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Why Protests Are a Sign of Strength : Anti-war demonstrations should be respected, not reviled

January 20, 1991

Anti-war protests are not necessarily a symptom of division or weakness. They can be a sign of strength.

The current protests are the product not of a nation divided but of a society that is sufficiently self-confident to accommodate differing political views even at time of crisis. We are precisely that kind of society.

If one had to choose between a nation with anti-war protests, or a nation either wholly homogenized in its political opinions or wholly intimidated from honest political expression, the former option is by far the preferable one. It means that even in wartime, a democracy is able to stick to its democratic guns, and has the inner strength to spurn pressures to curb dissent.

Although the public-opinion polls show considerable support for the President's Persian Gulf policy, there is a significant anti-war movement in the United States. There would be one in almost any war. Whether the anti-Iraq war movement will grow and how big it will become are questions that can't be answered now. But, whatever its dimension, it will certainly not cease to exist. And those Americans who do support this war owe those who do not respect and accommodation, not scorn and hatred.

During the Vietnam War, protest was thought by some Americans to be virtually treasonous. Demonstrators were castigated, reviled and in some sadly memorable instances even shot at. Judging from what we can determine so far, the nation appears to have grown up considerably since then. The Times has published accounts of the police handling protest gatherings with restraint. For their part, protesters are, by and large, behaving responsibly--expressing their dissent loudly, but not interfering with other people.

But there are a few signs that the country may be sliding back to the past. In some parts of the country, anti-war rallies are turning ugly. Some demonstrators are hurling rocks, screaming obscenities and clashing with police. Neither police nor protesters need to engage in senseless escalation. Some radicals will always try to make a political point that this country is a repressive society where no true dissent is tolerated; some police will always prefer to crack heads rather than maintain order in a sophisticated way. But this sort of minimalist intellectual conduct plays into the hands of critics of American society who argue that we are really no better than some of the intolerant societies we condemn.

Protest invigorates debate. It reminds national leaders that, in the final analysis, they are responsible to the people and no one else. It challenges the conventional political wisdom. It is debate and dissent that infuses America with the vigorous political thought that allows the system to metamorphose with the changing times, to meet new challenges and to question old assumptions.

President Bush, and our armed forces in the gulf, deserve the support of the American people. And they have it. But America is scarcely worth dying for if we lose our tolerance for political diversity.

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