The anti-war movement's challenge

IssueDecember 2001 - February 2002
Comment by Geov Parrish

The overt military phase of the War on Terrorism has begun. And so, too, have the demonstrations, both in the Islamic world and through the cities of the Western democracies - including the US. Past polls have shown an overwhelming majority of the world opposed to US military retaliation for the atrocities of 11 September - 80 to 90 percent in much of Europe and Latin America. But in the US, 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 (were) not exactly sympathetic; the US 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 11 September in any meaningful way - does little to either bring its 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.

Knee-jerk rhetoric

To date, visible public protest, in Washington, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and around the country and world, has been focused more on past US policy sins and knee-jerk rhetoric than anything else, and, in doing so, has been basically irrelevant.

Given the stakes, and liberal big city 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 US attacks to decry, but so far they've failed to answer the most obvious question attached to criticisms 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 what are in fact oftentimes potential allies.

Slipping into irrelevance

We need not just a demand for “peace”, but sound bite language advocating positive steps that would combat terrorism far more effectively than bombing Kabul. That programme might look like:

  • Better domestic security, without sacrificing civil liberties;
  • Better global police and intelligence cooperation, without giving covert operations freedom to act illegally; and
  • Demanding that all governments, including ours, act in ways that promote the ideals of freedom, democracy, and economic opportunity that the US wants to stand for, so as to address many of the conditions that incubate terrorism.


    The ambitious might throw “religious tolerance” on to that last list, or suggest a role for the UN or World Court in trying crimes against humanity. But the point is that, as never before, activists must begin by rallying support for what they favour, not simply emphasising 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.

    Hope in humanity

    Am I angry, that the US 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, 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 organising 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 back-yard 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.