Making Our Voices Heard
For those of us who think Bush's pending war against Iraq is reckless madness, it's tempting to retreat into bitter despair after the Senate vote giving him a blank check to attack. Like Dickensian orphans pleading for gruel, the Democratic leadership politely requested that Bush consult them, work with the UN and other allies, and exhaust all diplomatic means before going to war.
Then they caved and gave Bush -- and men like Richard Perle, who believed in winnable nuclear wars, and Dick Cheney, who opposed the freeing of Nelson Mandela -- the power to lead us into a war that will fuel rage and resentment throughout the Islamic world and beyond.
So what to do, other than nurturing bile and resentment? Or writing angry emails and letters to those who've once again shown no moral courage? Or thanking the 23 Senators and 133 Representatives who found the strength to resist all the lies and threats?
We might start by recognizing that we've made some progress. A few weeks ago, the press reported that a mere 19 House Democrats would vote against the resolution. Only two Senators opposed the Tonkin Gulf resolution that opened the door to our full-scale war in Vietnam.
Those who stood up now did so knowing they would be attacked and baited for their stands. (And Bush timed this vote to fracture and demoralize the Democratic base and drive all other issues off the table for the November elections.) Yet they found the courage to vote their conscience -- and did so in part because so many citizens like us made clear their opposition to this war.
Now, in a time when Bush audaciously claims that "America speaks with one voice," we must make our voices heard even more. This means continuing to speak up, preferably in ways that reach out as much to our fellow citizens as to our elected representatives.
If enough of us take public stands, we may yet avert going to war with Iraq -- or at least limit the power of this administration, whose backers speak blatantly about the virtues of empire, to wage further wars to come. We never know the full impact of our actions.
One case in point happened in 1969, when Henry Kissinger told the North Vietnamese that Nixon was threatening to escalate the Vietnam war massively, including potential nuclear strikes, unless they capitulated and forced the National Liberation Front in the South to do the same. Nixon was serious. He'd had military advisers prepare detailed plans, including mission folders with photographs of potential nuclear targets.
But two weeks before the president's November 1st deadline, there was a nationwide day of protest, the Moratorium, during which millions of people took part in local demonstrations, vigils, church services, petition drives and other forms of protest. The next month came a major march in Washington, D.C of over a half million people.
Publicly, Nixon responded to the protests by watching the Washington Redskins football game during the D.C. march and declaring that the marchers weren't affecting his policies in the slightest -- sentiments that fed the frustration and demoralization of far too many in the peace movement.
Yet privately, Nixon decided the movement had, in his words, so "polarized" American opinion that he couldn't carry out his threat. Participants in the Moratorium had no idea that their efforts may have helped stop a nuclear attack.
This example of our actions having more power than we know came to mind as I marched with ten thousand others on an October Seattle Sunday, the weekend before the Congressional vote.
Marchers paraded huge puppets of black-clad mothers holding children and George Bush as a global sheriff with pistols marked Exxon and Mobil. Others carried a giant inflatable earth and a 50-foot Trident missile. A community anti-smoking project brought their 20-foot cloth eagle, adorned with a large black peace sign. Signs proclaimed: "Drop Bush Not Bombs," "Iraq Didn't Attack Us Sept 11," "Another Vet For Peace," "How Much Blood For George?" "The U.S. Needs A Regime Change," and "Preemptive Impeachment."
Families marched with their children. Onlookers waved in support. A lawyer for the Seattle prosecutor's office said he'd reluctantly supported the Afghan war, but not this one. My neighbor from across the street, an electrician and military vet, put a "No War" sign in his window and marched with his wife, both unusual for him.
I talked with students and grandmothers, skateboard punks and doctors, carpenters and software designers. Some had been active for years. Others were just beginning. This was the first demonstration for one woman in her 43 years, "because I've had it up to here with Bush's bogus leadership. If we get in this war, we'll never see the end."
A cluster of African drummers propelled marchers forward with their beat. Their friend had posted a notice on their drumming website. Further back in the parade that stretched for blocks, two saxophonists and a trumpeter played a mournful St Louis blues, which merged into a high-stepping cakewalk, and then a long plaintive version of "America the Beautiful." The drummer's tie displayed an American flag and a picture of the World Trade Center towers. A friend passed on a joke from Los Angeles singer-songwriter Dan Bern: "Satan wears a button asking 'What Would Cheney Do?'"
People marched for different reasons, but all feared that attacking Iraq would inflame the Muslim world, help Bin Laden recruit a new generation of terrorists, and kill thousands of innocent Iraqis, not to mention our own young soldiers.
