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Peace Movement Prospects


September 11 went well beyond tragic. Worse is possible. Much better is also possible. And to achieve better is why activists need to not only mourn, but also to educate and organize. But many people I encounter doubt peace movement prospects. I find this wrong for two reasons.

One, doubting prospects wastes time. Even when prospects of change are dim, to work for better outcomes is always better then to bemoan difficulties.

Two, contrary to despondency, current circumstances auger hope. “Are you crazy?” some people will ask. It is one thing to urge action, but it is another thing to surrender reason to desire. However, it is not desire that gives me hope, but evidence.

Last night there was a two hour marathon Hollywood extravaganza broadcast by all major networks and watched by millions. Elites are urging lock-step obedience. Johnny and Jill are supposed to be donning marching boots. Yet this was no pep rally for war. There was nearly courage of those who worked to save lives, often giving their own. The evening’s songs sought restraint and understanding and explicitly rejected cycles of retribution and hate. Don’t get me wrong. The evening wasn’t ZNet set to music. But nor did it support piling terror on top of terror. If the right-wing were actually as ascendant as so many fear, we would have had the Bob Hope and Charlton Heston Hour. We didn’t.

More, in the last few days there have been scores of small and also some quite large demonstrations and gatherings. Reports indicate there are 105 scheduled today, Saturday. There is no war yet. But there is resistance, and it is growing rapidly.

Just two days ago I was asked to be on a national radio call-in show with a listenership of roughly two million from all over the country. The host, a Republican, thought there would be division emerging about any war plans and he wanted to offer diverse voices (which is itself a good sign). He told me I’d be on for fifteen minutes. The time came, they called, I was asked how I differed from Bush. I answered, and the discussion continued for two hours. The host eventually left hostility behind, becoming more and more curious. Many callers were hostile, sure, but they were also open to cogent commentary. The simple formulation that attacking civilians is terrorism, that terrorism is horrible, and that therefore we should not attack civilians, was irrefutable. More interesting, no one even tried to rebut contextual argument and evidence. They made clear they knew my claims about U.S. policies in Iraq and elsewhere were true and they would with a few exceptions even grudgingly assent to them, so the remaining issue was whether the U.S. should be bound by the same morals that we hope others will be bound by, a dispute that is easy to win with anyone but a fanatic. I won’t proceed with details. The point is, even in a right-wing forum, many people will hear our views, understand them, and even change their minds.

U.S. elites like war. War sends the message that laws do not bind U.S. elites, that morality does not bind U.S. elites, that nothing binds U.S. elites but their estimates of their own interests. It trumpets that everybody else better ratify our plans, or at least get out of the way. Likewise, for U.S. elites, war preparedness is good economics. Military spending primes the capitalist pump and spurs its engines, but crucially military spending doesn’t give those in the middle and at the bottom better conditions or better housing or more education or better health care or anything else that will make people less afraid, more knowledgeable, more secure, and particularly more able to develop and pursue their own agendas regarding economic distribution. War empowers the rich and powerful, but its real virtue is that it disempowers working people and the disenfranchised poor. War annihilates deliberation. It elevates mainstream media to dominate communication even more than in peacetime. War abets repression by demanding obedience. It labels dissent treason, or in this case, incipient terrorism. Elites like all this, not surprisingly. So while elites gravitate toward a war on terrorism for these reasons, what, if anything, might obstruct their plans?

When Bush says that attacking civilians for political purposes is wrong and urges that we must find ways to eliminate such terrorism – he is very compelling to almost everyone. But when in the very next breath Bush urges as the method of doing so diverse military attacks on civilians (or starving them), his hypocrisy begs critique. As a solution to the danger of terrorism, committing more terrorism that in turn breeds still more, will not sustain support. Likewise, to fight fundamentalism with assertions that God is on our side, will also prove uninspiring. Five-year-olds can and will dissent. And so will adults.

