328 Headlines and a Protest
|by Jennifer Leighty, '01|
An eager young activist with a thick cinnamon beard shouted at his fellow Brown students who whisked hurriedly past his table and into the post office in the spring of 1984. Few, if any, had time to listen to a lunatic raging about the end of the world and nuclear disarmament. An older woman stopped to listen to his angry litany "Do you know that the government expects you to survive a nuclear war in your dorm basement?" he asked. The woman paused, contemplating. Finally, she answered, "Why don't you start a club, Students for Suicide Pills?" since, she said, suicide pills seem a better option than any fallout shelter. Jason Salzman did not take the proposal as a joke as it was intended. Instead, he immediately visualized Students for Suicide Tablets (SST).
Justifying the existence of such an odd, morbid group of students caused a major logistical problem: how to find members who would consider joining. Salzman had a group of activist friends, but he was tired of long meetings and the apathy of his peers about the seriousness of nuclear war. Many were diligent in 1981 and 1982 about circulating anti-nuclear weapons petitions around campus and attending in 1982 the nation's largest peaceful protest in New York City to support a nuclear freeze. The idea seemed to have lost its novelty, however, and instead was replaced by a pervasive Reagan-esque attitude that nuclear war was an inevitable and winnable showdown.
The decade of the 1980s was filled with patriotic rhetoric about staying ahead in the nuclear arms race, with the heads of both superpowers insistent on playing a game of nuclear chess, instead of engaging in earnest discussion about disarmament. The US was both on the offensive and defensive, demonstrated by Reagan's paranoid, expensive and useless "Star Wars" defense system in 1983. Around the world, protestors in Rome, Bonn, and London demanded Soviet-American negotiations, yet Reagan de-prioritized arms reductions talks during the early 1980s. In the midst of the largest peacetime arms buildup, military spending was upwards of $28 million an hour while Reagan spewed forth his "devil theory" about the Soviet Union being an "evil empire" willing to "lie and cheat" to struggle for a communist world.
Indeed, the idea of nuclear war became so commonplace that comments about the frivolity of credit cards and the high desirability of the common shovel after a nuclear attack became the stale jokes of a cynical conversation. For Salzman, the only way to force people to consider the arms race a serious threat to their lives was to use scare tactics. The idea of suicide pills would evoke painful and powerful images, just as Salzman saw them in his own head.
The first step to getting the idea of suicide pills off the ground was to obtain signatures in a petition. Instead of haggling people as they walked by, as he normally did, Salzman stood quietly in the post office. Behind his head of tousled brown hair, a sign stood perched on the wall stating with modest drama: "Join Students for Suicide Tablets". Few people stopped to talk to Salzman. Even his disarmament friends had a difficult time making eye contact. Some told him that he was "crazy", and that "they had never expected it of him". Of the few who stopped out of curiosity, they would sign a petition for suicide pills only if he promised that government authorities would never receive a list of their names. After two months of diligently protesting, he collected the signatures of only one hundred supporters. No one realized that in less than two years, this pitifully small and seemingly unsuccessful protest at a single university could muster the momentum to grab the ears of the nation and spark a fierce, unusual debate. At its core was the very fragility of life, the human side of a hypothetical war as seen by a group of introspective, active-minded, creative students who craved a little attention.
It was difficult to take Salzman seriously. He seemed like a lunatic, a loner. He was obsessed about studying civil defense plans and thinking of nuclear war as total destruction. This obsession even led to a notorious incident in art class, where some students refused to enter the art room after he brought in for his final project a disturbing replication of what he thought the world would look like after a nuclear holocaust. The work consisted of rotting chicken carcasses that he pulled out of the trash at the cafeteria and left to spoil for a week in the sun. Perched atop the stank, rancid meat lie twenty rotting eggs and a barely definable pile of eggplants stained with a hazy gray-green mold. The nauseatingly sweet stench of roadkill left for too long on hot black pavement emanated from the maniacal sculpture in the center of the art room, forcing a gaggle of students to flee out the door. For Salzman, it was important to relay messages in any way possible, even at the risk of seeming offensive, immature, naive, and absurd.
