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Clippings: Peace message highly guarded

I began reporting for the Addison Independent way back in 1990, but there are times when it seems like it was only yesterday that I picked up my first notepad to research such stories as Olin Robison retiring as Middlebury College president; Gov. Madeleine Kunin electing to take a pass on another term; and Hannah’s Market closing in downtown Vergennes.
Then there are days, such as last Friday, Oct. 12, when it seems like time — or at least signs of the times — has left me in the dust. Friday saw the return to Middlebury College of his Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, whose inspiring message of love, tolerance and peace had to be squeezed through perhaps the heaviest security net ever cast over Addison County’s shire town.
When last we saw the Dalai Lama in 1990, he was participating in the Middlebury College symposium “Spirit and Nature: Religion, Ethics and Environmental Crisis.” This visit came on the heels of his receipt of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent struggle for the liberation of Tibet. While here, the Dalai Lama and his small entourage moved freely around campus with minimal security. Members of the state and local media (myself included) met, questioned and shook hands with His Holiness during a special media event at the college’s Kirk Alumni Center. A truly unforgettable memory.
Alas, the world has evolved — or perhaps devolved — since the Dalai Lama’s 1990 visit. We now live in a post-9/11 world in which a trip to the airport means putting your sneakers and child’s Teddy bear on a security conveyor belt and submitting to a full body scan. It’s a necessary intrusion in light of the 19 men who in 2001 infamously hijacked a religion and four planes en route to the murders of more than 3,000 people in the U.S.
But airport security was a virtual picnic compared to the veritable gauntlet negotiated by attendees of the Dalai Lama’s first speaking engagement at the college’s Nelson Recreation Center last Friday afternoon, titled “Educating the Heart.”
College officials sent print and broadcast media a list of “press guidelines” in advance of His Holiness’s appearance informing us, among other things, about the need to show up at least three full hours before the start of the Dalai Lama’s scheduled 1:45 p.m. talk. We were advised to have an early lunch before entering the arena at 10:45 a.m., as we were prohibited from bringing any food into the venue.
We parked our vehicles in the designated media parking area and filed into the arena under the close scrutiny of Middlebury police, state police and plainclothes security officials whose eyes and heads swiveled from person to person. We emptied our pockets at the front desk and submitted ourselves to the electronic security wand.
Broadcast media dropped their considerable gear in a central zone in the lobby. Eventually, police led a bomb sniffing dog around the cameras to ensure none were harboring any explosives. When the dog gave the green light, we were collectively shepherded (sans laptops) into the arena, where 2,800 empty wooden chairs would soon be teeming with students, faculty, staff and community members eager to catch a glimpse of the iconic religious figure.
While we reporters played the waiting game inside, those fortunate enough to have tickets lined up at the door and hoped to perhaps catch a glimpse of the esteemed speaker entering the arena. But his arrival was clearly choreographed to avoid scrutiny; the Dalai Lama was welcomed in through a side entrance.
His shaved pate crowned with a “Middlebury” visor, the Dalai Lama did not disappoint with his message of hope, faith and tolerance (see related story on Page 1A). His laugh was infectious, his demeanor gentle and his words uplifting. It made me feel sorry for the all-business security detail that had to remain stoic and vigilant mere feet away from His Holiness for fear that someone might shatter the peaceful message with an obscene act of violence.
When he was done with his talk, the Dalai Lama quickly departed — but not before sharing that he hoped to return to Middlebury in another 22 years (when he would be 99), warning that it might be in a wheelchair or with a walker, but joking that his mouth would be ready for talking.
Perhaps I, too, will be there again to see him in 2034. And I can only hope that world events don’t make the reunion even more impersonal than it was this year.

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