By Tim Eberly
A Montana State University-Northern English professor participated in a public forum Thursday night to discuss a controversial letter he had written about patriotism and ended up in a 30-minute verbal battle with Havre Mayor Bob Rice.
The forum was organized by Montana State University-Northern's Vets Club to provide John Snider with the opportunity to explain a letter to the editor he had written to the Great Falls Tribune, in which he compared American flag lapels to the Nazi swastika.
It ended when Rice and a small group of fellow veterans angrily left an MSU-N classroom in the Hagener Science Center.
"We felt that it was no longer being constructive," Rice said today. He attended the forum with his wife, Dottie, and about six other people. "At some point, you have to leave. It took me a couple hours to get my composure back."
Snider's letter to the editor in the Great Falls Tribune has provoked much criticism, Snider said. Since it was published, the English professor has received about 15 letters from concerned readers, "some positive, mostly negative," he said.
"Understand that every time you wave an American flag, you are killing a child in the world," Snider's letter said. "The American flag lapel pins are really nothing more than swastikas."
Ophelia Gustafson, the MSU-N Vets Club president who coordinated the discussion, opened by asking Snider to explain his letter, which also lambasted the U.S. government for a "murderous assault on the civilian population of Afghanistan," and for its past support of oppressive regimes around the world.
Snider, 51, said the American flag and patriotism in general have been hijacked by wealthy Americans capitalizing financially on U.S. citizens' anger toward terrorists.
"I think the motivation behind all of this is for the oil companies to make profits," Snider said.
Though most American citizens see the flag as a symbol of freedom, Snider said, it has become a means to get the country's full support for the war.
He also said the suicide bombers of the World Trade Center were "heroic and self-sacrificing" for giving up their lives for what they perceived as a noble and higher cause. He compared "flag-waving hysteria" to the worship of idols, and said such forms of nationalism are a Christian sin.
"I feel it was a little cathartic," Gustafson said afterward. "(Snider) isn't a devil with horns. He's just a regular guy with strong feelings. And I think that came across today."
About a dozen people attended the meeting most of them in Rice's group but Snider focused on Rice during his opening statement. In addition to telling Rice he had voted for him in the November mayoral election, Snider engaged Rice in the discussion by asking him about his beliefs.
"I don't understand that from the minute I got there it seemed like he was focusing on me," Rice said. "It's almost like he was putting on a show for me."
Rice, a retired naval officer, said he had been asked to say a few words during the discussion, but had declined. But after repeated queries from Snider, Rice said, he could not resist.
"It reached a point where I felt I could no longer sit and listen," he said.
Rice chastised Snider, a professor at MSU-N for 13 years, for making his comments while serving as a role model for students.
"I don't say this as a professor," Snider said. "I'm not a role model. If people want to hold me up as a role model, that's not my doing."
Snider also said a campus newspaper incorrectly reported that he had served in the military. "It's irritating that they made such a mistake," he said.
It was Snider's lack of military background that spurred criticism from Rice, who is commander of the Havre VFW.
"If you had told me you were in Vietnam, or if you told me you were in Desert Storm and you came out with these remarks, I'd probably give it some credence," Rice said. "But what you have done is read a bunch of books, and now you are suddenly the pious know-it-all guy about it. You've never even been there."
Rice also accused Snider of reveling in the negative sentiment he had publicly stirred.
"I think you've set yourself up for this criticism and you seem to be enjoying it, so I don't know what the hell I'm doing here," Rice said.