FROM THE PRETERNATURAL CALM of U. S. campuses, a scream has been heard. Two Brown University students are shrieking out what has become the central question of this campaign: "Is anybody listening?"
Chris Ferguson, a sophomore from Colorado, and Jason Saltzman, a junior from New York, have collected 700 signatures on a petition to put to the Brown student body of 5,000 the harrowing proposition that the university should stockpile cyanide pills for distribution in the event of nuclear war.
Brown would not be bound by the results of the vote, which will take place next week. And the two young sponsors don't ever expect to see the means of mass suicide locked up in the university's medicine chest against the day when students might wish to choose between a long, agonizing death from fallout and quicker self-dispatch.
"All we wnt to do," says Ferguson, "is to get people to equate suicide with nuclear holocaust."
As a matter of fact, they already do. According to a Yankelovich survey, 89 percent of young Americans believe that nuclear war would be suicidal for both sides.
Saltzman, a frustrated nuclear freeze activist, is hearing that the bizarre approach will turn people off. Some students at Brown -- which has a reputation for tolerance and civility going back to the turbulent Vietnam era when it was the only Ivy League college that didn't have to call the cops to quell demonstrators -- were "disgusted" with the petition.
"They were people who had had relatives or friends their own age who committed suicide and just felt revulsion to the whole idea."
Suicide has become the second leading cause of death among American adolescents. The rate has increased by 110 per cent in the past 10 years. A factor that has been cited, but not measured, is the nighmare fears of nuclear bombs. One study sponsored by Harvard shows that 70 per cent of teen-agers fear that there will be a war in the next 10 years and that they will not survive either nuclear or biological annihilation.
Saltzman says that if he thought his move would in any way suggest to morbid or impressionable teen- agers that suicide is a solution to despair in today's world, "I wouldn't be doing it."
He and Ferguson have accomplished something that no other nuclear consciousness-raisers have been unable to do lately: they have attraced world-wide press attention. Saltzman is bemused by the fact that protesters at Quonset, R.I. poured their own blood at the Electric Boat installation last Monday and were ignored, while he and Ferguson, since Wednesday, have appeared on all three U.S. networks and have been interviewed by the BBC.
The difference is, perhaps, that any sign of life on dormant U.S. campuses is big news this election year. The word from academe is that today's youth is overwhelmingly in favor of Ronald Reagan, who, 20 years ago, could not venture onto a university quadrangle except in fear of his life.
The generation gap of the Vietnam era has closed. Like their parents, college students hail "America standing tall" and liberating students on Grenada. Reagan's hawkishness does not alarm them. Even the threat of war in Central America leaves them unmoved, possibly because they would not have to fight it.
They are bearing out Richard Nixon's cynical calculation that students of the '60s were motivated not by idealism, but self-preservation -- and that once their own hides were safe, they would stop trying to shake the world.
"Brown is politically apathetic, I would say," Ferguson says.
Today's incipient Yuppies, on the pre-professional fast track, are, like their elders, drawn to the Reagan vision of tax-free blue skies. The economy is the issue on which they will vote.
They don't like the armsbuildup, but it doesn't effect their attitude towards a president who is presiding over history's biggest. Paradoxically, they favor a nuclear freeze, although again, they bear no ill will towards its enemy in the Oval Office. Walter Mondale, who is for halting the arms race, has failed to get their attention.
Randy Kehler, leader of the freeze movement, which two years ago was the the phenomenal comer in American politics, concedes that intensity on the issue has diminished.
He was initially "taken aback" by the guerilla theater of the Brown referendum, but he now says, "Short of injuring people, no tactic is too outrageous to awaken people to this outrageous threat."
In acquiring the 700 signers, Ferguson and Saltzman encountered some who had religious scruples against suicide, some who thought it futile to expect anyone to be on hand to give out the pills, and others who smelled an anti-Reagan move.
"The worst though," says Ferguson, a registered Republican who intends to vote for Mondale, "were those who wouldn't even listen."
Walter Mondale hardly ever meets any other kind.