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‘Both sides put down their weapons’

Sorting out events of the last week, I flash back four decades ago.

The first time I saw a rubber bullet was 40 years ago, when I lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I arrived there as a volunteer with a Nobel Peace Prize-winning group called the Peace People. They sent a hip young social worker to meet me outside the old and bomb-battered Great Victoria train station.

The real welcoming party for every arriving passenger was a British soldier (younger than my 21), an armalite rifle slung across his shoulder, right at my shoulder as I stepped off the train.

After being “sorted out” by my official greeter, I found my new companion outside the station, itself completely barricaded — only one door in or out. She wore a rubber bullet on a chain around her neck, her personal badge of honor from the long campaign for justice in her country.

There was not then nor is there now anything flexible about a rubber bullet.

While it may be statistically less lethal than a regular bullet, it maintains the ability to blind, to bruise, to break, to draw blood, to leave an indelible scar on the soul and spirit of the recipient and, sometimes, the shooter.

Like its lead cousin, a rubber bullet conveys a clear message about force and who holds the monopoly on it. I never thought I’d be writing about their use in my country.

Speaking with college presidents earlier this week, one of our colleagues raised the issue of response to protests across America after the killing of George Floyd.

Some argued that it is our responsibility — at colleges that serve half of all minority students in this commonwealth — to lead on the issue.

I would argue that it is also our duty because we are educators who help students to form value systems that are informed, inclusive, expressive and fair.

And we are living in veritable “crucible times” for character and value formation.

Many of our students, faculty and staff — many of you, too — may be struggling against a riptide of hopelessness.

The cycle of injustice can seem as unending as it is unforgiving. My experience in Northern Ireland taught me that even cycles that spin for centuries can be halted.

And centrifugal forces that push people apart can transform into centripetal ones that bring people closer together.

In his poem on justice, Nobelist Seamus Heaney wrote of his Ireland that “It means, once in a lifetime, That justice can rise up, And hope and history rhyme.”

It did happen — the hope and history rhyming thing, when the two sides signed the Northern Ireland peace accords right before the turn of this century — after 800 years of anguish and injustice and following almost 40 years of the most recent edition of “The Troubles.”

Both sides put down their weapons, and the rubber bullets became relics.

On this side of the Atlantic, we have many, many verses yet to write in our struggle against racism and injustice. If we can find ways to write them together, maybe our hope and history will rhyme, too.

Thomas P. Foley is president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Pennsylvania (AICUP) and is former president of Mount Aloysius College.

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