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College of The Holy Cross students Sarah Fontaine (left) and Molly Haglund, who helped create the installation on the Iraq war, passed through the vandalized display yesterday.
College of The Holy Cross students Sarah Fontaine (left) and Molly Haglund, who helped create the installation on the Iraq war, passed through the vandalized display yesterday. (Suzanne Kreiter/ Globe Staff)

A display of differences over war

Vandalism alters Holy Cross debate

(Clarification: A photo caption with a Page One story yesterday about the vandalizing of an exhibit at the College of the Holy Cross said the vandals face expulsion. As noted in the story, expulsion is one possibility if the perpetrators are found.)

WORCESTER -- The stakes are scattered helter-skelter outside the main dining hall at College of the Holy Cross: green stakes that each represent 100 civilian deaths in Iraq, white ones for each 100 American fatalities.

They were planted early Thursday in neat rows not only to symbolize death, but to begin a discussion among the 2,700 students about the war and its costs.

Less than 48 hours later, the stakes representing Iraqi deaths were ripped from the ground of a campus quadrangle. Organizers and college officials decided to leave the stakes where vandals tossed them. It is a new display, in a sense, and one the original organizers hope will fuel a broader debate of the war and freedom of speech.

''We think it's important that students see this," said Molly Haglund, a sophomore who helped organize the project. ''We need to show the intolerance that exists on campus."

Haglund, 20, of Portland, Ore., said the idea grew out of a concern that Holy Cross students were not paying attention to the bloody conflict half a world away. ''We didn't think people were talking about the war enough or thinking about it enough," said Haglund, who helped plant the stakes just before sunrise last Thursday. ''People are dying right now, and people need to pay attention to that."

Unlike similar displays that mark only US military fatalities, this display brings stark attention to Iraqi civilians killed in the three-year-old conflict as well. One thousand of the stakes -- representing the estimated Iraqi deaths -- are green; just 26 are white. That disparity, Haglund said, was intended as a reminder that ''we need to think of all who died."

No reliable independent figures exist for the number of Iraqis killed in the war. More than 2,300 American soldiers have died.

The project was approved by the college president, the Rev. Michael McFarland, who said yesterday he had warned the organizers that vandalism was possible.

''It's very unfortunate that people responded the way they did. We try to build a culture of respect and civility, and sometimes it breaks down," McFarland said. ''The issues we're dealing with are very emotional, very visceral to people, and sometimes they respond very emotionally."

Campus police are investigating the vandalism, said Holy Cross spokeswoman Ellen Ryder. Expulsion is a possibility if the vandals are found, she said.

Although Haglund said the display was not intended to be anti-American, some students apparently thought otherwise. On Friday morning, the day after the stakes were hammered into the grass, an American flag had been draped on a nearby fence, and a sign posted that read: ''Freedom is not free." The slogan is frequently used by supporters of the war effort and veterans -- especially those who were wounded or killed -- and their families.

The discussion organizers hoped to promote with the stakes had begun, but neither Haglund nor fellow organizer Sarah Fontaine of Somers, Conn., was prepared for the mass vandalism that greeted students Saturday morning. The few stakes left standing were nearly all white ones representing US fatalities.

''I was just really, really offended when this happened," said Andrew Jaico, 20, a junior from Livingston, N.J., who helped paint the stakes. ''All we hear is American deaths, and you can see the amount of green sticks."

By yesterday, organizers had pulled all the remaining white stakes from the ground and laid them with the green stakes. ''We expected some to be taken," Fontaine said. ''But it was very powerful seeing only the white ones. Do we only value the American lives?"

Some students, however, said the organizers are being disingenuous when they describe the display as a neutral way to jump-start discussion of the war. ''The way they presented it -- it was pretty obvious they were adamantly against the war," said Ryan Graf, 21, a senior from Melrose. ''I think there's a very intense dynamic on campus. I don't think it was an act of vandalism. It was people being stupid and obnoxious college kids."

Kevin Cullinan, 22, a senior from Wellesley, agreed with Graf that the reaction to the display falls short of vandalism. Instead, he said, the act is indicative of strongly held opinions on campus. Cullinan, who said a cousin in the Army has been wounded in Iraq, supports the war.

But during a busy lunch hour yesterday, most students questioned near Kimball Quad were critical of the destruction. ''I think it was really disrespectful," said Jennifer Robinson, 18, a freshman from Haverhill.

''I think it's rude," added Donmonique Binion, 19, a freshman from Worcester.

McFarland said he encouraged the project's organizers. ''I really respected the students and what they were trying to do," he said.

As a result of the project, and the reaction, the college will hold a forum tomorrow ''to continue the conversation," Ryder said.

''The students were looking to provoke a debate, and they got one," McFarland said. ''We're going to do whatever we can to turn it into a positive direction."

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