For almost a year now, many of us have been organizing against the “war on terrorism.” We see it as nothing of the kind.
Rather, the real problem of terrorism is being used by Bush to assert unilateral U.S. power in the world, display military might, punish those who don’t bow to our authority, and curtail dissent at home. As we approach the first anniversary of 9-11-01 — that horrible day that created the excuse for this great realignment and rejuvenation of the U.S. empire — how will peace and justice activists mark the day?
First and foremost, it seems to me, this is a time for grief. Three thousand innocent people lost their lives that day. 9-11 is unquestionably a day of mourning.
But our mourning is not just for those who died on that particular Tuesday. It is also for those who died (and will die) as a result of the trajectory of U.S. empire that was expanded and energized by the events of that day. The terrorist attacks of 9-11, along with the U.S.’s retaliatory response, has indeed given us much to mourn.
Some might argue that this is a different quality of mourning, but I think not. We have much in common with those who acutely feel the loss of that day, and this commonality matters a great deal.
On some level, this is an obvious point. But in other ways it is controversial. Aren’t we different in some fundamental way since we do not see U.S. life as inherently more valuable than “others” out there getting killed, displaced, starved, or disappeared for no reason other than they’re in our way?
Doesn’t our analysis of the destructive power of U.S. hegemony set us qualitatively apart from those who embrace Bush’s policies, assuming they will make the world a safer place? Shouldn’t we consider setting up our own progressively oriented vigils (or whatever) on the first anniversary of 9-11 so that we don’t risk inspiring anger from those who see us as unpatriotic, so that we have a safe space for our own feelings, so that we avoid conflict on a day of sadness?
There is no particular right way to observe the anniversary of 9-11. People should do what suits them. But for those struggling with how to be part of that day, how to see themselves in the mix of what will surely be a massive social and cultural marking of the anniversary, I offer the following reminders or perhaps they are challenges:
1. Our grief is a shared grief.
Now is the time to see ourselves as *part* of our cities, towns, and neighborhoods. We are not so different from our neighbors. Our model for expressing dissent is so often based on arguing with people — using our facts and values to win the debate. That’s right and proper in many cases, but in the process I’m afraid we end up developing the attitude that we have nothing in common with those who do not share our ideology. In fact, we do. During this particular moment, we have at least our grief in common.
2. Our message resonates with many.
So let’s be present with it at our municipal events. In my organizing work during the past ten months, I have talked to scores and scores of people who don’t necessarily identify as activists, but who are questioning this war. They are fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea that the great superpower is merely lashing out in response to 9-11, rather than investigating the roots of the problem. They are wary of brutish behavior.
They have no *less* desire for peace and justice in the world than we do. They are sickened by wanton destruction of life just as we are. Now is the time to let these people know that they are not alone, that there is an organized response to current U.S. policies.
“No More Victims Anywhere” and “Our Cry of Grief is not a Cry for War” are profoundly oppositional to Bush administration policies, but they are also bridge-building messages that ring true for many. Let’s take these messages into mainstream venues on the anniversary of 9-11.
3. Our tactics should be diverse.
We have spent the past year organizing teach-ins, workshops, rallies, and vigils. We have mobilized people to start organizations and get involved in already existing ones. We have worked diligently and passionately. We have done well and we should celebrate our efforts, but we are still very small. We do not reach massive numbers with our message.
On the anniversary of 9-11, almost all of us will be in cities or towns that will be honoring the occasion in some way. This is a chance for us to be present in a different way — not behind the bullhorn or at the podium or shouting the latest chant along with a relative few — but as part of a large mainstream event, where we have a right to be and where many will be honestly relieved to note that there is a growing movement of people looking for peace- and justice-based alternatives to the war on terrorism.
4. Our occasional feelings of relative isolation should not lead us to self-marginalize.
Who among us hasn’t felt like the lone nut during the dinner-table conversation about the war or like the lonely nut with only a little company at the anti-war demonstration? Our ideas are rarely given airtime by the mainstream media, and when they are it is to disparage them and make them seem ridiculous.
The powers-that-be have a vested interest in making us look like the lunatic fringe, and they’ll stop at nothing to do it. But it’s our job not to internalize their characterization of our just concerns. It’s our job to insist that our message is worthy of mainstream debate, that we are part of the public citizenry, that we have a rightful place in the public marking of the anniversary of 9-11.
On July 4th this year, I was part of a small group of peace and justice activists that worked the crowd along the banks of the Charles River — camped out for the day in anticipation of the annual Boston Pops concert and city fireworks display. It was not easy. The police made us take down our “Peace is Possible” banner. They would not permit us to have a table with leaflets on it and they prevented Food not Bombs from handing out free bagels. The loudspeakers blasted snippets of jingoistic Bush speeches.
Nonetheless, we forged ahead, handing out “Peace is Patriotic” bumper stickers, collecting signatures for a no-war-in-Iraq petition, and giving people ways to get involved in local activism.
This kind of work is not without its challenges. Personally, I can’t stand seeing young women dressed in Statue of Liberty hats and red-white-and-blue bikinis. It’s discouraging watching people literally cordon off their own private little space on the lawn, and then settle into lawn chairs to consume patriotic pabulum along with their hot dogs and cokes. “I actually have to talk to these people?” I think to myself, and consider running away as fast as I can.
However, I know that these are exactly the people I have to talk to.
And it’s not so bad in the end. Almost without exception, people are polite and receptive. Many ask questions and we engage in a substantive conversation even across the boundary line of little flags they have used to mark their territory. I can barely stand to approach the flag-wavers sometimes. What the U.S. is doing right now makes me sick to my stomach. How can I speak rationally to someone blithely embracing the symbol of a country committing atrocities around the globe?
How can I not? That is the better question.
How can any of us afford not to do exactly this kind of work? The personal risks are small and mostly emotional. There was one guy sitting in a large group of friends who calmly made the claim that thousands of foreign deaths are justifiable in response to the loss of even one U.S. life. I’ve gotten adept at not engaging with people like this. My strategy is to let words like that hang in the air.
Maybe, I’ll rephrase them back to clarify that I’m hearing him correctly. In this case, he made everyone around him uncomfortable, and he even seemed to embarrass himself. I moved on. Dealing with guys like that is mostly where you pay the emotional cost. But it’s not an exorbitant price. It is sustainable. And you have the privilege of walking away when you need to.
A few people in the July 4th crowd were genuinely interested. They had heard of United for Justice with Peace — the Boston area coalition that came together after 9-11 — and wanted to know if there was a local offshoot in their area. Organizing at a mainstream event such as this one is important work for many reasons, not least of which is it serves as a reminder to all of us that the point is to reach people, to be present at their events as well as ours.
On 9-11, let’s put ourselves, our sense of sadness and grief, and our heartfelt desire for peace and justice front and center. Let’s find out what our cities and towns are planning for that day; let’s discover if there’s a way we can involve ourselves in the planning; let’s figure out ways we can participate; let’s be present in our communities with our shared grief and desire for peace.