Is the Peace Movement Dead?

Looking for the left after 9/11.

It's lost down the memory hole of history for most Americans, but 12 years ago last month, Iraq invaded Kuwait—and for the next six months, there was vigorous public debate over whether the United States should wage war on Iraq.

A resolution supporting an allied—not U.S.—invasion barely passed Congress, with fierce Democratic opposition and over 200 "no" votes in the House. Americans of every stripe debated the war in bars and offices and schools and on the TV and radio and over the dinner table. In Seattle, tens of thousands marched on Capitol Hill; protesters occupied Interstate 5, slept over in the state Capitol, and camped out at Seattle's Federal Building for three weeks.

There was debate. Lots of it. Before the fighting started, and afterward, too.

Twelve long years later, there is beginning to be visible public opposition to this Bush administration's long-stated desire to invade Iraq. But that opposition, nationally, has come almost entirely from within military ranks and the hawkish end of the Republican Party: top Pentagon generals, Secretary of State Colin Powell, a generation of older Republican hawks. The division seems to cleave rather neatly between those who've actually fought in wars (opponents) and those—like Dubya himself—who made themselves scarce when duty called (proponents).

So where the hell is the peace movement?

Public debate has conceded not just that Saddam Hussein is a very bad man—well, duh—but that America has every right to invade his country and depose him because we feel like it; the questions have been logistical and political, not moral. The moral component, voices that say dead people are a bad idea, has been notably invisible.

THE MOST OBVIOUS CAUSE, of course, is Sept. 11 and its political aftermath. The gaping hole in Manhattan's skyline makes it impossible to dismiss out of hand, even when they're patently ludicrous, arguments like those of the Bush administration—which insists that only an Iraq invasion can prevent Saddam from setting a catastrophe in motion. That incomplete skyline has made dissent unpopular both in the public and among media and political elites.

But plenty of people still oppose an invasion of Iraq—not only pacifists, but a wide range of ordinary Americans who remain unconvinced by the administration's arguments.

So where are the people who once marched and rallied and occupied?

They may still pour into the streets; the biggest anti-war protests of 1990-91 didn't happen until war was imminent. By then, it was too late; protests were mostly a guttural wail having no chance of influencing policy. We could see that again. But so far, a number of factors have held it back:

*Lack of organization. There are no large, cohesive peace groups, nationally or locally. Activists are spread among dozens of issues, and coalition building is difficult. In Seattle, with a long history of distrust and sectarian bickering among radicals, it's nearly impossible—as the disastrous attempt to forge a peace coalition after Sept. 11 proved again.

*Poor message. That post-Sept. 11 coalition did pour into Seattle's streets last September—and promptly embarrassed itself, displaying a litany of usual lefty grievances with an almost complete disconnect to the public's emotions and concerns at the time. The public peace rallies were profoundly unappealing even to many of the people opposing an attack on Afghanistan. Local peace activists' credibility with media and politicians was seriously damaged.

*Lack of empowerment. Many activists and ordinary citizens doubt protest can change anything, especially with this administration. It's been 30 years since Vietnam protest peaked, and 20 years since '80s nuclear and Central America protests. Younger activists, invariably the backbone of any protest movement, have never seen a peace movement that worked.

*The WTO protests. Seattle has, of course, seen effective mass protest recently. The 1999 World Trade Organization protests profoundly altered globalization politics and galvanized global-justice movements around the world. But locally, they also gave protest of any kind a bad name with the general public. The Seattle Police Department—historically tolerant of street protests—would never, after WTO, allow the sorts of civic disruptions that happened before and during the Gulf War. Post-WTO protests, with their dynamic of police confrontation and pepper spray, have scared off mainstream protesters and attracted those who love a street battle. It's now virtually impossible in Seattle to have a street protest that communicates an issue to the public; events invariably devolve into police confrontations that obliterate the original message.

There is, in fact, plenty of anti-war activism in Seattle these days, but it's buried on the Web and in church basements and in private conversations. That could still blossom into a formidable local anti-war presence, as it did in Portland last month during President Bush's visit. Or it could stay hidden—and the large numbers of Seattleites appalled by a prospective war could continue to find that their views are conspicuously missing from the public debate.

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow