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War Talk Stirs Many Moods, and Fears

March 19, 2003|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

With the United States poised to invade Iraq, the mood of Americans in towns and cities across the land varied from moral outrage to patriotic resolve, from nervous anticipation to ho-hum nonchalance.

In the backdrop of this civic kaleidoscope lurked a more subtle unease -- an emotion born on Sept. 11 and transformed into a new vigilance. Among the concerns voiced by citizens: What unseen terror will arise from this war? What tower will fall next? Which American citizen will be kidnapped or ambushed abroad?

The majority of Americans seem to support President Bush, with reservations. A CNN/USA Today Gallup poll taken immediately after his speech Monday night found 66% of Americans approved of the president's decision to go to war, but only a slight majority -- 53% -- believed the war would lead to a safer America.

"We put this ball in motion 10 years ago" during the Persian Gulf War, said Paula Dylan, 32, a stay-at-home mother in the small Navy town of Bremerton, 15 miles west of Seattle. "If we had finished it then, maybe a lot of people who've died ... would still be alive. I don't think we should wait any longer."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 20, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
War talk -- In a Section A article Wednesday about the mood of the country, Greta Stewart's name was incorrectly spelled Greta Steward. A caption for a picture that ran with the story incorrectly spelled Breo Vazquez's first name as Preo.

Dylan's sentiments echoed those of many in Bremerton and the nearby Ft. Lewis, but the farther you traveled from military communities, into Seattle and other major cities across the country, the opinions became more varied, more ambiguous, and in some instances, more hostile toward the government.

"There's no question in my mind Iraq is in terrible shape, that there've been injustices against the Iraqi people," said Mitchell Fox, a 44-year-old executive for a Seattle foundation. "But military might is not a permanent solution. It usually begets something worse. How this war shakes out in the end is anybody's guess."

Fox alluded to the possibility that an American victory could foment an uprising of the Islamic world, specifically the far-flung radical groups that could strike anywhere.

Victory over Baghdad, he implied, could lead to years of terrorist acts globally.

From the gray drizzle of the Puget Sound to the overcast skies of Kirkwood, Mo., near St. Louis, Marti Wurst, 47, a retired teacher and mother of three, said war was necessary so that Americans could "stop living in terror."

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein "has been given enough time to destroy his missiles, his weapons, his gases," Wurst said. "We have to clean this up now. I don't want my sons to have to clean it up in 10 years."

Joshua Matthews, 21, was gathering shopping carts outside a Lowe's home-improvement store. He has no recollection of the Persian Gulf War, and like many, feels torn.

He's "fed up" with Hussein and thinks it's time to act, yet he dreads the pain war would bring.

"You hear about all these awful things" in wartime, Matthews said, "and all of a sudden you're going to be living through one. It's a scary thing."

A short distance away in the Lowe's parking lot, John Decker, 23, was setting up a display of strawberry plants, as blithely detached from the affairs of the world as one can be.

News, he said, stressed him so he avoided it. As for the war, he said, "I don't pay much attention." Decker said that if some major attack were to happen in Kirkwood, one couldn't prepare for that sort of thing anyway, so why worry?

Great numbers of Americans, like Decker, see no connection to the war with their own lives, a result, many commentators have said, of living in a prosperous country buffered by two immense oceans and protected by a powerful military.

At the Kodak Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, the talk was about the upcoming Academy Awards. Tourists sipped lattes and lounged on tables, hoping to glimpse a celebrity.

Tamela Coffman, a student from Phoenix on her way to Disneyland, said she hadn't given much thought to the war, but said she had confidence American leaders were making "the right decision" and the military would "protect us."

Coffman's companion, Rob Richards, said he refused to let a possible war "alter" his life.

From the nonchalant to the militant, Robert Luna of Anaheim staged a one-man protest in downtown Santa Ana. In his right hand, he held a poster depicting what he called the "purveyors of paranoia": Bush and his Cabinet. In his left, he grasped a picture of a wounded dove.

"I'm not against the president," Luna said. "I'm against the war. I'm against the fact that a lot of young people on both sides are going to die."

David Smedley of Brea was equally adamant, saying that he believed Bush is lying to the American people: "One minute we're going after [Osama] bin Laden, now we're going after Saddam."

Across the Southwest, in the heart of Oklahoma City, rain splashed on the glass bases of the 168 chairs memorializing those killed in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building.

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