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JOHN BALZAR

The Peaceniks Are on the Fringe Where They Belong

November 04, 2001|JOHN BALZAR

The antiwar movement has shown its face but not its ideas.

We've all seen the placards in the hands of scattered protesters--Stop This Racist War! Or, Stop the Bombing Now!

So then what?

Just what should the United States do if it won't fight in self-defense?

Not in 60 years has America's antiwar movement been so wholly discounted in our national debate, even as it tries to rouse itself to action.

President Bush narrowed the options on would-be protests, telling the world to choose sides: us or terror. Tellingly, he drew support from the kinds of people who aren't cowed by mere presidential edict.

Journalist Michael Kelly, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, called the antiwar crowd, "Liars. Frauds. Hypocrites." And to be fair, he did it with more felicity than that. Christopher Hitchens, the formidable contrarian of the left, skewered the "liberal-left tendency to 'rationalize' the aggression of Sept. 11" and said it was time for liberals to defend America's pluralism. The Italian free-thinker Oriana Fallaci said her "cold, lucid, rational rage" commanded her to "spit on" those of her countrymen who said America brought its troubles on itself.

So just what is the antiwar movement saying to draw that kind of heavy artillery?

Not much actually.

"The antiwar movement has reached no general consensus ... " concedes peace activists Rahul Mahajan and Robert Jensen, in an essay posted on nowarcollective.com .

Which puts things in the best possible light, I must say.

Because war is the last resort and naturally should not be pursued if there is a sensible alternative, the antiwar movement deserves our attention.

In this case, however, its leaders have done little more than mobilize the most rigidly principled pacifists and assorted die-hards from the anti-globalization, anti-authority protest crowd, plus some unknown share of America's immigrant Muslims and a collection of those partisans who cannot bear George Bush no matter what. It appears that organizers are more concerned with "putting people on the street" than with giving them anything persuasive to say.

Most of what passes for antiwar doctrine today is a mixture of selective hindsight and utopian nostrums: First, America has to understand that it's been naughty and inattentive abroad. Second, if we only treated the world's downtrodden better, they would be our pals. The first point of view serves chiefly to enrage half of any audience willing to listen, while No. 2 sends the other half looking for the door. For those few willing to stick around, there is always Bush conspiracy theory to chew upon.

I spoke with Erik Gustafson, a Gulf War military veteran who is on the board of the Washington Peace Center and two other peace groups. I told him that I was having trouble trying to fathom the practicality of a nonmilitary alternative against an enemy that has declared war upon us.

I found Gustafson thoroughly earnest. To summarize his views, hopefully without shortchanging him: Military action is strengthening our enemies by pushing Islamic moderates into the embrace of radicals. A better alternative would be a long, patient diplomatic and PR struggle to win these moderates to our ideals, thereby isolating radicals. He mentioned as tools arms embargoes and humanitarian aid. Such a campaign could take 20 years, he said.

"What happened on Sept. 11 was a criminal act," he said. "But it stems from a broader political problem. We need to address the criminal issue and the political issue. And we need the political capital to try and broker agreements. Right now, we're giving up some of that capital."

You could answer Gustafson long and grant him the point that, no matter what, diplomacy and engagement are essential to any successful outcome--and, yes, part of the campaign now underway. Or you can make it short: 20 years? We don't have 20 years. Think nuclear bombs. We can regard those who confront us as an enemy about to blow up Los Angeles or Chicago. Because they would. Is there any reason to doubt this?

I won't further insult those in the antiwar movement. I'll keep listening, just in case.

But right now, I think they richly deserve their place on the fringe of society.

"There is no one more foolish than the foolish believer, except for the foolish unbeliever," wrote Egypt's Nobel Prize winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz. That was in a book published three years after an Islamic fundamentalist approached him on the street in Cairo bearing a bouquet of flowers. The stranger reached out as if to shake the writer's hand and then plunged a knife into his neck--another attack in this dreadful war of the mindless upon those who think.

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