The overt military phase of the War on Terrorism has begun. And so, too, have the demonstrations, both in the Islamic world and in the cities of the Western democracies—including Seattle and throughout the U.S.
Past polls have shown an overwhelming majority of the world is opposed to U.S. military retaliation for the atrocities of Sept. 11—up to 80 to 90 percent in much of Europe and Latin America. But in the U.S., the "peace movement" faces a number of challenges in making its case against this, the first military skirmish in what promises to be a very long War on Terrorism.
The Taliban are not exactly sympathetic; the U.S. has a right to defend itself. The problem, of course, is that those two truths aren't connected. Attacking the Taliban—who have not even been indirectly linked to Sept. 11 in any meaningful way—does little to either bring the perpetrators to justice or alleviate future terrorist threats. As civilians die, in fact, it dramatically increases the fanaticism of many anti-American radicals. And the steps necessary to remove the networks such radicals might use remain the province of police and courts, not militaries.
To date, visible public protest-in Seattle, D.C., New York, San Francisco, and around the country and the world-has been focused more on past U.S. policy sins and knee-jerk rhetoric than anything else, and, as such, has been basically irrelevant. Given the stakes and Seattle's liberal tendencies, such street activity is expected. But the whole enterprise seems off base, and not just out of respect for the dead or national "unity." Protesters want our leaders to make new and different choices in treacherous terrain, but protesters themselves are falling back on comfortable, familiar tactics and iconography.
Public agitators now have U.S. attacks to decry, but so far, they've failed to answer the most obvious question directed to critics of the War on Terrorism: "Well, what, then?" Many people, including many Pentagon generals, doubt that full-scale military action is the best way to succeed. But by implying that nothing should be done, peace signs and "No War!" posters run counter to the sensibilities of nearly everyone, alienating potential allies.
We need to not just make a demand for "peace" but also to use sound-bite language advocating positive steps that would combat terrorism far more effectively than bombing Kabul. That program might look like:
* Better domestic security, without sacrificing civil liberties.
* Better global police and intelligence cooperation, without giving covert operations freedom to act illegally.
* Demanding that all governments, including ours, act in ways that pro- mote the ideals of freedom, democracy, and economic opportunity that the U.S. claims to stand for, so as to address many of the conditions that incubate terrorism.
The ambitious might add "religious tolerance" to that last list or suggest a role for the United Nations or World Court in trying crimes against humanity. But the point is that activists, as never before, must begin by rallying support for what they favor, not simply emphasizing what they're against. In these times, war is a failure of imagination—and so is the traditional peace protest. Folks need to hear the better alternative. Without it, what should be a massive street movement risks sliding, week by week, into irrelevance.
Am I angry that the U.S. is once again dropping bombs and killing innocent people, all in the service of a goal more effectively pursued in other ways? You bet. And sad that yet more lives have been lost and yet another cycle of violence and retribution has been jump-started? Definitely. Discouraged at the lack of creativity and relevance shown by most public anti-war activism so far? Absolutely. And grieving, fearful, horrified because World War III is still a short and plausible sequence of events away. It makes me want to weep, rage, shake the world and ask "why"?
But still . . . part of me is hopeful. Very hopeful. Because across this country, people who never before paid attention to what was being done elsewhere in their name are now paying attention. Quite apart from both big media's propaganda machine and leftie anti-war activism, people are asking questions, are having conversations about a war that doesn't add up to the urgent goals it has promised. If the goals can't be achieved that way, they're asking, how can they be achieved?
The real anti-military response organizing is elsewhere, and everywhere. It's happening in one-on-one conversations-between people in their workplaces, schools, churches, on the Net or phone, or over backyard fences-as people share fears, anger, worries, and their doubts about the wisdom of an open-ended "war" against an indefinable enemy spread throughout the world.
Those are, in simplest terms, the generals' concerns. But in this "new kind of war," the traditional divisions don't apply; there's no reason a vision of a world of greater peace and economic justice cannot be wed to what makes strategic sense. We should, in fact, demand it.