A day for peace -- and fury

Thousands turn out in Washington to protest a war in Iraq. What they were for wasn't quite so clear.

By Michelle Goldberg

Published October 27, 2002 7:19PM (EST)

Kaffiyehs, the checked Palestinian head scarves, were selling for $15 each at the massive antiwar rally in Washington on Saturday, and they were selling well. College radicals in Che Guevara T-shirts draped them over their heads, soignie women wore them over their shoulders like pashminas, and topless girls with "Got Oil?" stickers pasted over their nipples wrapped them around their faces like revolutionaries.

It was a rally rich with spectacle and passion where radical cant competed with political substance. There were indie-rock cheerleaders jumping around crying, "Liberate! Smash the state!" and huge banners with messages like, "Defeat U.S. Imperialism: Defend Afghanistan and Iraq for Class War Against the Imperialism War." But there were plenty of committed, articulate people like Mark Arend, a programmer for Microsoft, who stood with his 13-year-old son and hoisted a sign built like a spiral notebook, each page turning to reveal a new antiwar message. He had so many reasons for opposing invasion he couldn't choose just one. "I don't have a lot of time -- I have a job and a family," he says. "But this is bugging me so much it's like a midlife crisis. I listen to the news and I have to do something."

There was even an ex-Marine, who finished his service in April after returning from Afghanistan. That was a necessary war, he said -- but this isn't. "This is a war for all the wrong reasons," he said. "Iraq has no links to al-Qaida. For the last 11 years, [the government] has been trying their damnedest to find one. Now suddenly they have some irrefutable evidence?" This was his first peace protest, and he said, "This is part of the reason I joined the military. People in this country have a right to demonstrate."

Certainly, the demonstration proved that opposition to the war on Iraq is broad and deep in America, though the mainstream media did a shamefully inadequate job of reporting on it. A small New York Times article merely said there were "thousands" of demonstrators, adding, "Fewer people attended than organizers had hoped for."

That's misleading -- while the group that called the rally, the ANSWER coalition, probably exaggerated by saying that 200,000 people turned out, the crowd was indeed massive, at least in the tens of thousands. And the D.C. Metro Police chief suggested to the Washington Post that it might have been the biggest antiwar protest since the Vietnam era. Add that to the estimated 42,000 people who marched in San Francisco, the 2,000 who converged on Donald Rumsfeld's house in New Mexico, and the thousands of other people who protested nationwide, in Europe, Mexico and Japan, and it's clear that the new peace movement has a demonstrable momentum.

What it doesn't appear to have is a powerful affirmative message to match its scathing critique of American foreign policy. If war isn't the answer, what is? "No Justice, No Peace, U.S. Out of the Middle East" doesn't cut it, unless we intend to abandon the Kurds to Saddam. "Israel out of U.S. Congress," a slogan scrawled on one sign and echoed by many marchers, is similarly insufficient, unless you believe that "our foreign policy is not made here, it is made in Israel," as Ali Azam, a protester from Binghamton, N.Y., patiently explained.

Of course, no protest speaks with one voice, and this one surely represented a broader range of opinions than the fringe radicals behind ANSWER. The basic message of Oct. 26 was simple opposition to the war on Iraq.

But it was hard to find a coherent ethical worldview to back that position up, save for a kind of masochistic isolationism. At its worst, the lack of a clear message gave way to moral emptiness, demonstrated in sickening exchanges between the handful of pro-war Iraqi dissidents who held their own rally near the Washington Monument and the antiwar marchers who responded to their tales of murder, torture and oppression with glib slogans and, occasionally, outright mockery.

Most of the Iraqis were brought from the heavily Arab city of Dearborn, Mich., by the rabidly right-wing Free Republic Foundation. The Freepers, as they like to call themselves, and their supporters were certainly deserving of jeers -- they only needed to open their mouths to discredit themselves. Adam Ramey, the buzz-cut and be-suited vice chair of Young Americans for Freedom, started frothing when a few peaceniks wandered into his orbit, bellowing, "This is communism! This is violence! USA! USA! SWIM TO CUBA! SWIM TO CUBA!"

However, the 20 or 30 Iraqis in attendance can't be dismissed as easily. There's no reason to disbelieve the stories they told -- of fathers and brothers executed by Saddam, uncles disappeared into the country's gulag and never heard from again. Such tales are given credence by any human rights group. Nearly every Iraqi there had lost a relative to the regime, and there was a devastating intensity in their voices when they cried, "People yes, Saddam no! He's a murderer, he must go!"

Dressed in a long gray robe and white turban, Imam Husham Al-Husainy seemed convinced that if the antiwar protesters knew what Saddam had done, they'd support his removal. Al-Husainy is no right-wing ideologue -- earlier this year in Michigan, he was charged with protesting without a permit for participating in a pro-Palestinian rally. He single-handedly runs Dearborn's Karbalaa Islamic Education Center, which helps Arab refugees, and he's trying to build a homeless shelter.

