“So, do you support the troops?”

That was the question asked by the perky young female TV news reporter holding the microphone near my face.

I must admit that I was surprised by the question. It seemed like such a non sequitur.

Perhaps I should back up a bit and explain how it got to that point. This happened to me four years ago but I was reminded of it during the recent discussions in congress concerning the supplemental appropriations for funding the war in Iraq when those who opposed it were accused, as usual, of not supporting the troops.

Back in 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq was launched, a group of students, faculty and staff at Case Western Reserve University opposed to the war had been holding weekly public vigils in Cleveland, Ohio. March 5th, 2003 was the day of the worldwide student moratorium against the war and on that bitterly cold, windy, dreary day, we were standing at a busy intersection holding up signs and urging people to honk their horns to show opposition to the war, which many obligingly did. The media news crews were present, looking for sound bites.

My colleague and I were holding a “Not in my name” banner as the reporter and her cameraman approached and asked me why I opposed the war. That was an easy question. Although not too media savvy, I knew enough not to try and give a lengthy, complex, or subtle answer.

“Because I believe a war is justified only in self defense or in the case of imminent threat and neither condition holds with respect to Iraq” I replied.

I waited for the next question, expecting a follow-up, maybe asking for clarification or elaboration or justification or even challenging my assertion. All those would have been natural continuations of the dialogue.

Instead I got the “So, do you support the troops?” question.

I paused. “What do you mean?” I eventually asked, looking into her eyes to see if I could decipher the train of thought that had caused her to ask a question that had little relationship to my response. All my years of teaching has helped me realize that behind the seemingly random questions and comments that a student would sometimes make, there usually lay some complicated but relevant train of that that could, under careful questioning, be brought to the surface. The student and I both learned something from that process of intellectual excavation.

So my question to the TV reporter was the first step in that process of deeper understanding. But she looked blankly at me, as if my question made no sense to her.

It then dawned on me what was going on. This was not the kind of dialogue I was used to with students. She already had in her mind a set of questions that, to her, represented journalism. And in that fixed mental template, to be against the war was to undermine the troops.

Just a little reflection (and comparative analysis) should persuade anyone that this is just plain silly. Suppose that we had been protesting the President’s tax policies. Would anyone think to ask us “So, do you support the government’s accountants?” If we were protesting the government’s welfare policies, would the media ask us “So, do you support the administrators in the welfare departments?” The “Do you support the troops?” question has the same lack of logic. Troops are just the agents that the government uses to implement its war policy. Opposing the policy has nothing to do with one’s attitude towards the agents who have no choice concerning it.

But it is too much to expect the media to appreciate this. They will continue to ask the question and those of us opposed to the slaughter in Iraq had better be prepared to answer it.

So this is the answer that I gave the TV reporter then. “I don’t want the troops to die and I don’t want them to be made into killers in an unjustified war. I would like them to be brought home.”

Is this a good answer? I don’t know. Did it make it into the five-second clip that would be shown on the evening news? I don’t know that either because I long ago gave up watching TV news, especially the local ones. The encounter with the reporter reminded me why.

POST SCRIPT: Ron Paul interviewed by Bill Maher

Rudy Giuliani may have done congressman Ron Paul a big favor when, during the first Republican candidates debate, he tried to bully Paul into withdrawing his statement that the attacks of 9/11 were a consequence of resentment over US foreign policies. As a result of that exchange, Paul has gone from being an obscure congressman to receiving a lot of media attention, most recently being interviewed by Bill Maher.

In this interview, Paul comes across as a soft-spoken, thoughtful, and well-read person who actually knows history. He says that the goal of the US should not be to be loved or hated around the world but to be respected, and that would be achieved if it sets its own house in order by restoring liberties at home and avoiding interfering in other countries.

Is the Republican party ready for such a person as its presidential nominee?