Stereotypes can be slapped on Salzman as an activist edging over the bizarre, or one can see him as a passionate rebel-rouser. Either way, Salzman can be appreciated for his avid and controversial determination in the face of a society growing increasingly apathetic about the dangers of nuclear war. Most Americans felt as if the tenuous tension between the US and Russia would never actually lead to war, since both nations constantly kept abreast of the nuclear bombs in each other's pockets. However, if war were to erupt, 89% of Americans believed that no one would survive once one target was decimated and a deluge of bombs were dropped on both sides of the world. Acknowledged by all was that nuclear war was fatal and close to home, yet few considered it a real threat, much as watching a movie is gripping although the ending is expected to be positive.
Salzman tried to force people to see their role in the plot of an American story of nuclear warfare, and acknowledge that the outcome might not be pretty. Certainly, no one could accuse Salzman of lack of creativity in his art project, odd that it was, as well as the whole suicide pill protest idea. One can picture him as a quarrelsome, rambunctious, precocious child who didn't have any inhibitions for obstinately demanding want he wanted.
Salzman's energy seemed to ride on his long-held contempt for fallout shelters and the government's civil defense plan in the event of a nuclear emergency. It seemed ridiculous to him that the contingency plans for Brown consisted of hiding in the basement of the Ratty and V-Dub dining halls, individual dormitories, libraries, Manning Chapel or among sixty other campus buildings.
Speaking to a state Radiological Supervisor, he was told that "depending on where bombs are dropped, we could be looking at a tidal wave effect. If bombs are detonated in or close to Narragansett Bay, water would come zooming up the inletÖ and into downtown Providence". Essentially, the supervisor argued that fallout shelters would be useless unless they were in the upper stories of buildings, assuming that they wouldn't be bombed, or in the basements of buildings, assuming that they wouldn't be flooded. Brown's contingency plans were archaic, and they had come from the civil defense plans supported by the government.
"Crisis Relocation Planning" and civil defense assume that a nuclear war is survivable, and that the ingenuity and level-headedness of victims will prevail. Salzman argued that since the victims of nuclear war must inevitably compete for a limited food supply, guerilla warfare among refugees would most certainly ensue. Scientists spoke of a "nuclear winter" where earth would be cut off from the sun's rays and strangle food production. The sheer scale of required provisions in food, water, fuel, and shelter could not possibly keep up with demand. Since insects and bacteria are highly adaptive while having low susceptibility to radiation, the unnatural burgeoning of their populations would cause disease to become a deadly killer in addition to war.
Salzman's frustrations with the government's civil defense plan were not peculiar. In Boston, signs could be found reading "NUCLEAR WAR. NO SHELTER. NO ESCAPE. WARNING: THE BOARD OF HEALTH OF BOSTON HAS DETERMINED THAT NO OCCUPANT OF THIS BUILDING WILL SURVIVE A NUCLEAR ATTACK. NUCLEAR WAR HAS NO CURE. IT CAN ONLY BE PREVENTED." Paul Carey, a Spokesman at the Department of Health and Hospitals, argued in the New York Times that fallout shelters lull people into a false sense of security . Salzman's fixation on his contempt for the civil defense plan led him to the idea of suicide pills after reading Nevil Shute's book, "On the Beach". In it, a couple swallows tablets of poison along with a vial of brandy after they are stuck in an uninhabitable world after nuclear attack. It was the first time that suicide was used as an arguably acceptable alternative to life in the event of nuclear devastation. Salzman's curiosity got the best of him. He wanted to see if the idea of suicide pills would fly among Brown students. At the very least, he wanted to create a dialogue and inform people of the absurdity of the civil defense contingency plans.
After sending out hundreds of letters to fellow anti-war students he did not receive a single response. Not until the Brown Daily Herald picked up his story did news of Salzman's propaganda reach the campus. He hoped that this would spark more interest in his campaign, but after sending out an article to fifteen publications in the area including the Providence Journal and Boston Globe, he was only picked up in a small AP article.
With little interest on campus and no major press releases, an ordinary activist would have lost steam. Even Salzman was beginning to lose hope after getting the run around from President Swearer, in addition to be a laughingstock among his friends. Swearer had told Salzman by letter that he needed to speak to the head of the maintenance staff about the civil defense plans for the university, while the maintenance staff kept telling Salzman to go back to Swearer.
However, Salzman gained validity after reading an article in The Post written by an English doctor Richard Lawson, who said that he was willing to stockpile suicide tablets to allow patients a dignified death in the face of human misery during nuclear war. In a letter written to Salzman nearly four months later, Lawson explained that he got the idea after hearing people make plans to "strangle or stab their children themselvesómainly because they were frightened of dying first and leaving their children to cope alone in a nightmare world." Most people thought that Lawson was joking when he came up with the idea of dignified suicide. According to a spokesman from the British Medical Association, "It's impossible for us to say whether what he proposes is ethical or not. He raises a genuine ethical dilemma."