Saturday morning, before the two sides were separated by a line of riot police, he would approach anyone from the peace camp who wandered over, offering to tell them about life in Iraq. "They are misguided. They need to know more, they need to talk to Iraqis," he said. "We are the people who suffer. Whoever is quiet about the crimes of Saddam is sharing Saddam's crimes."

Unfortunately, the antiwar protesters had nothing at all to say about the crimes of Saddam. Operating with a political template borrowed from Vietnam, this peace movement seemed unprepared to reckon with the dictator's evil, even when its victims were staring them in the face. Speakers including Susan Sarandon, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton offered stirring indictments of the Bush administration. They made frequent references to Martin Luther King and led the crowd in chants of "Free Mumia!" A girl from Hunter College quoted Che Guevara, saying, "The bullets, what can the bullets do to me if my destiny is to die by drowning?" Someone played a taped message from Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown), who is in prison for murdering a policeman who was trying to arrest him for theft.

What was missing was any acknowledgment that opposing a war with Iraq means not removing a tyrant from power purely because the alternative could be worse.

There are good reasons to fight Bush's policies. The Pentagon hawks are driven by a domino theory that assumes democracy in Iraq will be easily achieved and will spur liberalization throughout the region. That's a scenario many critics say ignores the depth of anti-Americanism in the world and the rage that a prolonged American occupation of Iraq would likely engender. Experts such as Sandra Mackey, author of "The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein," worry that in the power vacuum following regime change, the country could erupt in a bloody sectarian conflagration. Meanwhile, the whole adventure is likely to, as Mackey says, "light a bonfire under terrorism," spurring al-Qaida recruiting. Beyond that, invading Iraq threatens to alienate the rest of the world and normalize the doctrine of preemption, making it an option for countries like China and India who nurture their own dreams of changing hostile regimes. Finally, there's simply no way to know whether Iraqis would consider a devastating bombing campaign a fair price to pay for removing a hated despot.

None of that is covered under "War is bad for children and other living things," a resuscitated slogan from the '60s that proved popular Saturday. After all, Saddam is bad for children too. He tortures them.

Perhaps this kind of discussion doesn't belong at a rally at all. Maybe a massive protest is supposed to simply be an exhilarated gathering of the faithful, a brief moment in which an often demonized radical ideology masquerades as conventional wisdom. But by not acknowledging the moral nuances of either the pro- or antiwar position, many protesters gave themselves over to simple callousness.

Phil Leif, an 18-year-old from Maryland who describes himself as "very socially liberal," was so frustrated by the protesters' failure to even mention Saddam's crimes that he found some cardboard and made a sign saying, "Saddam Is Also Guilty of Genocide. Depose and Prosecute." He walked through the crowd praising the International Criminal Court, not an idea that most lefties would seem to take offense at. Nevertheless, he was clearly off message in this crowd, and people started calling him an imperialist. He responded drolly, "Yes, I'm going to go out and conquer various developing nations."

By the afternoon, when the peace rally began marching past the pro-war group, shouting matches begun, and things got ugly. A man named Tahmir told a kid with a video camera that Saddam's forces had murdered his father and sent his family a bill for the bullet. Another man, old and bearded, wearing a wool hat and glasses, held a sign with a child's drawing of a person crying tears of blood, and the words, "Human Rights Are Abused in Iraq." A smirking white antiwar protester walked over and shouted, "War won't cure your impotence! Go prop up the Kuwaiti oligarchy!" Behind him, a woman held up a sign reading, "Powerpuff Girls for Peace" with pictures of the cherubic cartoon superheroes.

Nearby on Constitution Avenue a drum circle formed, and a few hundred people started dancing. Chants went up -- to the tune of "Who Let the Dogs Out," some sang, "Who kills Iraqis? Bush Bush Bush Bush. Who is a Nazi? Bush Bush Bush Bush." A young blond woman wore a sign that announced, with staggering self-congratulation, "I speak for the voiceless victims of war."

Meanwhile, the actual Iraqis got increasingly incensed, some screaming, "You don't know anything about Iraq!" Again, they took up their chant, "People yes, Saddam no! He's a fascist, he must go!" The peaceniks tried to drown them out with, "1, 2, 3, 4, We Don't Want Your Racist War!"

A bearded man in a devil outfit and seashell necklace, carrying a sign saying "Satan Loves America," tried to explain to the Iraqis that, in fact, the U.S. had helped arm Saddam. "You're selling your own people short," he said cryptically. An Iraqi man in a suit gave him a withering look and replied, "We know what we're doing."

By then, Leif had walked over and said to the hippie devil, "Both us and the Soviet Union are guilty of propping up murderous regimes. Should we now allow them to stay in power?" The devil replied, "Since we are the most murderous regime in the world, should we be allowed to stay in power?" He gave Leif a smug look.

By now the Iraqis were chanting in Arabic, and crying, "Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar!" (God is great.)

A man on Constitution Avenue carried a sign that might have been made just for them. "A Sincere Message to All Wannabe Warmongers," it said. "Go Fuck Yourself."

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

MORE FROM Michelle Goldberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Iraq Middle East