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Taking a Bite Out of Rhetoric
Keeping a tenuous hold on diplomacy when a Model U.N. session gets too close to the Real Thing.

The Washington Post Magazine
March 24, 2002

As the secretary general of a recent Model United Nations conference involving high school students from the Washington area, Lindsey Phillips was concerned. In a post-September 11 world, she worried, it might be difficult for the students to stay "in topic and in character" if they were free to debate any issue of the day. So Phillips, one of the American University students who organized the Model U.N. conference, set a boundary for the event: Keep discussion on current events to a minimum.

Paul Ries, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, had other ideas, though. A session of the Security Council was in full swing. The topic was the "killing" in China of a Vatican ambassador and the "abduction" by the Chinese of a CNN camera crew. The U.S. delegate (a spot-on performance by Ries's classmate, 17-year-old Michael Ellis) was hectoring the Chinese representative about international law, political freedom and a laundry list of shortcomings. Then it was Ries's turn. Playing a Cuban delegate, Ries struck at what he called U.S. hypocrisy. His ammunition? U.S. treatment of Taliban prisoners.

In character and cranking up the rhetoric, Ries called the Americans a bunch of "imperialist pigs," and blasted the United States for its interrogation of the captured Taliban being held at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. His comments weren't really related to the ongoing debate; the broadside was just an excuse to flail the Americans (not that this ever really happens at the U.N.).

The chairman banged the gavel: "May I ask you to keep your comments relevant to the topics at hand?" said Scott Stern, the AU sophomore overseeing the proceedings. "Passions could get inflamed" if the students talk too much about the war, Stern later told a reporter. The idea for the conference was to "be kind of tasteful" when the war came up, Stern explained.

Both Ries and Ellis seemed disappointed by the gag rule. But rules are rules. So Ries broached a different subject. "As a point of inquiry," he asked the chair, "when is lunch?"

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