In Lawson's town, a proposal to allow the stocking of cyanide pills passed 62-16. This was enough to encourage the restless Salzman to reinvigorate Students for Suicide Tablets and see if Brown students were interested in voting on the referendum. After convincing the Undergraduate Council of Students that his intentions to put the suicide pill protest were not intended to make a mockery of the system, Salzman's main problem was to get 10% of the student body to support putting the petition on a ballot.
Students took much persuasion to sign the petition. Sitting below his "Students for Suicide Tablets" sign, Salzman quietly waited in the post office to elucidate his opinions to mostly apathetic passers-by. One boy with unkempt hair sticking out in all directions kept uttering "wow" after Salzman explained how suicide was equivalent to the effect of nuclear war. Another student in a red Izod shirt proclaimed it was "too fatalistic". After speaking to one woman, she thought the whole idea was so funny that she was hysterical for five minutes, doubled over in spasms of choking laughter.
All of these responses were more than a little discouraging. Most students could not even be encouraged to sign the petition on the grounds that the student body ought to have the opportunity to vote on the referendum. Hours spent away from studies were spent by Salzman and his few compatriots standing in front of the Rock library, Ratty, and post office, armed with pamphlets, military spending pie charts, and brightly colored posters to attract students who were in the midst of studying for exams and writing papers. One girl on her way to a 9 a.m. class said "I can't deal with this so early in the morning," and turned away in the nose-numbing autumn air.
When Salzman asked a student "Do you think we have enough nuclear weapons?" he or she would usually answer no or walk away in silence. It was difficult to elicit more than an arched eyebrow from most people. Some, however, became angry by the habitual protests in front of campus buildings. One woman threw up her arms at Salzman calling him "sick and absurd" and the idea "disgusting," while others accused him of being on some sort of demonic "death trip."
Despite all of these discouraging comments, Salzman was getting the attention he wanted after the press began to follow his intriguing story. The telephone in Salzman's dorm room constantly rang from news reporters asking about the suicide pill referendum, including AP, UPI, the Providence Journal, the Boston Globe, and CBS Evening News. Salzman was quoted as saying "the referendum offers us a choice, a very American way to handle moral problems. The pills would be completely optional." CBS purchased tickets for Salzman and Chris Ferguson, a newly joined organizer of SST, and gave them an all-expense paid trip to New York City to be on the CBS Morning Show. In response to a question about the seriousness of the endeavor, Salzman replied in the face of intimidating cameras and a national audience, "It's absolutely serious, we're going to work hard for the pills." The goal was to have students ask Health Services to stock cyanide pills if a nuclear bomb was dropped.
When Salzman and Ferguson returned to campus they found that a battle had started on their own turf. Four activist liberal organizations, the organizers of which had been Salzman's close friends, organized an ad-hoc committee in opposition to the suicide pill referendum. Students Organized Against Reagan, Students Organized for Peace, Committee in Solidarity with the People of Central America, and the Brown Disarmament Group, held a protest on the Main Green to discourage the notion of suicide pills. David Waskow, a leader of Brown Disarmament, said at a press conference that "Hope activates people and despair paralyzes. We must work for life in this referendum, not for suicide".
John Bonafaz, a leader of Students Organized Against Reagan, started out against SST and was quoted in the BDH as asking "Is there a difference between someone stockpiling suicide pills in Health Services and someone in the White House stockpiling nuclear weapons?... There is no difference." In a symbolic and eloquent gesture, Bonafaz stated that the four organizations wanted to plant a tree on the Main Green as a "sign of life, not death."
In the week prior to the election regarding the offering of cyanide pills, a war of posters broke out on the bulletin boards outside the Ratty, on the green trim of the stoic Post Office, and on the doors of freshmen dorms. Some posters shouted "We're Scared! We're Scared! Come join Students for Suicide Tablets", others sported pictures of Reagan, and some encouraged students to join the less radical disarmament groups on campus.
Similarly, a war was waged in the BDH during the week of October 5th, 1984. An editorial heralded SST as a "brilliant, thought provoking device equating the almost fantastic concept of nuclear war to something every American can comprehend" and blasted the four peaceful organizations on campus for not supporting and rallying around a partner organization with the same anti-nuclear war goals, albeit with very different tactics. "One would expect a display of a little more intelligence and a little more political realism from so-called enlightened students", the editorialist wrote, referring to the organizers of the four organizations.
