A separate peace

How are opponents to war answering September 11?



Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has called the War on Terrorism a new kind of war requiring a new vocabulary. It’s as true for war as it is for peace.

The nascent “peace movement,” for want of a more timely moniker, has found some expression every Tuesday night on the Higgins Avenue bridge in Missoula, and every Thursday night at the Bitterroot Public Library in Hamilton. There, people who oppose the bombing in Afghanistan, have questions or partial answers, or want to learn more about Islam or Islamic rage, are gathering to discuss the tragedies that played out in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania, and continue to play out in Kabul, Kandahar and in teeming refugee camps on the Pakistani border.

It’s risky enough to question your government’s actions when the overwhelming majority of your fellow countrymen feel no such ambiguity. For some, it’s harder still to tag a name or even a loose definition on a movement still coming to grips with Sept. 11.

Ten years ago in Hamilton, Olive Robison was one of about a dozen Bitterrooters who met regularly to discuss their opposition to the Persian Gulf War. Opposition to a war that was fought over oil supplies came easier then, and the role of war protester was clear and unambiguous.

And now? “I don’t know,” says Robison. “It doesn’t seem clear one way or the other.”

The first Hamilton meeting last Thursday night drew 14 people. Some came with questions, other with ready, if facile, answers. Still others came to listen, or were simply confused. “We did have kind of an interesting mix,” Robison says.

Whether a true “peace movement” will emerge from the Thursday night discussion group is unclear. “I really don’t see much energy at all,” says Robison. “I really don’t know how to characterize it. One thing we can do is provide a forum for people to discuss it.”

Providing a forum and supporting the peacemakers is also what the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center is doing. Anita Doyle, one of the co-founders of the Center, is reluctant at first to say much while the machinery of war is in full swing and won’t be stopped any time soon by anti- war efforts.

What’s different this time around, says Doyle, is that people who question their government’s actions don’t consider themselves “peaceniks.” More significantly, this time around the Internet is playing a bigger role in how people are getting their information.

Skeptical Americans are formulating opinions by going online and delving deeper into issues like Muslim rage and its source, rather than passively accepting the government’s stance—broadcast to them via the mainstream television networks—that bombing Afghanistan is the only course of action.

“I’m finding people are genuinely trying to become better informed,” says Doyle.

The Gulf War, which came and went with the speed of a smart bomb, was a learning experience for the Peace Center, inspiring some 2,000 people to march for peace on the streets of Missoula. It was beautiful, says Doyle, and “very classic Missoula. It’s interesting that that’s not happening right now, because I think people get it that [demonstrating] is not really appropriate. There’s a sense that we’re going through something that needs to be gone through. I think this is going to be a very different looking peace movement this time around.”

It may be just her own feelings, she says, but “I hope we’re not going to be seeing the peace sign. It’s a throwback.”

For Richard Wachs, a Quaker who is unambiguous in his opposition to the bombing of Afghanistan, this is not the time for peace symbols either, or for the kind of the peace movement that opposed the Vietnam War.

If there are phrases or symbols that can characterize this peace effort, says Wachs, they are in the signs on the Tuesday night Higgins Avenue bridge that read, “No more victims,” or Gandhi’s famous admonition: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

There is plenty of uncertainty in the peace movement right now, says Wachs. “For one thing, this just started and people’s reactions are evolving.” For another, he says, the attack was on our own soil. People who fear that violent military retaliation will just perpetuate violence are unsure how to respond to something that looks like revenge. One thing they do know, he says, is that any response on the home front to the bombing campaign must be one of respect—for all its victims.

A more appropriate reaction to Sept. 11, Wachs believes, is to treat the attacks not as an act of war, but as an international crime against humanity. That would take it out of the military realm and put it into the more civilized domain of an international court of justice. The window of opportunity to do just that opened slightly when the Taliban offered to hand over Osama bin Laden to a third country. That window closed abruptly when the United States rejected those overtures.

Asked whether a criminal trial before an international court would be a wholly unsatisfying answer to a horrific crime, Wachs points to the Oklahoma City bombing and the subsequent trial, conviction and execution of Timothy McVeigh. What the United States didn’t do, he says, was bomb Michigan, McVeigh’s home state, in retaliation. “It’s clear that there have been non-combatant casualties [in Afghanistan], and that’s no better than what happened on Sept. 11. I don’t think justice is achieved through violent means. These poor Afghans are caught in the middle. They don’t like the Taliban. They’re thugs.”

Because the war may last for years, it’s difficult to say how long the peace vigil on the Higgins Avenue bridge or the weekly discussions in Hamilton will go on.

“It’s hard to say,” says Wachs. “It’ll probably go on as long as military action is going on in Afghanistan.”

And if the American appetite for war remains voracious, those advocating peace may find themselves more at odds with their fellow Americans. “I’m walking on ice, that’s for sure,” says Wachs. “I really feel challenged in a way I never have as an activist.”

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