They mistrusted Bush's lies on a host of other issues and wondered why he was ignoring the many generals who were urging restraint. They asked whether the rush to war had less to do with Saddam Hussein than with wanting to control key oil supplies, or distracting November voters from a melting economy, strip-mined environment, and runaway corporate greed. They asked why so few other countries supported our stand, and what would happen after Saddam Hussein fell. They wanted to do more than watch the news in pained silence.
Since Bush took office, I've seen plenty of personal dissent: conversations with friends, endless emails, bitter comments. But visible public outcries have been strangely absent. They were barely present as Bush cut every conceivable social program, worked to gut core environmental protections, and enacted a tax cut transferring $1.2 trillion to the wealthiest one in a hundred Americans.
Dissent dropped off even more in the wake of Sept 11, though many of us felt uneasy with Bush's simplistic framing of a war of good versus evil. Yes, many of us have endlessly called, emailed, and faxed our elected representatives, pleading for them to show more courage and spine. We've signed petitions and statements, written letters to local papers, and emailed article after article to friends. What we might call virtual politics can matter immensely. We pass on critical contexts and perspectives through the electronic equivalent of the Soviet underground Samizdats.
This virtual politics can matter. Coordinated phone calls, emails, and faxes have blocked destructive policies, like Bush's proposal to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and some of his regressive court nominees. Our recent efforts gave strength to Senators and Representatives who've opposed Bush's war. But when we forward political emails or contact our representatives, these actions remain invisible to our fellow citizens.
It's hard to build engaged community in the process of taking them (though groups like MoveOn.org and the Working Assets network have done their best to bring people together through virtual networks). Our actions don't publicly express our outrage in ways that other citizens can see.
To march with others, in contrast, feels richer, more human, more empowering, and makes the challenge more visible. Publicized largely through the ubiquitous emails and through fliers at related events, this particular march was the fruit of a small group of mostly younger activists who'd begun meeting six months earlier.
They linked themselves with a national campaign, Not in Our Name www.notinourname.net, that's been circulating a pledge of resistance and running newspaper ads challenging Bush's right to wage war without limit. Our group of 10,000 complemented rallies, marches, and vigils in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Houston, Austin, Buffalo, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Tulsa, Brattleboro, Boston, Anchorage, Kansas City, and several hundred other cities and towns, including 2,000 in conservative Cincinnati, the night Bush made his war pitch.
Had we equaled the huge recent European anti-war rallies-400,000 people in London, 1.5 million throughout Italy -- who knows how many other votes we would have swung. But it was a start.
Public courage can be contagious, much like public cowardice. Seattle congressman Jim McDermott made national news by journeying to Iraq and challenging Bush's actions. He went in part because so many citizens asked, again and again, that he take a stand. In turn, McDermott helped inspire opposition from other Washington Congressmen, and one of our Senators, Patty Murray. When citizens convince previously silent political leaders to speak, their words of questioning ripple out.
We need to do more than march, of course. We need discussion and debate, teach-ins and vigils. We need to reach out in our local churches and temples, PTAs, city council meetings, Rotary Clubs, colleges, high schools and with coworkers, neighbors, and friends. We've already seen strong peace statements from major Catholic leaders and the heads of major Protestant denominations like the Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalian, Lutherans, American Baptists, United Church of Christ, and even the Mormons.
The challenge now is to extend the discussion into the pews, and into our communities. Lobbied by members, the Washington State and San Francisco Labor councils recently came out against going to war, as did the Seattle City Council and Washington state Democratic Party. So far, most of the national labor and environmental groups have been silent. We'll need to keep broadening the discussion and remember that even Richard Nixon was constrained by public opinion. We'll need to continue even if Bush goes ahead to war, and refuse to let ourselves be marginalized.
That means listening carefully to those who disagree with us, and trying to find common ground. It means continuing to speak out, whatever names we're called by the power-hungry and cynical zealots now leading our country, even if our fellow citizens initially seem to support them. As a Catholic nun said at a 3,000-person religious vigil three days after the Seattle Sunday march, those working for peace cannot fold up our prayer tents and go home, just because history does not instantly and visibly go our way.
For we march not only to stop Bush's war on Iraq, but the wars that will follow from his defining America as sole global policeman, sole arbiter of freedom, sole nation with the right to unleash preemptive attacks on whomever we decide to take down. Whatever policies Bush undertakes, we need to keep raising the real questions. We don't want to recruit another generation for future Bin Ladens. We don't want more innocents to die. However our actions play out, we're far better voicing our beliefs than staying silent.
Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time and three other books on citizen activism. See www.soulofacitizen.org.