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Voices of Caution

Anticipating more weekend peace protests, Spencer Michels reports on a national peace movement sparked in response to the September 11th attacks.

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    War is not the answer!


    The thousands who recently attended peace rallies in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and other cities called for justice, not vengeance, but several weeks after the terrorist attacks, these protestors, including old-line peace activists, anti- globalization demonstrators, union supporters, and newcomers, were still trying to define what they were marching against, and what they were for.


    Ain't no time for hate! Ain't no time for hate!


    Many speakers, including some Palestinians, were critical of America's support for Israel, but no one was defending the deadly attacks on America. A common fear expressed by those marching was that the U.S., building up its troops in South Asia, would overreact. Angie Fa came with her two children for a simple reason:


    To make sure that leaders around the world know that moms and their families want this injustice dealt with, but we want it dealt with fairly and peacefully and not with war.


    Others said the terrorism crisis was the most serious situation since the 1960s.


    We… We lived and protested against the Vietnam War– I was one of those who did– and we see the same thing happening again.


    Some protesters feared U.S. policy was on the wrong track.


    How much sense does it make to say, "okay, let's go kill people that killed our people to show the world we don't tolerate killing"?


    While the demonstrators represented the public face of the peace movement, many longtime activists were not taking to the streets. Peter Ferenbach, executive director of California's largest and oldest peace organization, peace action, stayed away from the protests in San Francisco and Berkeley, an area that for decades has been the cradle of the nation's protest movements. He is looking beyond the traditional activists, preferring to try to reach Middle America via radio and TV. His message immediately following September 11 was that American military retaliation would be counterproductive.


    And our concern at that time, you know, within, really, the day of the attacks, was that we would quickly see a volley of cruise missiles or something to that effect. I think at this point we're quite pleased that there has been a sense of as slow and well-considered approach as there has been thus far.


    The magnitude of the terrorist attacks and the lack of a military response slowed the start of peace activities, according to Ruth Rosen, a former activist and history professor, and now an editorial writer and columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle.


    The first two weeks after the attacks, it was very difficult to speak about anything. The people were hurting so much, the pain was so excruciating, that dissent was difficult. Now I think we have returned to our democratic roots, that dissent is possible.


    Rosen says there is still a role for peace activists, but it's different than when she was in the streets.


    This is not a civil war, as Vietnam was. This is not a war that was largely about oil, as it was in the Gulf War. This is a reaction and a response to a terrorist attack on our own soil. We have to be very careful to have a responsible patriotism. We have to really protect ourselves from the impulse for retaliation, the impulse for revenge. What we have to figure out is how to address terrorism. That is not an easy question.


    As in the Vietnam era, those who dissent run the risk of having their patriotism questioned. Democrat Barbara Lee of Oakland was called a "clueless liberal" after she was the only representative to vote against giving President Bush sweeping war powers.


    Only the most foolish and the most callous would not understand the grief that has really gripped our people and millions across the world, yet I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States. However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint.


    I suspect someday Barbara Lee will be seen as having had a great deal of courage and a great deal of conviction. I don't think she's unpatriotic. I think she's a pacifist who's very concerned with having a measured and restrained response, but a strong response and an accurate response to dealing with terrorism.


    A restrained response is what Michael Lerner has been advocating in e-mails to thousands of people. Lerner is a rabbi, a veteran of the anti-war movement, and the editor of Tikkun, a progressive Jewish magazine. He has no sympathy for the terrorists, whom he considers evil.

  • MICHAEL LERNER, Tikkun Magazine:

    I want to see these people punished. I want to see them out of the public sphere. I want to see them eliminated from any kind of possibility of acting in the public arena. But at the same time, I don't want to generate new generations of these people.


    Like many peace advocates who are careful not to blame the U.S. for the terrorist attack, Lerner says that, as a long-term solution, America needs to pay attention to what he calls a "swamp of negativity" against this country.


    I think that these people were using the legitimate anger of people around the world at their poverty and their oppression, using that to justify an assault on the United States, but the fact that they can use it is because there really is a strong and legitimate anger at a country that has 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's wealth. Our wealth is directly related to other people's poverty, and when that's the case in the world, then you're going to find a great deal of anger and resentment.


    Aware of that anger at the U.S., the peace movement this time remains a work in progress: Conflicted over American policy, unsure of exactly what to advocate. And the movement in the streets remains relatively small. If the U.S. begins bombing, and if there are civilian casualties, the tenor of these demonstrations could intensify quickly.