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One Saturday, when world said no to war

The television anchors who have served in recent weeks more as cheerleaders for Pentagon plans than news people appeared genuinely surprised.

Accustomed to dusting off reports of protests against war with a skeptical wink about numbers, they had to acknowledge that something qualitatively and quantitatively different was happening this Saturday, in the case of New York studios, right outside their windows.

The crowds were impressively large, and peaceful, and made up of middle-class suburbanites. While the anti-globalization, anti-World Bank regulars were certainly part of the show, these crowds were drawing from everywhere but the normal casting pool of protesters.

And it was happening all over the world. Hundreds of cities, millions of people.

What to make of all this? Was it a one-shot wonder, a one-time convergence of contrarians? Or is there something more to it, some emerging consensus that many in the world really want to shuck the husk of violent behavior that for too long has enveloped the race?

It is interesting that the demonstrations should arise, almost quietly and, as much as such gatherings can, spontaneously, just as we were becoming convinced that blood of the most violent of all centuries just passed was flowing unimpeded into the new century and the new millennium.

In the 19th century, public or individual objection to wars was practically nonexistent. That changed with World War I and the unbelievably callous mass slaughter. Imagine the numbers -- three countries alone lost a total of 4 million young men: Britain, 1 million; France, 1.3 million; Russia, 1.7 million.

Those numbers penetrated European psyches. There were 22 million casualties in World War I; 57 percent of all the combatants were injured. Though some conscientious objectors opposed World War I, they were usually treated disgracefully, both shamed and punished.

Could it be that through the rest of that century, through the awful horror of a second World War, the detonation of two atomic weapons, the regional wars, civil wars, the madness of the Mutually Assured Destruction strategy, humans have begun to look for alternatives?

The millions of people on five continents who demonstrated Feb. 15 marched, yes, to oppose an invasion of Iraq. But many took to the streets because they despise our military power, our cultural hegemony, our empire.

The nearest comparison is not to Vietnam, though that is the media shorthand (“In the largest demonstrations since the Vietnam War …”) No, these demonstrations more closely resemble the European anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s. There, to counter a Soviet buildup, Presidents Carter and Reagan proposed a new generation of intermediate-range nuclear weapons on the European continent. The ensuing demonstrations were less about a nuclearized Europe -- that day had already passed -- than how Europe saw itself in relation to the great powers.

The same argument is being played out today. Except it’s not just Europe erupting in anti-American frenzy, and there are no dueling powers. There is just us. We don’t have the power -- we are the power.

This Iraq war is the first major conflict of the post-Cold War era, the first massive intervention planned in the era of unfettered U.S. power. But it is only the first.

As a matter of policy, the U.S. reserves the right to intervene preemptively and unilaterally when it determines a threat to its interests. Some say this is a new doctrine, but it is not. It is as old as empire.

National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 2003