Time for a College Anti-War Movement?
Published on Saturday, September 22, 2001
Time for a College Anti-War Movement?
by Chris Toensing
As the apparent US military intervention in Afghanistan to hunt down Usama bin Laden and "those who harbor him" gathers steam, it's hard to find a single cautionary voice in the mainstream media. Not surprisingly, the nascent movement against "America's new war" is being told not to challenge the wisdom of its elders. In our debased democracy, condescension and ridicule are often more effective weapons for stifling dissent than force and intimidation.

Most coverage of the September 20 campus protests told us that students protest war because they're youthful idealists or because they're afraid of being drafted. The conclusion is inescapable: those who call for peace are either na´ve or cowardly. Hardly any reports mentioned the other component of the protests. In addition to opposing the administration's inexorable march into battle, the students demanded that the people who planned, or aided and abetted, the crimes of September 11 face the legal consequences of their depredations. "We're searching for justice, and we want action," said Michelle Oliveros-Larsen of Amherst College in the Chronicle of Higher Education. "We just don't want violent action." You probably won't hear about this highly sensible alternative to war - that the US treat the September 11 attacks as crimes and pursue the perpetrators through the mechanisms of international law - unless you're close to a college campus. But you won't hear about it from everyone on campus.

Ruth Simmons, distinguished president of Brown University, was a guest commentator on ABC News after George W. Bush announced the Dubya Doctrine before Congress on the evening of September 20. Peter Jennings asked her to explain how Dubya's uncompromising rhetoric of war would play in the scented groves of academe. Simmons acknowledged that some students were upset by the thought of war, but then she too ascribed these uncertainties to youth, inexperience and possibly fear. She couldn't bring herself to say that the protesters might be opposed to bombing Afghanistan for political reasons, or even that college students might have a political thought during this rapidly unfolding crisis. They're young. They don't know what to think.

This was condescension by omission. It gets a lot worse.

Walter Shapiro, columnist for the USA Today, sunk to the depths of condescension in his piece about the campus activism. He used to be anti-war himself, he wrote, when he was a student and the US was preparing to carpet Vietnam with napalm and bombs. Then he grew up, and lost his innocence. "Nothing my generation has done in life could prevent the human tragedy of last week." True, but get ready for the quantum leap in logic. Because we couldn't stop the terror attacks, we have no option in the current crisis but to line up behind Dubya. When today's students are "middle-aged" like Shapiro is, they'll probably understand this, too. But first they just have to get that piss and vinegar out of their systems.

"So march for peace if you must," Shapiro concluded. "Feel free to mourn the deaths of innocent civilians no matter in what country they once resided. But, in the end, please remember that patriotism transcends mere flag-waving. Patriotism is instead the shared commitment of 285 million Americans to mourn those who tragically perished last week and to resolve, with every ounce of our collective fiber, to create a world that will be truly safe for your youthful idealism." You know that better world you want? Only the Pentagon can get it for you. Now sit down and mind your manners.

Shapiro's silly blather reminded me of a history lecture I once suffered through. The professor told her students that the student movement against the Vietnam war was little but a "replay of nineteenth-century romanticism" peopled by spoiled white rich kids who just couldn't understand that there really are villains in the world. Well, perhaps the antiwar protesters in the Vietnam era were mostly drawn from the comfortable middle classes, and perhaps there were many in their ranks who joined the movement just for the drugs and the free love. That doesn't even begin to discredit their message that the US war in Vietnam was an unjust and ill-considered adventure that killed thousands of defenseless peasants and ravaged a country. Thirty years after the Vietnam war, history has vindicated them. Don't ask an old peacenik. Ask Robert McNamara, one of the architects of the war in the Johnson administration. A few years ago, he publicly recanted his tireless flacking for the war while in office.

In the Vietnam era, as today, the Establishment told protesters to be quiet and let the people in power do their job. The protesters refused. Today there's much less room for questioning the perspicacity of the occupants of the White House as they dispatch the armed forces to distant locales, once again subjecting American soldiers and untold numbers of foreign civilians to the law of unintended consequences. Protest will grow slowly, but it will grow. Undoubtedly, as the antiwar movement finds its legs, the nation's editorial pages will be filled with belittling comparisons of today's protesters to the Vietnam generation.

I have a different message for the students who know in their bones that whatever the nest of hawks in Washington cooks up to fight terrorism is highly unlikely to prevent future acts of terror, and that the operations envisioned in the Dubya Doctrine cannot possibly serve the interests of peace and justice, either here or abroad. Don't be cowed into silence. Don't shut up because you're being "disrespectful of authority." Above all, don't let the poohbahs who shape public opinion talk down to you.

Don't march for peace and justice "if you must." March for peace and justice because you must. In a democracy, concerned citizens have both the right and the obligation to object when their government pursues wrong-headed policies in their name. Since even the few genuine progressives in the Democratic Party won't sound a discordant note in the deafening media-Pentagon chorus, it's all up to you. You are one of the few flickers of light and hope in this ever darkening time.

Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report (www.merip.org), a publication of the Middle East Research and Information Project.