This post is part of a series of stories and articles I wrote exactly ten years ago, on this day in 2003. Here I talk about my reasons for protesting against the Iraq war, which had just started at that point. For more stories in the series, click here.
The dust storm came blasting down Wall Street. Luckily I saw it coming and managed to duck inside before it engulfed our building, blocking out the sun. For several minutes, crouching nervously in the darkened lobby, I tried not to think about what the dust really was. Tried not to think about the people I knew who worked in the World Trade Center, the same building now swirling around outside in pieces and particles. “It’s come home,” murmured a security guard next to me. “Now we know what it’s like.”
For the next four hours, as I walked home to the Upper East Side, I listened to snatches of conversation from other people in the dusty exodus, or from people gathered around their radios on street corners. In all that time, I heard no cries for revenge. I saw no anger. I heard no calls for war. Many were simply numb, of course, or didn’t know what to think at that stage. Those able to express opinions, however, showed a gut reaction similar to that of the security guard. “Things are going to change now,” said an old man at a church on the Lower East Side where priests were handing out wet tissues as makeshift facemasks. “You’ll see,” he continued. “We can’t go it alone any more.”
As the tributes and offers of support poured in from governments and people all over the world, it seemed for a while as if the old man was right. This horrific act seemed to have brought people together as never before. The Le Monde headline “Nous Sommes Tous Americains” was the best encapsulation of a spirit expressed in countless other ways. A few days after we at Citigroup moved back into our Wall Street offices, we received a check from employees at our branch in Afghanistan. They had held a collection for us, and had raised several hundred dollars. We received similar checks and messages from other branches around the world, but this one — from a nation I knew to be one of the poorest in the world — moved me the most. A few weeks later, the branch was closed as the bombs started falling on Kabul. The old man was wrong; we would go it alone.
And so I protest. I protest the squandering of a historic opportunity to secure peace through international cooperation. I protest waging war in the name of peace and killing people in order to set them free. I protest on behalf of the innocent who are dying – at least 3,000 in Afghanistan and 2,000 in Iraq, according to media reports collated by Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire. Just two weeks ago, 11 Afghan civilians died after a U.S. warplane dropped a 1,000-pound laser-guided bomb on their house in Bagram. I protest on behalf of children who have picked up cluster bombs thinking they were food packages, and on behalf of the people mutilated by daisy-cutters and bunker-busters. I protest on behalf of the 250 U.S. and British soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Center for Defense Information, and for all those Iraqi and Afghan soldiers whose bodies will probably never be counted. I protest because those deaths are on my conscience.
If this sounds pious or moralistic, I apologize. But morality is important. Officials argue that liberating the Iraqi people was the moral thing to do – Dick Cheney, for example, recently called pre-emptive attacks on terrorist nations “a moral duty.” However, the Pope condemned the assault on Iraq as “a defeat for humanity” and almost all other religious leaders have also spoken out against it. They’ve been unequivocal in saying that the end does not justify the means, and that we simply do not have the moral authority to decide to sacrifice thousands of people’s lives, even to set them free. Like everyone else, I was happy to see Saddam’s statue come down, to see those smiling Iraqis waving the American flags they’d presumably been saving just for the occasion. But those images of liberation could not erase from my mind the images of charred bodies in cars, stray limbs lying on dusty streets and children with parts of their faces missing. On questions of morality, I choose to believe the Pope over Dick Cheney.
On a more practical level, why protest? What does it achieve? After all, as CNN anchor Aaron Brown said recently, “It’s over. It’s on, it’s being done. To talk now, at this moment, about whether it should or should not have been is not the right time.” Many invoked the name of “the troops” to try to silence protesters. Mayor Bloomberg said in his weekly radio address last month, “Now that the fighting is under way, I don’t think it matters whether a week ago you favored or opposed launching this effort to disarm Saddam Hussein. The important thing is that we’re all united in supporting our men and women in uniform.”
The vast majority of the 300,000 New Yorkers who’d marched down Broadway the previous day would agree wholeheartedly with the mayor’s second point. American flags abounded, and “Support Our Troops – Bring Them Home” was one of the most prominent signs of the day. Whereas early protests were populated mainly by hard-bitten Vietnam-era peaceniks, this time most of the marchers looked as if they had come straight from brunch. Cell phones and baby strollers abounded. Although some of the signs were rude – “George, if we say your Dick is bigger than Saddam’s, will you call off the war?” – the mood was far from angry. Dancers, reggae music, drums and trumpets helped to create more of a carnival atmosphere. Residents on either side of Broadway draped messages of support out of their windows. A tiny girl on a fifth-floor balcony blew a resounding blast on a conch shell, then turned to cling to her mother as she was drowned out only by the cheers and whistles of thousands in the street below. As the afternoon wore on, people even began to commit the cardinal New York sin of chatting with strangers, but nobody seemed to mind. Many were visibly drawing strength from being with others who shared their views, backing up a recent University of Sussex study which found that protesting may have significant health benefits. Certainly not a single sign I saw nor a single person I spoke to had anything negative to say about the troops. Yet newspapers still contrasted our “anti-war” rally with the “pro-troop” rallies held in other cities. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, in a time when the English language is so routinely distorted, that “supporting the troops” has come to mean putting them in harm’s way, while those who want to keep them safe are accused of undermining them.
But aside from the health benefits, why do we have to hit the streets? Why get in people’s way, disrupt traffic and stop ordinary people from going about their business? We have a right to our opinions, but isn’t it selfish to put our agenda ahead of everyone else’s? More importantly, why keep the police occupied at a time when they are trying to cope with the heightened threat resulting from the war on terrorism?
