanistan. Unlike the war in Iraq, it also had strong international support.
Gonzalez conflates the two wars, mocking the notion that Iraq had anything to do with the Sept. 11 attack on America yet ignoring the fact that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan harbored the masterminds of that attack and refused to turn them over. Nor does he care that the Taliban killed far more Afghans than the Americans did: "Whether we like them or not, the Taliban is more Afghani than we are. Their resistance is more legitimate than our invasion, regardless of the fact that our social values are probably more enlightened." (And Hawaii is probably a nicer place to vacation than Afghanistan.)
According to Gonzalez, Al Qaeda cannot be defeated by force anyway, but "only through careful and logical changing of the underlying conditions that allow for the ideology to foster." Since Al Qaeda seeks nothing short of Islamic theocracy, one may wonder what conditions those are: The existence of secular democracy, perhaps?
Gonzalez's slam at Tillman elicited a strong reaction which prompted the Collegian to run a front-page message to readers, stating that it did not endorse the column but honored the author's right to express his views. Given the article's obscene tone, one may still question the paper's editorial judgment: Would it have run a piece that sneered at victims of rape, gay-bashing, or racially motivated hate crimes? One might also point out that in recent months, far more innocuous fare in college papers has led to official investigations and sanctions when deemed offensive to minorities.
Still, I'm glad the Collegian provided Gonzalez with a forum. For one, his screed is a stark reminder that a hate-America mindset on the left is not just a right-wing slander. It is also a powerful reminder that the US freedoms Pat Tillman fought and died to defend apply even to those who spout such venom.
Correction: My April 19 column misstated the date of the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. It took place in 2000.