Such condescension sparked an onslaught of Letters to the Editor, especially after Salzman published an essay in the BDH apologizing for and defending his offensive use of the term suicide. In the end he said, " I think we can't lose sight of the human side of this issue and it's beautifully illustrated by parents calling because they are concerned about their children. We are scared. The colleges have been shamefully silent about the arms race. We should take this chance to cry out." With added publicity and a growing acceptance on campus for the referendum idea, some leaders of the four peace groups, such as John Bonafaz, retracted their earlier statements. In a new letter to the editor two days before the election that was to determine whether students wanted the university to make suicide pills available, Bonafaz stated " I realized that I was wrong. Despair can paralyze us, but only after we have become active- only after we have begun to hope. Despair does not paralyze those who have not yet become conscious of the issue, rather it motivates."
On October 12, 1984, a queue of students waited for over an hour in a line snaking from the winding staircase of Sayles Hall, out to the foyer with pictures of former presidents, and onto the main green, despite a broken voting machine and snappy cold weather. Over 1900 students showed up to vote on a referendum asking Health Services to offer cyanide pills in the event of nuclear war, which was a larger turnout than any other vote in recent history at Brown.
With weeks of priming in the news, in posters and demonstrations on campus, and a story on CBS, Brown students were ready to vote on the controversial decision. Arguments flared between cold, testy students waiting on line, and posters put up late Tuesday night likening the referendum to the Jim Jones' mass cult suicide were hastily ripped down by supporters of the SST.
57% of the student body who voted said that they were willing to see Health Services offer cyanide pills, and the world gasped in response. The vote seemed to be split along gender and political lines with 81% of females and only 53% males supporting the referendum. 80% of Mondale supporters voted for the referendum and nearly all Reagan supporters voted against. It was a shocking outcome, and the campus did not seem ready for what was meant by the result.
News of the passage of the "suicide pill" referendum at Brown University ricocheted through campuses throughout the country, making 328 headlines in national and international papers. Headlines in a Japanese newspaper shouted "In the Case of Nuclear Holocaust, the Choice is Death." Despite the fact that many believed Salzman and the voters of the referendum to be "crazy," Salzman argued in his demonstrations, letters, and lectures that it was important to force people to think about nuclear war in terms of "death," "destruction," and "suicide" instead of "survival," "victory," or "achievement." Salzman believed that "for people who have not thought about it, just verbalizing the idea of suicide after a nuclear war is important. The prospect makes them understand a little bit more about what nuclear war means. This educational value alone makes the suicide pill proposal worthwhile."
Outside of the campus, many were angry at what seemed like an elitist activist group. A columnist in the L.A. Herald Examiner attacked Salzman by saying that the campaign "had only to do with ego, the self, and public relations. Preventing child abuse is a way to sell videotapes and fear of cancer is a way to sell insurance, and terror of nuclear war is a way to get on TV shows". A columnist from the New York Daily Times, called the campaign an interesting sidenote for "privileged students" in "crew neck sweaters". In the Brown Alumni Monthly, a sarcastic alum wrote in a letter to the editor that he would be more than happy to contribute money to purchase cyanide tablets exclusively for SST members so that there would be plenty more room at Brown for more able, courageous, and optimistic students.
Approval of the "suicide pill" referendum caused much concern on campus. University administrators and the doctors at Health Services refused to stockpile the cyanide pills for student use. President Swearer even wrote a letter home to concerned parents stating that the university's response to the request for suicide pills was an "unequivocal no". Certainly, this did not shock Salzman. He conceded that while the referendum was written with the intention of being literal, its lack of implementation in no way severed the message he was trying to send. The "suicide pill" referendum served an important function in symbolically asserting that it is unreasonable to have hope after a nuclear war.
Letters to the editor in the BDH once again debated the validity and meaning of the vote. Some were very skeptical that Salzman and SST merely wanted to gain attention instead of academically, rationally discussing the pros and cons of nuclear armament. Daniel Greenberg, '86, said that many voted on the referendum without knowing the true meaning of the proposal. It was ambiguous to all whether or not the proposal was merely symbolic, or also meant to be literal.
