The vision of a healthy, dynamic, impressively powerful country having a tortured, ongoing internal dialogue about its actions serves to inspire rather than discourage dreams
In cities across the country and around the world, marchers took to the streets. The protests in this country, ranging from massive to very small, were ongoing.
The protest veterans didn't really expect to stop the war machine. Some just knew in their gut that, in the face of the madness, they had to make a stand. Others, thinking more strategically, felt that with polls showing such strong support for the invasion, just seeing the masses of people in opposition might suggest a rethinking: Obviously, far more people supported the invasion, but were Americans willing to completely discount the views of so many fellow citizens?
The young marchers, who knows what they were thinking? Some were naive, some were outraged, and almost all were passionate. To listen to them was mostly to hear ideas all shoved and jumbled together. When you are old, often listening to the young entails being confronted by a language you don't begin to understand. Which doesn't mean it is not valuable and wise just that you don't speak it.
They were there in large numbers. Maybe they thought they could really stop the war. Once we, too, thought we could effect change quickly. We learned. They will learn. The wrong things seem to move quickly, while everything else is so slow.
But the marches just further marginalized the anti-war movement and liberals in general. Retrenchment, rather than rethinking, occurred. Instead of bringing the community together, they further tore it apart. The minority's voice antagonized the majority much more than gave it cause for concern.
The right and those who supported the invasion were outraged. "Couldn't we, the people of these United States, do anything without agonizing self-examination and recrimination?" seems to be their line of thinking. "Especially when we are going to war on terror?
"These protests were unpatriotic, if not outright treason. As Americans, we have the right to protest, so we shouldn't protest at least certain things at certain times. Soldiers died to preserve that right, so protesting against anything having to do with soldiers was hypocrisy."
People who had never traveled much, certainly not to the Middle East, seemed to understand perfectly the situation there in a way protesters did not: Seeing these anti-war protests gave aid and comfort to the enemy. Web sites, e-mail, satellite, and cable TV brought the images of these protests to the far reaches of the world. We were reassuring Hussein that we would not invade and empowering our enemies by convincing them we were divided and weak.
These people believed that the Iraqi people would welcome the U.S. with open arms and strewn flowers. They knew that the Iraqis would not dare oppose us. They understood that this was a campaign against terror, that we were taking the war to the enemy, that our armed might and willingness to use it would serve notice to terrorists around the globe and dissuade them from their actions.
The same people knew that the protestors in the streets of America were traitors, that they were betraying their country, that they were serving Bin Laden and al Qaeda, not the Bill of Rights they so fecklessly cited.
The war proved to be, if anything, more of a mistake than feared, because even less planning had gone into the post-invasion occupation than anyone would have believed possible.
Some wonder why we still quibble over the beginning of the war. This country has to acknowledge to itself, in some way, that we went to war for the wrong reasons and worst expectations.
This is so that we don't do the same thing again. Even now voices on the right are contemplating invading Iran, Syria, or North Korea. Over time, the disastrous quagmire in Iraq could encourage those who seek another invasion as a way of distracting attention from this country's and its leaders' mistakes. In order to try to arrive at some way out of the situation, we must begin by acknowledging how we got there.
How do we get out? Unilateral withdrawal isn't practical; we'll guarantee a long, bloody civil war, for which we will be rightly blamed. As much as this invasion was a mistake, most of the insurgents we're fighting are not noble, patriotic champions. What they want for their country is for us to be out, and then who knows? Ideologically and morally, those who protest the war have very little in common with those fighting against the occupation.
I don't even know for what, realistically, to hope. I hope, without much confidence, that you're right if you really think that the Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and other minorities are going to come together in a moderate, secular republic through the wonders of democracy. Those of us who have tried to live our political lives supporting many of the ideas expressed by the president in his inaugural address can only hope that the speech was not simply rhetorical smoke and mirrors that instead of being just another way of again justifying an ill-considered, ill-timed, and unnecessary invasion, it really indicates the willingness of our government to embrace the long-held progressive international agenda.
Those of us who opposed the invasion did not support Saddam Hussein or oppose democracy. Those who did are willing to say anything to obfuscate the issue. These semantic betrayals by the warmongers can trip up almost any argument or make black seem white, but they can't drown the truth forever. Those of us who believe in democracy and believe in the desirability and inevitability of all governments to embrace democracy and become some form of constitutional republic know this can't be done at the end of a gun. It can't be done quickly, nor can it be accomplished with military invasions and bombing raids.
We've seen the peaceful electoral revolution in Ukraine, and though nervous about the long run, we saw the huge voter turnout in Afghanistan. We saw the Palestinian elections, and we have to hope that those in Iraq go better than almost anyone expects (no matter what they may be saying publicly). Many have worked for free and fair elections in countries around the world for much of their lives.
There is something else we know. The anti-war protests in democracies throughout the world encouraged freedom.
It was not the invasion of Iraq that inspired the Ukrainian people to take to the streets; it was all those protests against that war. The world did watch. They watched as protesters marched. They watched as protesters were not attacked by the police, as they were not imprisoned or killed. By the hundreds of thousands, they made their voices heard, their opinions known. They watched people who got up in the morning, spent a day at a protest, and went home not to hide or wait in fear, but to resume their ordinary lives.
If you believe even a little of what Bush suggested at the inaugural, people long for freedom; they want to be free of fear, of repression, of abuse. They want their voices heard and their opinions, even when not listened to, respected. Just like those protesters.
None of them wants his or her country to be invaded. They don't want their cities and homes destroyed, their countrymen and relatives killed and wounded. But millions of them want to be empowered. They will be.
Watch Iran. If we manage not to invade it, that country will see a revolution in the next few years, one with which the people take back their government and their lives.
I know the word is that Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War one high noon by strapping on his six guns and facing down our enemies. Sorry to disagree, but I've always figured that Soviet Communism was done in by the dreams of freedom of its people, dreams fueled less by the Gipper than by blue jeans, rock & roll, and American television shows.
Time will tell, but I suspect, as so often has been the case in our history, the real patriots were not those who so loudly declared themselves so while they unquestioningly followed the government. Instead, it is those who protested, who inspired people around the world to dream of freedom inspired people to take to the streets and to line up at the ballot boxes. The vision of a healthy, dynamic, impressively powerful country having a tortured, ongoing internal dialogue about its actions serves to inspire rather than discourage dreams.
Already we are deep in South by Southwest preplanning, so the next couple of columns will sound the bell and post the notices of what's coming.
If you haven't checked out The Austin Chronicle's online Postmarks forums (austinchronicle.com/forum), let me recommend you do so. The dialogue is often quite interesting, and the voices heard are not those specifically represented in popular media. I will note, just in passing, that people get wrapped up in terms and stop thinking about words. I rarely cite the First Amendment as the basis for an argument, for example, because free speech is crucial to the functioning of an open and dynamic society (so, though the First Amendment codifies the necessary, free speech would be just as important without it). Likewise, one can have "traditional checks and balances" that evolved within the legislative process and stand quite apart from those mandated by the Constitution (see responses to "Republicans More Stable and Sensible,"austinchronicle.com/forum).