Can't we all just get along?

As the cry for vengeance grows louder at home, American pacifists call for restraint.

By Jeff Stark - Suzy Hansen

Published September 18, 2001 12:35AM (EDT)

A military bombing is the worst thing that America could do in response to Tuesday's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, says historian and Boston University professor emeritus Howard Zinn.

"[Bombing] can only inflame more hatred against us," he says. "It can turn angry people into fanatically angry people and fanatically angry people into terrorists."

Zinn isn't alone. As the Bush administration plots a military response to what the president has repeatedly declared an "act of war," and receives from Congress $40 billion to fund an anti-terror campaign, an emerging chorus of activists, professors, intellectuals and peace and justice organizations have begun to sound together for a nonviolent response to the terrorist attacks.

There's hardly a consensus among the various groups and individuals, and many are not communicating with one another yet, but there is some communication and a few common threads amid the messages. In short, they all express emotions from sorrow to horror at the attacks, and all want to see those responsible brought to justice. But they are mostly quick to point out that a broader military response -- against, for example, countries that harbor terrorists, as Bush said -- can not possibly wipe away terrorism, and could potentially kill innocent civilians.

"There are non-violent alternatives that conform to the rule of law," said Noam Chomsky, who has long been a radical critic of American policy. "But they do not even reach the agenda. Instead, the announced reaction is the resort to extreme violence, with the likely consequence of escalating the cycle of violence in a dynamic that is quite familiar."

"The question is not why nonviolence is appropriate, but why a war is not going to work," says Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington think tank. "It never has in the past. Every time the U.S. has tried to use military strikes to respond to terrorist activities it has not reached the alleged perpetrator or stopped the terrorism. It has killed lots of innocent people."

In New York, directly after the attacks, dozens of local activists met on two hours notice to begin talking. Members of New York City Direct Action Network, a group that works toward several socially progressive causes and particularly against globalization, called together the first meeting at Charas, a local community center. Since then, they have met three other times, drawing up to 250 people at each meeting.

Direct Action Network's Marina Sitrin says that those meetings have produced four groups of activists working in four different areas: volunteer relief efforts, anti-racist vigilance, anti-war materials and a Friday peace vigil that drew thousands of people with candles and signs like "NYC Wants Justice, Not Revenge" to Union Square.

New York activist and writer L.A. Kauffman printed up 4,000 palm-size fliers with the message "Mourn the victims, stand for peace. Islam is not the enemy, war is not the answer. Work for peace and justice." "While there may be a lot of support across the country for going to war, the feeling [in New York] is that people who are here, or who witnessed the crash, or who were personally touched by all the destruction and death don't want to see any more killing," she says. "They want the people who did this brought to justice, but they don't want to see any more innocents killed."

Nationwide, activists are trading e-mail messages and peace and justice organizations, like the Ruckus Society, Human Rights Watch and the War Resisters League among others, are issuing statements against violent retribution. Eric Garris, an antiwar activist since Viet Nam and the editor of, a publication of the Center for Libertarian Studies, has collected hundreds of stories on a regularly updated Web log as well as published several stories and editorials by his small staff and other activists, intellectuals and writers. "The attitude seems to be 'ready, fire, aim' -- bomb them all and let God sort it out. It's going to result in more blowback against the United States."

In San Francisco, Global Exchange, a nonprofit research, education and action center and human rights organization with 10,000 members, is organizing at the same time that its members grieve and mourn, says spokesperson Jason Mark. The organization is especially focused on making sure that Arab-Americans do not become scapegoats for the World Trade Center tragedy, but it is also planning a "peace concert" this weekend at the Presidio, a former Army base in San Francisco.

"Our main concern is that in pursuing justice we don't create further tragedies or trade other innocent lives for these innocent lives," says Mark. "It will spiral us down into an abyss of suffering. We're trying to urge our supporters and members to call members of Congress and encourage them to not retaliate in a way that will result in the loss of innocent lives."

Peace Action, which claims to have the largest activist network of any peace and justice organization in the country, echoes those ideas. Development director Peter Deccy says that the organization's local chapters have mostly been involved in organizing vigils and worship services, and that the national organization will meet Monday in a conference call to discuss what message they want to encourage their network of activists to push to their representatives in Congress.

"We're concerned first of all that violent response will simply breed more anger and hatred, cause more violence and perpetuate this spiral," says Deccy. "The second thing is that we believe the U.S. needs to avoid acting like a vigilante. Just because we have the power does not give us the right to exact revenge."

Stephen Zunes, an associate professor and chair of the peace and justice studies program at the University of San Francisco, says he is spending more time on analysis than mobilization right now, but nevertheless he is communicating with members of the progressive caucus, a small group that includes 40 congressional representatives, by sending e-mail to staffers who work on foreign policy.

"I am of course horrified and grief-stricken as any American; I just hope that we don't have foreign policy as catharsis," says Zunes. "Our foreign policy should not be based on our anger and frustration, but based on what is the most ethical and practical actions we can take."

Zinn, however, is a little wary that Congress is apparently so bellicose. "I haven't heard a sane word from anyone in Congress," he says. "I haven't seen anyone offering intelligent alternatives to what the government is doing. There have been other people who have written in newspapers, letters to editors -- they've been lone voices. They have been overwhelmed by revenge."

[Actually, shortly after Salon interviewed Zinn, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, did vote against the House resolution authorizing force Friday. "Let's step back for a moment and think through the implications of our action today so that it does not spiral out of control," Lee said in explaining her decision. But the resolution passed 420-1.]

"The only short-term thing [the U.S.] can do is desist from retaliation and tell the world that we're reconsidering a policy of selling arms to oppressive governments or spend larger sums of money to help countries that are poor. We need to present ourselves to the world not as a marauding nation, but as a peaceful nation. As a nation dedicated to the use of our resources for peaceful purposes and not military purposes."

Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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