Part of the problem is that Salzman continually debated this in his own mind, as well as on paper in many of his essays. He wanted the referendum to be completely serious, because he felt that nuclear euthanasia would be required if there were a nuclear catastrophe. Clearly, it was also just as important to dispel the fear that the suicide pills were merely fatalistic, and that the idea had no practical merit. Salzman recalled "We could not call it a pure symbol, because it wasn't; although for the majority of Brown Students who would pass it in the next week, it was nothing but a symbol--- a symbol of fear." )
With this ambiguity, Salzman seemed to have watered down his rhetoric to convince people in less than the three and a half minutes that that they would listen that he saw the suicide pills only as a method of symbolically and emphatically stating that nuclear war was unacceptable. However, in Salzman's mind, nuclear euthanasia was not only practical, but also ethical and decent. His efforts to bring campus-wide and national attention to his cause led him to misrepresent his ideas out of desperation for more support from his peers. Some of his published essays say it is mostly symbolic, while others assert that the referendum could have far-reaching impacts toward helping people after a nuclear war. A good example of this is when he describes how members of SST decided to come up with a slogan for upcoming protests and rallies. After much debate, they agreed upon: "Nuclear Suicide: Don't Make Us Do It - Students for Suicide Tablets" because it was "sufficiently ambiguous as to be inoffensive. It could mean that nuclear war is suicide, that we did not really want suicide pills, or that we did want them; we did not want nuclear war."
In an editorial in the BDH following the election, the author supports the notion that it is important to show that "students are not just a bunch of whackos, that we take the symbolic value of the Suicide Pill Referendum very seriously. But where does the symbolism stop and reality begin?"
On a bitterly cold November day, two weeks later, nearly five hundred Brown students wearing buttons and waving well-designed posters sat in front of the granite steps of Faunce on the Main Green. John Bonafaz, the organizer of Students Organized Against Reagan who changed his mind in favor of SST, wore a big smile and shouted "As an Arch-Conservative, I call for an end of the arms race," to the cheers of nearby students. Placards saying "You can't hug your lover with nuclear arms" and "The Armageddon freaks might kill us all" waved around against the backdrop of leafless trees silhouetting the crisp blue sky.
About ten members of the Brown Republican party waved signs also, reading "Peace through Strength" and "Mondale talks about peace, Reagan assures it" despite the overwhelming number of Democratic supporters. Looking out upon the protest, the brightly colored and uniquely different signs formed a tapestry of messages trying to show unity and positive action despite the morbid topic of nuclear war, much as the AIDS quilt shows us hope in the midst of despair.
One supportive member stated, "I'm glad that there was bad weather, it showed that the people who were there wanted to be there, and they weren't just lounging on the Green." Students listened to several speakers, and passed around petitions calling for university divestment of stocks in companies associated with the manufacturing of nuclear arms, as well as a petition directed at the university to develop a major in peace studies and to stop research in nuclear arms technology.
In the midst of idle chatter and gossip, as well as arguments about the proposal, students stopped as "America the Beautiful" broke out a capella by a group of raucous protestors, a song apparently chosen for its irony. Afterward, Salzman brought solemnity to the group while declaring 60 seconds of silence, asking participants to think about past and future victims of nuclear holocaust.
Overall, the protest succeeded in bringing many types of students out of the clamshells of their dorms, and forced them to continue to think about the controversial issue of nuclear arms after the hype of the election. Despite the cold and rain, students were excited enough about the referendum and the idea to attend the rally and work on solutions to the problem of the nuclear arms race. It is interesting that no national press came, except the AP, to the rally. Once the controversial, shocking story of the suicide pill election was over, no one was interested in covering "just another" protest.
Brown students are notorious for making a racket about political issues, but when it comes right down to it, it is rare that such inclinations ever amount to much. Not since the 1960s when there were numerous protests over a myriad of issues, including, involvement in Vietnam, the draft, women's rights, and the legalization of marijuana, has there been a radical campus protest such as the suicide pill referendum that caught the attention of the nation. It is interesting, however, that it took such a radical, offensive idea to grab the attention of a mostly apathetic audience. No longer do protests and rallies seem very provocative, rather, new methods of raising awareness about issues seems to be necessary for a voice to be heard in the storm.
The seriousness and validity of the "suicide pill" referendum, of course, is debatable. Most students during the time felt that it was a solemn, impressive event, but for many administrators and the outside world, the thought of offering cyanide pills at the university infirmary was a bad joke at best, and utterly outrageous at worst. No matter what the differences of opinion are, the vital thing to note is that the suicide protests succeeded in evoking enough feelings to rouse the concerns of the campus community and the nation.