A series of letters to the editor at Duke University’s student newspaper has ignited a controversy resulting in hate mail, physical confrontations, and death threats directed at two students. Their crime? Freshmen Berin Szoka and Jay Strader expressed a preference for Western Civilization over Indian Civilization in an argument over whether Duke should institute a major in the study of the Hindi language.

Responses to Szoka and Strader ranged from the obscene to the insulting to threats of physical violence. Duke University Police are now involved, because the threats have gotten so out of hand.

“If we ever see you out of your room around East [Campus], WE WILL BEAT YOU WITHIN ONE INCH OF YOUR LIFE and step on you like the little s — – that you are,” said one anonymous e-mail threat. “Don’t be surprised if between now and the end of the year, bad things start happening to you and your room…we will find you, and when we do, you could only wish that you had never learned to write you little p — — .”

Szoka contacted the Duke University Police Department, and Detective Thessie Mitchell has been assigned to the case. An investigation is underway.

The controversy began April 15, when Strader wrote a letter to the Chronicle, Duke’s student-run daily paper, in response to an article a few days earlier calling for the creation of a Hindi major. Strader observed that there is little actual demand for Hindi classes, as evidenced by the low enrollment in the few classes already offered (17 out of 60 class seats). Strader immediately began receiving hate mail via the Internet accusing him of racism and “ethnocentrism.”

Early that afternoon while he was in class, vandals broke into his room and left the message, “We’re going to kick your ass–Mother India,” on his computer screen. That evening, Diya, Duke’s Southeast-Asian student group, convened an emergency meeting to plot a response to the “crisis.” The group organized a letter-writing campaign to the Chronicle and posted a message on four Internet newsgroups asking readers to deluge Strader with hate mail.

On April 23, Berin Szoka’s letter appeared in the Chronicle in Strader’s defense. Szoka echoed Strader’s point that there was insufficient demand for a Hindi major. He also addressed the question of whether cultures embody specific values and whether those values can be judged. Szoka declared the values of Western civilization — “the power of reason, the sanctity of individual rights and the unfettered pursuit of happiness” — to be morally superior to values of Indian culture.

That started a barrage of hate mail. That evening, three Indian students confronted Szoka in his room, called him a “racist,” threatened him with violence and refused to leave until Szoka threatened to call the police. On April 25, Szoka received an anonymous death threat.

The Chronicle was ambivalent when asked to print a follow-up letter or story on the subject.

“We don’t print that kind of thing,” said University Life Assistant Editor Jaime Levy. “Your letter wasn’t exactly mainstream. What sort of response did you expect when you wrote that kind of letter?”

When asked by Strader how she would respond to a death threat like those received by Szoka, University President Nan Keohane replied, “My hunch is, it was just a scary way of blowing off steam.”

Szoka is steadfast about the issue and somewhat puzzled at the strident response.

“I would have enjoyed having a rational discussion about the issue and merits of cultural relativism with my critics,” Szoka said. “Instead, I’ve been subjected to the type of threats one might find in an uncivilized, Third World backwater. I understand their anger — they’ve lost the argument, so they lash out. My critics, in fact, are proving my point about the superiority of Western Civilization and its tradition of rational discourse. What disturbs me most about this is that, in the same week as a tragedy like the massacre of 15 students in Littleton, Colorado, anyone could actually claim that a death threat is just an upset student’s way of