From the top floor of 330 42nd Street in New York you can see both the Empire State building now bathed at its summit in a red, white and blue light and, to the south, the cloud of smoke that still hangs over the ruins of the World Trade Center. The resonance of both sights could not be missed by the hundreds of people who poured into the penthouse conference hall made available by a local union one night last week.
It was a snapshot of New Yorkers: young, old, black, white, brown, Puerto Rican, Indian, Vietnamese, Mexican, Jewish, Islamic, Catholic, scruffy, smart, stroppy, witty, hip, self- confident, about half of them men, half women. Depending on what happens now in what CNN calls "America's new war", the gathering on this humid New York night, 33 floors above the hustlers of Times Square, could have a small part in history.
This was the first major meeting of a growing antiwar movement in the United States. There were young women from Sarah Lawrence College and burly organizers from the Service Employees International Union who had lost colleagues in the attack - some 29 members in all. There was the organized left and the disorganized left and many who had lost friends or colleagues and were disturbed by the rhetoric calling for violent retribution.
Here, for instance is what columnist Zev Chafets had recommended the previous day in the New York Daily News: "The US must invade these countries [Iran, Iraq, Syria], dismantle their unlatched governments, disperse their armies and seize their arsenals. Think of it as the German model. If there isn't time, if one or more of the Axis regimes seems capable of attacking with nukes or germs before US forces get there, these regimes and their infrastructure, arsenals and leadership will have to be dismantled by whatever means necessary: the Japanese model." Or here's Lance Morrow in Time: "Let America explore the rich reciprocal possibilities of the fatwa."
A CBS/New York Times poll suggests that 75% of those interviewed backed military retaliation even if it led to the loss of innocent lives. Maps showing "Lake America" where Afghanistan now is and T-shirts with Bin Laden in the cross-hairs and the legend "America says Fuck You" tell their own story. Only one out of 535 members of Congress, Barbara Lee, the Democrat from Oakland, voted against giving President Bush carte blanche for military retaliation.
But what perhaps is less audible in Britain is the large number of dissenting voices who may well have suffered terrible personal loss but do not see that as good reason for visiting the same kind of damage on some stranger. Professor Orlando Rodriguez of Fordham University, for instance, lost his son Gregory, aged 31, in the attack. Like many others, Gregory Rodriguez, the head of computer security for Cantor Fitzgerald, had telephoned home to say he was OK just before the second plane hit. Professor Rodriguez had been horrified by all the calls for massive retaliation: "Not in my son's name you don't. I don't want my son used as a pawn to justify the killing of others."
In Union Square, which has become the unofficial and haphazard shrine to the dead, there are many, many messages attached to photos of the dead which are essentially pleas for restraint, calls for peace. The words written outside fire stations by the weary firefighters mourning their colleagues are not of gung-ho revenge but reflective sadness; outside the station on 51st Street, 10 of whose crew had died, the words beside the photos of the dead men were "We'll leave the light on", not a call for "bombs away".
Over the weekend, more than 150 campuses around the country held vigils or rallies calling for peace. Voices that urge restraint are coming from many directions. Here is the main editorial comment in the New Yorker from Hendrik Hertzberg: "The terrorists of September 11 are outlaws within a global polity. Their status and numbers are such that the task of dealing with them should be seen as a police matter of the must urgent kind. The goal of foreign and military policy must be to induce recalcitrant governments to cooperate, a goal whose attainment may or may not entail making general war on the people such governments rule." And those voices are increasingly making themselves heard.
The hundreds who gathered high on 42nd Street to form an antiwar coalition may have many different ideas about the right response, which verge from the wholly pacifist to the limited use of the military to bring to justice those responsible. But they were united in their opposition to any policy that would result in the deaths of other people in distant countries who, like those beneath the smoking ruins so hauntingly visible from the 33rd floor, one day went off to work or play and never returned.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001