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10.7 Activism Case: No Place for Gaddafi to Pitch His Tent

In late 2009, the leader of Libya, Col. Muammar Gaddafi, visited the United States for the purpose of addressing the United Nations (UN) general assembly. His visit to the United States led to citizen activism through which we can see many of the preceding principles of citizens acting on behalf of a cause or belief and pressuring the government to aid in their efforts. First, a brief look at the history of United States–Libya relations and specifically those with Col. Gaddafi provides important context for this case of activism. In 1979, the United States embassy in Libya was attacked by a mob and set on fire, causing the withdrawal of all U.S. government personnel.Embassy of the United States in Tripoli, Libya (n.d.). Col. Gaddafi directly and publicly claimed responsibility for the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in which 270 people died over Scotland, including many Syracuse University students returning home from a study abroad program.Halpern (2006). According to the U.S. Department of State, diplomatic relations with Libya were not reopened until 2006.Embassy of the United States in Tripoli, Libya (n.d.). However, much hostility remains over the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 and Libya’s other support of terrorist activities.

Col. Gaddafi is known for taking a Bedouin tent with him on foreign visits. A recent occasion in which this tent was problematic was when he requested to erect it on President Sarkozy’s grounds in Paris in 2007, a move that caused consternation and reportedly “flummoxed presidential protocol service.”Sage (2007). Gaddafi did erect this tent when he traveled to Belgium for official talks in 2004, and again when he visited Rome in 2009, using the tent to receive official guests. However, these European nations do not consider themselves as personally affected by the terrorist actions of Gaddafi in Libya. In terms of Grunig’s situational theory of publics, discussed in Chapter 7 "Identifying and Prioritizing Stakeholders and Publics", citizens of these European countries have lower problem recognition with Col. Gaddafi than do Americans. The level of involvement that Americans experience is higher than that of Europeans, both from the burning of the U.S. Embassy, severed diplomatic relations, and the Libyan terrorist downing of flight 103. High levels of both problem recognition and involvement, coupled with a feeling that one can personally impact the situation (known as low constraint recognition) all predict the rise of an activist public.

To further complicate matters with America, general outrage ensued when Scotland decided to release from prison the terrorist who was responsible for bombing Pan Am flight 103. The convicted terrorist, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, was released just weeks before Gaddafi’s UN address to the general assembly. Al-Megrahi received a hero’s welcome upon return to Libya, while the families of many American victims watched the news stories vented their outrage in television interviews, letters to the editor, tweets, and blogs.

When Gaddafi and his associates began planning his trip to speak at the United Nations, to take place on September 22, 2009, they also began looking for a place to erect the Libyan tent. The Libyan embassy owns property in suburban New Jersey, where Gaddafi planned to stay and erect a tent. However, after public demonstrations outside the property, the town of Englewood, New Jersey, blocked Gaddafi from erecting the tent. Residents protesting Gaddafi’s potential stay in the Libyan mission spoke frequently to the news media. Rabbi Boteach said, “I live right next door to the Libyan embassy. We want them to leave our neighborhood,” adding that even the area’s Muslims were against Gaddafi’s visit.Wordsworth (2009). Syracuse University alumni also appeared on broadcasts voicing their outrage at Gaddafi visiting the very state of that university.

Gaddafi petitioned to assemble the tent in Central Park, and New York City planning and other governmental officials also rejected that request. One news report led with the headline, “Have you got a permit for that Bedouin tent sir? Col. Gaddafi meets his match… New York planning officials.”Hazleton (2009). Finding no home for the tent, the Libyan delegation resorted to subterfuge, impersonation, and using intermediaries to find a temporary place for Col. Gaddafi in the United States.

At this point, Gaddafi’s delegation impersonated Dutch officials and attempted to rent space for Gaddafi’s tent on the roof of a Manhattan townhouse, but that deal fell through.Goldman, Radia, and Berman (2009). Gaddafi used intermediaries to rent a Bedford, New York, estate owned by Donald Trump. Aerial photos taken from helicopters buzzed on the news media as the Bedouin tent was constructed on the 113 acre estate, known as “Seven Springs.” As Gaddafi wound up his 90-minute address to the UN general assembly, outrage was growing in Bedford. Citizens and media began to congregate at the front gate of the estate, and media helicopters circled. Bedford town attorney Joel Sachs said a stop work order was issued on the tent just after 5 P.M., because it is illegal to build a temporary residence without a permit. The town official called the tent an “illegal structure.”Goldman, Radia, and Berman (2009). News anchors commented on the power of citizen activists. Helicopters provided visuals of the tent being deconstructed that played across media outlets for the rest of the day.

Clearly, Gaddafi underestimated the power of activist publics operating within a representative government to prevent him from engaging in the normal activities of a dictator. The day following the stop work order on the tent, after it was taken down, work began again to build the tent.“Qaddafi Tent Back Up on Trump’s N.Y. Estate” (2009). However, Gaddafi did not visit the tent, as is his usual custom, to receive state visitors or other official visits. Perhaps Gaddafi had finally understood the message issued by activist publics, and governmental officials at their behest such as Congresswoman Nita Lowey, who said Gaddafi is “unwelcome throughout the New York area.”“Qaddafi Tent Back Up on Trump’s N.Y. Estate” (2009). The battle over where Gaddafi could pitch his tent was easily won by civic activists, demonstrators, and governmental officials who acted on behalf of residents in their districts. Perhaps the case of erecting a tent is a small one, especially for a country such as Libya. It must address concerns of terrorism, human rights violations, and weapons of mass destruction, to name but a few. However, if activists can place the issue of Gaddafi’s tent onto the media agenda and the agenda of elected officials, they clearly hold the power to impact his official visit to the United States.