So what obstructs war? People do. It’s that simple. People who first doubt the efficacy and morality of piling terror on top of terror. People who slowly move from quiet dissent to active opposition. People who move from opposing the violence of war and barbarity of starvation to challenging the basic institutions that breed war and starvation. If elites choose war as a national program they will do so in hopes that it can defend and even enlarge their advantages. If we act so that war instead spurs public understanding, and opposition not only to war, but in time even to elite rule – then elites will reconsider their agenda. Indeed, I bet many are already having grave doubts.

So how hard is our task? What do most people think about this situation, before activism has countered media madness? Well, it certainly isn’t definitive, but Gallup polls give us more reason for hope.

First question: “Once the identity of the terrorists known, should the American government launch a military attack on the country or countries where the terrorists are based or should the American government seek to extradite the terrorists to stand trial?” In Austria 10% said we should attack. In Denmark 20%, Finland 14%, France 29%, Germany 17%, Greece 6%, Italy 21%, Bosnia 14%, Bulgaria 19%, Czechoslavakia 22%, Croatia 8%, Estonia 10%, Latvia 21%, Lithuania 15% Romania 18%, Argentina 8%, Colombia 11%, Ecuador 10%, Mexico 2%, Panama 16%, Peru 8%, Venezuela 11%, and even in the U.S. only 54% favor attacking. Gallup didn’t get numbers for China, for the mideast countries, etc.

Gallup next asks: “If the United States decides to launch an attack, should the U.S. attack military targets only, or both military and civilian targets?” In Austria 82% said only military targets. In Denmark 84%, Finland 76%, France 84%, Germany 84%, Greece 82%, Italy 86%, Bosnia 72%, Bulgaria 71%, Czechoslavakia 75%, Estonia 88%, Latvia 82%, Lithuania 73% Romania 85%, Argentina 70%, Colombia 71%, Ecuador 74%, Mexico 73%, Panama 62%, Peru 66%, Venezuela 81%, and even in the U.S. 56% favor attacking only military targets, 28% attacking both military and civilian, and 16% gave no answer.

It seems clear that we do not inhabit a world lined up for protracted war. We live, instead, in a world that is prepared for arguments against war, for opposition to war, and even, in time, for addressing the basic structural causes that produce war. Humanity does not lack scruples or logic, but only information and knowledge. If people have information and if they can escape media manipulation and conformity, they will draw worthy conclusions. Our task is to provide information and help break conformity.

Finally, regarding the issues at hand.how hard is it to understand the obvious? The U.S. postal system is not run by exemplary humanitarians or geniuses, much less by radicals. Yet in response to workers killing others on the job–which is called “going postal”–the postal service did not decide to determine where the offending parties lived and attack those neighborhoods for harboring terrorists. They also did not say that the stress of postal work justifies serial homicide in the workplace, of course. They instead legally prosecuted, on the one hand, and also realized that stress was a powerful contributing factor and so worked to reduce stress to in turn diminish the likelihood of people going postal. Anyone can extend this analogy. It isn’t complicated.

For that matter, the U.S. government, which is certainly not a repository of wisdom or moral leadership, doesn’t generally decide about terrorism to hold whole populations accountable. When Timothy McVeigh bombed innocents, the Federal government called it horrific, accurately, but did not declare war on Idaho and Montana for harboring cells of the groups McVeigh was associated with — much less on all people sharing McVeigh’s race or religion. The government opted to prove McVeigh’s culpability and to employ legal means to restrain him and try the case. What makes September 11 different regarding our government’s agenda is not so much the larger scale of the horror, but instead its utility to the government’s reactionary programs. In the case of McVeigh, bombing Montana wouldn’t benefit elites. In the case of September 11, elites think bombing diverse targets will benefit their capitalist profit-making and geopolitical interests. That’s harsh. That’s about the harshest thing one could say, I guess, in some sense, in this situation. It is devilish opportunism. Yet, I honestly think that at some level everyone knows it’s true. It has gotten to that point in this country. They play with our lives like we are their little toys.and we know it, and we have to put a stop to it, a step at a time.

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