My simple answer to those questions is that we have no choice. Those opposed to a unilateral war in Iraq – the majority of the American people – tried several strategies before resorting to street protests. While Congress debated the use of force in Iraq last October, citizens called their representatives. All over the country, representatives reported receiving thousands of phone calls and emails, overwhelmingly against the resolution authorizing the president to attack Iraq. Jan Schakowksy (D-Ill.) received more than 5,000 letters, phone calls and emails, with only 18 supporting unilateral war. Democratic Senator Robert Byrd received 18,000 calls and 50,000 emails from his West Virginia constituents in the week before the war, almost all backing his opposition to the resolution. In Wisconsin, representatives from both parties reported mail and phone calls running strongly against military action, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colorado) received 3,000 calls, of which five supported the war. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) received 650 calls from his Silver City constituents, 98 percent of which urged him to oppose the resolution. Yet the resolution passed. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) received 11,000 calls in the week before the vote, with 10,850 of them calling on her to oppose the resolution; she voted for it.
Many of the New York area representatives explained their decisions on a radio show at the time. The following exchange with Rep. Vito Fossella (R-NY) of Staten Island was typical: “The calls I’ve been getting are seven or eight to one against the resolution,” he said.
“So how will you be voting?” asked the host.
“I’ll be voting for the resolution,” Fossella replied.
Clearly, Congress should not simply respond to whoever shouts the loudest. But it should take into account the will of the people it represents. The majority of Americans have always disliked a unilateral war in Iraq. A CBS News poll in February found that while 63 percent of Americans supported military action in Iraq, only 38 percent supported a war without United Nations approval. These figures remained consistent throughout the debate over Iraq – a majority never favored unilateral war, until it actually happened and people rallied around the troops.
President Bush’s popularity declined from 88 percent in late September 2001 to 52 percent this February, according to Harris polls. With Cheney, Rumsfeld and Ashcroft all suffering similar declines, the only member of the Bush cabinet to maintain high approval was Colin Powell, widely seen as its most dovish member, who still had 76 percent support in February.
With Congress abdicating its constitutional responsibility to conduct foreign policy, the majority of American people who opposed a unilateral war might have at least expected their views to be represented in the media. Yet advocates for peace comprised less than one percent of all sources on network nightly news shows, according to a February study by the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). Some peace groups resorted to paying for media access, placing advertisements in the New York Times or on television. But even then, many ads were pulled from the airwaves, especially as the war approached. CNN refused to broadcast an anti-war advertisement by former ice cream vendors Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, for example, saying, “CNN does not take advocacy ads related to regions in conflict.”
Meanwhile, advocates for war could freely hammer home their message 24 hours a day. Former generals and intelligence officials were invited on talk shows, and government officials merely had to call a press conference or leak information to a reporter to get their points of view across. The FAIR study found that 76 percent of network news sources were current or former government officials. Although some of these officials were against the war, many peace activists were uncomfortable with being represented by Norman Schwarzkopf.
So the best chance for opponents of the war to make themselves heard was to protest. Since media coverage is event-driven, 150 million Americans opposing the war is not news, but 150,000 of them marching in the streets is. Even a dozen people can make the news if they get themselves arrested. Anti-war protests are just like government press conferences – staged media events designed to transmit a message to the rest of the country. Whereas top government officials get guaranteed coverage, however, ordinary people have to work harder to be heard. Hence they resort to sit-ins, die-ins, street theater, civil disobedience, all those annoying activities.
Despite the polls and protests, the war proceeded anyway. President Bush has repeatedly called the protesters’ views unimportant, and for once his actions seem to have born out his words. But history suggests that protests have a greater effect than officially acknowledged at the time. Richard Nixon, for example, said of the anti-Vietnam movement in 1969, “Under no circumstance will I be affected whatever by it.” Yet he wrote in his Memoirs nine years later, “Although publicly I continued to ignore the raging antiwar controversy. . . I knew that after all the protests and the Moratorium, American public opinion would be seriously divided by any military escalation of the war.” The Pentagon Papers also show that protests were a concern. A 1968 Pentagon report warned, “This growing disaffection accompanied, as it certainly will be, by increased defiance of the draft and growing unrest in the cities. . . runs great risks of provoking a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions.”
Provoking a domestic crisis is more important now than ever. At a time when government officials are publicly threatening Syria and reportedly planning to build permanent military bases in Iraq amid growing Iraqi opposition, people must speak out. Their actions may influence government policy, as the Vietnam protests influenced Johnson and Nixon. They will also show the world that not all Americans agree with their government’s aggressive actions. Just as we would not know of the Iraqi people’s views on occupation if they weren’t in the streets protesting, they will not know ours unless we do the same. Those who shout “Death to America” would win far fewer recruits if we could show people that most Americans don’t want a “clash of civilizations.”
Protests are an essential way for people to communicate with one another and an intrinsic element of democracy. The framers of the Constitution included the right to assemble in the First Amendment for good reason: they realized that freedom of speech is meaningless without the freedom to be heard. People march in the streets when they feel that they are not being heard.
At a recent peace vigil in Union Square, I spoke with an 84-year-old man who had been arrested a few days earlier for boarding the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid. “I never took part in these civil disobedience acts before,” he said. “I never wanted to. But with things the way they are, I just felt it was something I had to do.” Protest is the last resort of the voiceless. And as people become angrier at war and feel increasingly voiceless, the protests will only get louder.