Around the Country, Citizens Mobilizing for Peace

A great, sleeping toddler has been awakened in the United States. And, like all sleeping toddlers, when irritable it's capable of producing an astonishing amount of noise for such a small body. But if the United State's until-recently somnambulant peace movement is going to stop the looming war the United States is both hurtling towards and largely yearning for, it's going have to grow up. Fast.

That's not as ridiculous a prospect as it might seem for people who remember that only two years ago, when the faithful were called to rally against the decimation of Yugoslavia, virtually nobody came. But only a few days after the most devastating direct attack on the United States in its history, there were thousands gathering for a peace vigil in New York. Sunday, some 4,000 rallied in San Francisco; another 2,000 in Portland. The day after tomorrow, a huge crowd is expected in New York for a peace procession from Union Square to the Army recruiting station in Times Square.

In communities across the country, large groups of people who didn't know each other a week ago -- folks who'd been working on missile defense or gun control or feeding the hungry or immigration or global justice or any of 50 other issues, and people who hadn't been active on any political issues at all -- have been meeting and finding their common ground. They've been reassuring each other that they're not insane, and that they're not alone in wanting the United States to not respond to a horrific crime by flattening some country, any country.

And they're right; they're not alone. While the dominant sense -- the only sense, to hear our networks -- has been to go kick some A-rab ass, there's a significant, and broad, counter-current. At first glance, it seems astonishing; only a week ago, thousands died and virtually everyone in the country began worrying about their own physical safety and that of their loved ones. Of course something needs to be done.

But what? Is war, especially the prolonged one George Bush is now warning of, the answer? Well, that depends on a few niggling details. Like: Is it a war? Who's the enemy? How can we fight them? And, perhaps most critically, what constitutes victory, and how will we know when we've won?

The lack of answers should give everyone pause. They're certainly giving the Bush Administration pause. To its credit (so far), while the rhetoric has been understandably bellicose and the White House has been busy lining up foreign support and military options, it hasn't blindly lashed out yet in retribution. That's the most immediate concern of the incipient peace movement: that the perpetrators be accurately identified. The second concern is that innocent civilians not be targeted; it would be an enormous mistake, morally and politically, for the United States to make somebody else's ordinary people pay for the deaths of our ordinary people.

(Well, some of them were ours. An inconvenient little fact, omitted from our myth-making, is that the World Trade Center was, well, a Trade Center for the World. As of Monday, reported losses of foreign nationals in the attack include at least 2,500 dead and missing from 43 countries -- maybe half of the total casualties.)

At the moment, the United States, as the aggrieved party, has the world's sympathy, cooperation, and moral respect. As soon as it incinerates a city full of people who had nothing to do with our grievances, the War Against Terrorism instantly becomes just another Yankee invasion. And, as I mentioned yesterday, that's just the scenario Bin Laden dreams of and any rational person should dread.

For that reason, a lot of people feel like they're out of step with what political leaders are calling for and media pundits are cheerleading for. Those people want terrorism stopped, but not at the expense of innocent lives, not at the expense of the Bill of Rights, and certainly not at the cost of World War III. (None of which are likely to fully stop terrorism, anyway.)

The infant peace movement's challenge is to call for the U.S. to pursue a more reasoned, effective strategy while still recognizing people's justified anger and not sounding like apologists for terrorism. That will require tact, clarity, and understanding. Just as the Bush Administration has not yet actually made a case that Osama bin Laden (let alone the Taliban, let alone the poor, beleaguered people of Afghanistan, let alone the rest of the Islamic world) were responsible for the attacks, activists don't know for a fact that the attacks were motivated by past U.S. atrocities. And that's not what the public wants to hear, anyway.

One bad sign in that department is that the September 29 anti-World Bank/IMF demonstrations in Washington D.C., which have been called off by their major organizers, are being replaced by a proposed anti-war event being peddled by the International Action Center -- a noisy, parasitic front group for the Stalinist Workers World Party that stuck its face in front of the cameras and de-legitimized thousands of Middle American demonstrators at Bush's inaugural last January with its irrelevant pet issues (e.g., Mumia) and over-the-top hostile rhetoric.

During the Gulf War, the IAC distinguished itself by defending the conduct of Saddam Hussein. The worst-case scenario is the IAC, in front of the White House, pulling a similar stunt next week, with national media being given a snapshot of the "peace movement" as smaller and, for most people, far more repugnant than it actually is -- a movement that draws cheers when police move in. Much of the more mainstream peace movement won't go near the IAC, but happily, it doesn't need to. The young activists of our new century have a tremendous advantage, not even available during the Gulf War: the Internet. In many ways, it renders the need for massive centralized rallies obsolete, allowing concerned citizens in communities across the country to organize locally and still be heard globally.

There's nothing like the imminent, realistic specter of World War III to terrify, and motivate, a lot of people. But folks wanting to stop war don't have much time; the movement has to grow up, fast, pull together a wide variety of ideologies and perspectives, and figure out how it can have an impact in policy-making -- all before the U.S. commits itself to a tremendous, irreversible mistake. The race is on.

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