College protests and law of unintended consequences

An intervention in a complex system always creates unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes.

By William MacKenzie,

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg understands unintended consequences. “[W]e all know that sometimes people mean well but cause harm nonetheless—out of ignorance, out of carelessness, out of deeply ingrained ways of thinking they haven’t examined, out of an emotional reaction that got the better of their lofty intentions, or … well, the list goes on,” she says.

There’s a message here for today’s rabid pro-Palestine student protesters convinced that their actions will bring about change.

If they are trying to emulate the protests against the Vietnam war in 1960s, the bloodiest and most dramatic of which occurred at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, they’re forgetting something. Those protests may have helped drive out President Lyndon Johnson, but they undermined the candidacy of the Democratic candidate for president, Hubert Humphrey, and invigorated the conservative supporters of Republican Richard Nixon.

In his first months in office, Nixon had the U.S. military increase, not decrease, its pressure on the battlefield and, in violation of international law, ordered secret bombings of North Vietnamese camps in Cambodia.

After he took office, another 21,200 Americans died in Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, about one-third of all American deaths in the war (58,220), along with an estimated half a million Vietnamese.

Nixon’s aggressive pursuit of the war also led to more protests on college campuses with deadly consequences. During one of those protests at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, National Guardsmen shot and killed four students. Just 10 days later, another two students at Jackson State University were killed by police.

Paul Berman, an American writer on politics and literature, wrote in yesterday’s Washington Post, about being involved as a Columbia University student in a late April 1968 campus uprising. He wrote about how professors upbraided him, warning about the potential dangers of the protests.

“The professors were haunted by Germany and its history, ” Berman wrote.” In 1968, the defeat of the Nazis was only 23 years behind us, and the era of World War II and the catastrophe of the Jews had not yet definitively disappeared into the past — at least, not in the professors’ eyes. They wanted me to understand that Germany’s leftists in the 1930s had failed to understand Nazism’s danger. Foolish left-wing radicalism had helped undermine the German universities, which ought to have been a place of anti-Nazi resistance. They wanted me to understand, all in all, that what people think they are doing might not be what they are actually doing, and, in the name of high ideals, society might be weakened, and the worst of disasters might be brought about.”

I bring all this up to remind today’s aggrieved student protesters that their aggressive actions may not lead events to where they want them to go.

First, despite the protesters’ assumption that their peers have their back, the annual Harvard Youth Poll, run by the Institute of Politics (IOP) at Harvard’s Kennedy School, found that  Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 are not prioritizing the Israel-Gaza conflict.

The poll found that young people are more worried about inflation, health care, housing and gun violence. The survey listed 16 issues facing the U.S., asking respondents which of two randomly paired issues most concerned them. The conflict in the Middle East ranked near the bottom at 15th.

The general public also can’t be counted on to support the protesters. Americans are actually quite divided about how – and whether – the U.S. should be involved in the Israel-Hamas war. According to the Pew Research Center, among US adults, only 22% say Hamas’ reasons for fighting Israel are valid and roughly six-in-ten Americans (58%) say Israel’s reasons for fighting Hamas are valid.

In this environment, the student protests, particularly if they continue with violent events at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, may, as in 1968, lead to a conservative backlash that helps defeat President Biden and elect Donald Trump.

For most of the protesting students, that would surely be a worst case of unintended consequences.