Why Doves Must Fly

Now That We've Lost the Anti-War, We Need the Peace Movement More Than Ever

Once upon a time in Amerika, the left was on the move. Recall the halcyon summer of 2001, when global-justice activists were gearing up for massive fall protests in Washington, anti-racists were embarrassing U.S. officials from afar in Durban, South Africa, and immigrant advocates had even pushed amnesty onto the American agenda. A string of imperious decisions by George W. Bush—from rejection of the Kyoto agreement on global warming to the revival of Star Wars—had made the president a favorite object of opprobrium overseas, while polls found that tens of millions of Americans considered his election illegitimate. Those were the days, cracked comic Lewis Black the other night, "when Bush was still an idiot."

Then came September 11, and war. Anti-globalization actions were scuttled, the Durban agenda was moved to the back of the bus, and immigration reform became a distant memory. Now it's Bush who is, in the words of a senior aide, "on a roll."

Polls show overwhelming satisfaction with the war. And with Attorney General John Ashcroft suggesting that critics of his domestic crackdown on civil liberties "only aid terrorists," state prosecutors saying they will seek 10-year sentences for peace marchers in Connecticut, and school administrators suspending a 15-year-old West Virginia girl for trying to start an "anarchy club" and sporting a T-shirt that said "Against Bush, Against bin Laden," officialdom and its mainstream media detachment have made great strides toward stamping out doubt.

Childlike: the media’s peace movement
photo: Michael Kamber
Childlike: the media’s peace movement

Small wonder that progressives have seemingly been unable to mount a coherent response to the war—let alone influence its course. Meanwhile, liberal critics of the hastily assembled peace movement have been prominent; their progressive dissent from progressive dissent might be louder if it weren't drowned in the tsunami of patriotic gore. Central to the criticisms have been the charges that peaceniks have not fully reckoned with our legitimate need for justice and the threat of a truly vile enemy, and that the anti-war side has not put out an alternative to war, other than the kind Alice Walker proposed: reminding bin Laden "of all the good, nonviolent things he has done."

The peace movement's troubles—as ever with the left, somewhat self-induced—contain instructive lessons and shouldn't be minimized. But neither should the odious ambitions of our high-flying regime. Hawks inside and outside the Capitol are pressing for a war that, as Dick Cheney put it, could embroil "40 or 50 countries," and "may not end in our lifetimes," while under military camouflage, the corporate pals of the government are enjoying an orgy of war profiteering. It becomes clearer every day that for the Bushites, war is global corporate politics by other means. So how can progressives fight back without taking on the war? A new progressive agenda inevitably must involve—for all its faults—the cause of peace.

Few notions rankle leaders of mainline anti-war groups as much as the idea that they have proposed no alternatives. Kevin Martin, head of Peace Action, the country's largest anti-war network, with 85,000 members, notes that peace proponents have been campaigning for multilateral institutions like the International Criminal Court for years. Of course, the ICC—now ratified by 47 countries but pointedly ignored by the U.S.—would itself rely on police action, i.e., force, but Martin insists that "Peace Action is not pacifist." Instead, the peace groups want to rope the U.S. into the community of nations and minimize the "obscenity of collateral damage." Alternative approaches would require patience, says Martin, but "isn't that what Bush is talking about with his permanent war?"

Indeed, criticisms of peace activists' uncertain endgame gloss over the fact that warmongers don't seem to have one either—unless serial wars to rid the world of "evil" qualify as conclusive policy. And liberal defenses of bombing—such as pro-war Nation lefty Christopher Hitchens's conclusion two weeks ago that there has been "no serious loss of civilian life"—became a bit harder to swallow following a report last week by Marc Herold, an economics professor at the University of New Hampshire. Herold, who says he got tired of the medium cool war that "ends as U.S. planes take off," painstakingly compiled a database from cross-checked news reports and eyewitness accounts and found that more than 3700 civilians had been killed by U.S. bombs. (The report can be found at www.cursor.org/stories/civilian_deaths.htm.)

The mainstream media, says Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, submerged alternatives to "bombs or nothing," just as it buried nuances in the public's reaction to war. A widely cited University of Maryland poll found nearly unanimous support for bombs. Less well-noticed were the poll's findings that similar numbers of Americans back the crafting of a solution by the UN and call for aid to poor countries, while more favor an international tribunal for bin Laden than unilateral U.S. proceedings.

Still, the left helped the media with its blinders. Early on, the peace movement was buoyed by an immediate influx of troops from the burgeoning anti-globalization and anti-capitalist movements. But anarchist sentiments and anti-imperialist distrust of U.S.-dominated multinational bodies blocked consensus on demands for justice. The largest September protest in Washington, organized by a coalition assembled by the International Action Center (itself a front for the Slobodan Milosevic-friendly Workers World Party), featured virtually no discussion of bringing the killers to justice, while its stultifying checklist of causes gave the event, in the words of activist chronicler Liza Featherstone, "the flavor of a kind of generic McProtest."

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