As the calls for war in the mainstream media and the halls of power grow louder, with Senator John McCain speaking for many when he said, "God may have mercy on them, but we won't," a different kind of response has been building as well.
The peace community -- from established groups like Peace Action and the Fellowship of Reconciliation to grassroots activists across the country -- has united in a strong, consistent and deeply heartfelt response. Reading the statements being put out, one sees clearly that the entire community joins wholeheartedly with the nation in condemning the brutal attack of two days ago, and in the fear, grief and shattering sense of loss it has occasioned.
There is also widespread agreement that there should be no rush to judgment and no massive "retaliation" that would target the innocent civilians of any country. Noting that international law does not recognize any right of retaliation or vengeance (Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which governs the use of force, requires that any action be taken only with the permission, and under the auspices of, the Security Council, the only exception being self-defense against imminent attack which does not include vengeance for past attacks), Peace Action and others are calling clearly for any remaining perpetrators to be brought to justice through legal channels, with international cooperation.
Very similar sentiments were expressed in a community discussion last night, organized by Austin's progressive activist community. Two hundred and fifty people came together, to express their emotions and their experiences, to share ideas and information, and to plan future actions.
From the beginning, it was clear that people really needed to talk. There was no good way to cope with the flurry of hands that was raised at every pause.
One young man tearfully expressed his fear that, with all the talk of America going to war, the draft would be reinstated and that he would have to kill or die in an effort he opposed. Several were afraid of the loss of our civil liberties. Others shared their fear for friends, relatives and friends of friends who worked near the World Trade Centers, and who had not been heard from. Everyone felt grief and anger that so many innocent people were killed.
Many, however, expressed strong emotions of a different kind. Deep disquiet with their friends and acquaintances caught up in a vortex of fury, often racist in tone. Anger at the mainstream media, almost universally perceived to be even worse than government officials in their constant calls for blood -- somebody's, anybody's. Guilt, pain and sorrow on contemplating the seemingly inevitable killing of innocent civilians being planned by our government.
And, far and away the most common feeling, isolation. Many expressed their heartfelt gratitude that the discussion had been organized, because they had been feeling, "Nobody else thinks the way I do."
After talking through their feelings, many who had been sunk in despair felt newly energized to do what they could to head off war, and the discussion ended in a massive organizing meeting.
The lesson is clear. There are many, many people in this country who see clearly that one killing of innocents will not be requited by another, that a radically different path is needed to assure our security and that of people in other parts of the world.
In the days to come, if those people rely only on the television and the big daily newspapers, they will feel isolated and beleaguered, deprived of their voices and their democratic right to help shape the public dialogue.
That will be a tremendous tragedy. Even though this is an incredibly difficult time to speak up, and voices against war will inevitably be branded as apologists for terror, this is also a very important time to speak up. Americans have seen up close the tangible effects of our foreign policy, and they are interested as they have not been since the nuclear freeze movement, maybe even since the Vietnam war.
Let us call, then, for communities across the country to have similar dialogues, to work through feelings of pain, fear and grief and begin to fashion a coherent response to warmongering before the war is upon us. We who favor peace must create our own national dialogue before we can hope to influence the larger one.
Austin could have such a large meeting on such short notice because of a multi-year sustained effort (www.nowarcollective.com), centering around antiwar work, that has built up a very large (4,000) email announcement and rapid response list. Localities without that kind of infrastructure may take a little longer, but the need for timely action is great.
Rahul Mahajan is an antiwar activist, and serves on the Coordinating Committee of the National Network to End the War Against Iraq and the Board of Directors of Peace Action. He can be reached at email@example.com.