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Peace movement speedily mobilizes


The most surprising thing about the current peace movement is not that it has tapped a new generation of activists (it has), or that it is able to mobilize thousands on any given day to protest Bush administration policy (it can), or even that it gets a share of mainstream media exposure -- our 24/7 cable news culture guarantees that.

It is the speed with which the movement has grown and the level of organization that exists within its managerial ranks.

As he makes the rounds of news conferences, prayer vigils and peace demonstrations, National Council of Churches General Secretary Robert Edgar compares the current moment with January 1975. Edgar was a leading member of the “Class of ’74” -- the post-Watergate Democrats elected to Congress “to shut down a war.” Even in 1975, the effort to block additional U.S. military funding for the soon-to-fall South Vietnamese government took monumental effort, Edgar, a Methodist minister, recalled.

It had been a long struggle: the first major demonstrations to protest that war didn’t occur until the spring of 1967, more than two years after Congress authorized military escalation through the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.

Fast forward to 2002.

On Oct. 26, just two weeks after Congress gave authority for war against Iraq, thousands (hundreds of thousands according to organizers) took to the streets to protest U.S. policy. Europeans have turned out in even greater numbers.

And on Dec. 11 -- International Human Rights Day -- more than 120 protests and events were held around the country. Demonstrators marched at the White House, at military recruiting facilities nationwide, and at federal courthouses across the country. Nearly 100 were arrested in New York for blocking access to the U.S. mission at the United Nations.

On that same day, former President Jimmy Carter, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, warned against “preventive war,” cautioning that it could have “catastrophic consequences.”

Additional protests and events are planned throughout December, in what the National Council of Churches terms its “Season for Peacemaking.” A large demonstration is planned in Washington for the Martin Luther King birthday holiday Jan. 20.

This peace movement has its old guard, of which the National Council of Churches -- an organization of 36 Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox member denominations -- has been at the forefront. From its Capitol Hill offices, the group coordinated lobbying efforts prior to the Congressional resolution authorizing force; now, it organizes protests.

Most recently, it sponsored a full-page advertisement in The New York Times addressed directly to President Bush: “Your war would violate the teachings of Jesus Christ. It would violate the tenets, prayers and entreaties of your own United Methodist Church bishops.”

Other religious groups in the antiwar campaign include the American Friends Service Committee, Bread for the World, Church of the Brethren, the Catholic social justice lobby Network, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the Lutheran Office on Governmental Affairs and Pax Christi USA. The U.S. Catholic bishops added a level of support, with a November statement questioning the morality of a U.S.-led attack.

The peace coalition includes some secular upstarts. On Dec. 11, for example, MoveOn.org sponsored yet another full-page New York Times advertisement calling on the administration to “Let the Inspections Work.” Created by two Silicon Valley software entrepreneurs to oppose the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, MoveOn.org has transformed itself into the leading Internet-based antiwar organizing tool.

Meanwhile, the far left -- some call it “Maoist” -- International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism), was the primary organizer of the Oct. 26 demonstrations in Washington and San Francisco, and is taking the lead on the planned January demonstration in Washington.

Add to this mix: college students and their professors (more than 13,000 signed a letter to President Bush opposing an attack), labor unions, and now, celebrities. On Dec. 10, more than 100 entertainers -- actors Matt Damon, Martin Sheen, Angelica Huston and David Duchovny among them -- urged a solution short of war.

Lacking among the usual suspects is the leadership of the national Democratic Party. Its prospective presidential candidates (with the exception of Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and former Vice President Al Gore) generally support the administration’s policy.

In the six months since Iraq moved front-and-center, opponents of intervention have had their successes. With broad public support (more than one-third of Americans polled express serious reservations when asked if the United States should attack Iraq), they and their allies in Congress pushed the administration to seek U.N. support prior to taking action. The inspection regime that resulted has bought more time to make the case for stopping short of war. And it might yet avert invasion.

But the administration is betting that a war against Iraq will be completed quickly. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the fighting should not last more than five weeks. Such a victory would not necessarily silence the administration’s critics, but their chance to be heard amid the celebration on the home front would be extinguished.

If, however, the administration has miscalculated -- if the conflict is bloodier, wider or lengthier than anticipated -- President Bush could share the fate of the last Texan to hold the White House, unable to govern a deeply divided country.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, December 20, 2002