Mainstreaming the Anti-War Movement

News & Politics

Only three days after the most devastating direct attack on the United States in its history, thousands of New Yorkers gathered for a peace vigil in Manhattan. By day five, some 4,000 rallied in San Francisco; another 2,000 in Portland. Thousands followed in Seattle, Boston, New York and San Francisco again, and elsewhere; smaller vigils, rallies, and marches came together in cities and towns across the country. Thousands, maybe millions more reached out on the Internet, finding virtual communities and message boards flooded by those who shared their views. In their homes, people began churning out letters to their newspapers and to the White House and Congress.

Since September 11's tragedies, large groups of people who didn't know each other on September 10 -- many who hadn't ever been politically active before -- have begun meeting and finding an unexpected common ground. They've been reassuring each other that they're not insane, and that they're not alone in wanting the United States not to respond to a horrific crime by flattening some country, any country. They're not alone in fearing World War III. They're not alone in worrying about an undefined war against an unknown enemy in undefined places, when we don't know what victory would look like and we don't know how we'll recognize it if it's achieved.

Those are not simply pacifist questions; they're common-sense questions that
transcend ideology. Almost immediately, there was a significant, and broad, counter-current to America's impulse for revenge. At first glance, it seemed astonishing; thousands died and virtually everyone in the country began worrying about their own physical safety and that of their loved ones. Of course something needed to be done.

But what? Is war, especially the prolonged one George Bush warns of, the answer? Most of the people of the world don't think so. An international Gallup poll released Sep. 21 found that 46 percent of Americans were either undecided or opposed to military action. In 29 of 30 other countries polled (Israel being the exception), the public was opposed to military action, preferring extradition and legal remedies. Margins against war were in the 80-90 percent range in Europe and Latin America. People have their doubts, abroad and at home.

Thankfully, the indeterminate nature of the war Bush initially called for (wiping out evil? All of it?) also gave the rest of the White House and the Pentagon pause. On Sep. 25, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cautioned Americans that, to our presumably great disappointment, there will be no massive land invasions in this war. But there are still plenty of other dangers down this path, and there are still more effective means of combatting terrorism.

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 in retribution. But it has given in to the seeming American need to put a single name on the enemy (Saddam, Noriega, Qaddafi, Fidel), and that is a serious mistake. Even if bin Laden was involved in the Sep. 11 attacks, the enemy we are fighting doesn't need him, and, in fact, now that he has the cachet of being America's target, they'd greatly benefit from the volunteers his martyrdom would produce. Bin Laden isn't a major strategist among the world's radical conservative Sunni Moslems; his role has been relatively minor, even as financier. (His much-vaunted riches have been frozen for years.) He simply acts, as do a number of other individuals, as a facilitator among a broad network of radical, violent fringe Sunni groups. Removing him doesn't begin to solve the problem.

Instead, the War on Terrorism confronts an enormous, complex web of groups, and it's likely to get more, not less, complicated if we send in the military. Bush has exacerbated that concern by announcing they will target all terrorists (presumably including prospective ones), and the countries that "harbor" them. That essentially is a blank check for invading any country in the world, since the implicit assumption -- that bin Laden and his boys are responsible for it all, and they're all holed up on a ranch somewhere in Afghanistan, waiting for the Delta Force -- is preposterous. Even the direct accomplices to Sept. 1 were smart and prepared enough to scatter to the four winds ahead of time, and bin Laden's modus has often been to have sympathizers go into deep cover for years in the West. Many other groups have done the same. The War On Terrorism, as defined by Bush, can be fought against anybody, anywhere and everywhere on the planet.

That's the new reality anti-war activists confront, and as with military planners, they, too, will have to shift their thinking and tactics.

In this case, most activists share the country's primary concerns: bringing September 11's perpetrators to justice, and minimizing, to the extent possible, such acts in the future. The differences come in what activists believe to be the most effective strategy for trying to end terrorism.

The first step, they believe, is to acknowledge what most of the public, in other countries, already know: that however horrific it was, stealing and crashing four jets was a crime, not an act of war. Except for the pilot training given the perpetrators (presumably in part at an Afghan training camp), the attacks were planned and carried out by surprisingly simple and pedestrian criminal means: forged identity papers; deep cover in places that are most emphatically not in the mountains of Afghanistan; exploiting our freedom of movement; availability of all sorts of dangerous (if misused) consumer goods; and exploiting gaps in our domestic security.

The only place anywhere in that chain of events which might benefit from military intervention is locating that Afghani training camp, and how long does it take to build a new one in some other country? How many are already built? In how many countries are there already people living who have made a pact with their god, working toward a day, near or distant, when they will take their own life and (they hope) many others in the service of their cause?

That is a police matter, not a military one. And while racial profiling must be avoided and civil liberties most emphatically are not negotiable, better domestic security, intelligence, and more capable investigative work would help far more -- at far less cost -- than military operations. Ditto for developing better working relationships with law enforcement agencies in other countries.

The other part of the equation is preventing people from becoming suicidal terrorists in the first place. Here, again, activists believe, is where the military will create more problems (and more martyrdom-seeking suicidal terrorists) than it will dissuade or stop. Intimidation will not work. What will work is a closer and more respectful relationship between the Christian world and the Islamic world; a genuine effort to alleviate the crushing poverty of most Islamic countries, including debt forgiveness, education, aid, and investment; working toward more open, democratic regimes (many of the most brutal and dictatorial -- Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt, and now Pakistan -- are heavily dependent upon Western support); genuine efforts to alleviate the war and suffering of Moslems in places like Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir, and the Balkans; and a foreign policy that upholds and practices our ideals of freedom and democracy. Much of the Islamic world is already at war; it needs less war, not more.

The growing anti-war movement's challenge is to call for the U.S. and its allies to pursue these sorts of reasoned, effective strategies, without its demands sounding like apologies for terrorism. That will require tact, clarity, and understanding. It requires saying not just what activists want to say, but what that 46 percent, and others, need to hear. It requires not just a litany of past U.S. foreign policy sins, but explaining how non-military options can stop terrorism better: improved security, without stripping civil liberties; improved policing and intelligence, without abusive covert programs; and attacking the motivations of young, poor, devout, desperate terrorists: challenging policies wherein the West promotes poverty, dictatorships, and violence in the Islamic world.

Terrorism can never be totally ended, no matter how many people we jail or kill, no matter how much we tighten our security. Israel can't do it, and we're a much larger, more diverse country. We will always be at risk, and there will always be people who hate us. But that risk can be minimized, and it's best done without a war. To redirect the efforts of a war already underway, peace groups are scrambling to provide focus and coordination for the many people who spontaneously lobbied or came out into the streets so quickly.

Everyone agrees that the War on Terrorism won't go away soon. That gives anti- war activists time to organize, and to insist that terrorism be prevented more effectively -- without war. The sooner our military deployments end, the better our future. The race is on.

A coalition of activist and religious groups -- including American Friends Service Committee, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Peace Action, Pax Christi, War Resisters Leauge, WILPF, Shundahai Network, Global Exchange, Black Radical Congress, the Institute for Policy Studies, and many others -- is calling for local anti-war actions on Oct. 7. See for more details.

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