After two weeks of personal and political attacks from fellow citizens
because of our antiwar writing, we have relearned how dissent is honored in
the United States.
Many Americans like dissent that is safely in the past, where it does not
raise uncomfortable questions or challenge contemporary prejudices. But
dissent in the present, about matters of the greatest public importance,
well, that's quite another matter.
One of us, a graduate student of Indian origin, has been told to "go back
to Afghanistan where you came from," even though he was born in the United
States. "After what this country's done for you, how dare you attack us,
you (#$@%)?" wrote another.
Meanwhile, a Texas newspaper on Sept. 14 published an essay by the other,
an Anglo professor, that asked Americans to turn from the desire to react
with massive violence and confront some of the ugly truths about our own
history of targeting civilians in war, so we can understand how we are
viewed in much of the rest of the world.
That piece generated lots of angry messages from citizens and alumni, to
the author and University of Texas officials, making it clear they would
send neither money nor their children to UT until said professor was fired.
The president's response was to issue a statement acknowledging the
professor's right to speak but suggesting that no one need pay attention to
such a "fountain of undiluted foolishness on issues of public policy."
We're not complaining about any of this; we're glad we were attacked. It is
not flippant to say that it is better to be hated than ignored; people are
paying attention, finally.
Too often Americans have "honored" dissent by ignoring it, allowing people
to speak because they thought it would make no difference.
For several years we have been part of organizing aimed at changing U.S.
actions around the world, including the movement to end the sanctions on
Iraq and resist the U.S./NATO attack on Yugoslavia. The response of most
Americans on such issues has been a collective yawn.
The 3,000 email and phone messages we have received since Sept. 11 suggest
that times have changed. The ferociousness of the response means we've hit
The people who in the past refused to listen to us but "defended" our right
to speak had a very incomplete notion of the rights and obligations of a
citizen in a democracy. For too long, too many people have accepted the
notion that democracy means simply the right to be left alone to engage in
our private pursuits, with a trip to the voting booth every couple of
years. In truth, the heart of democracy is the ability of the people to
affect government policy, including foreign policy.
The first step in the process of re-politicization has been
achieved people are listening and reacting.
Now that America has been attacked, people finally see the relevance of
foreign policy to their own interests.
The next step is to have more and more people move past simply reacting to
critical engagement with antiwar arguments. There is real potential to take
this issue far beyond the traditional peace community.
We must repeatedly ask people whether they understand that Bush's Sept. 20
speech (when taken in conjunction with the joint resolution of Congress
passed Sept. 14) announced an unlimited war against a potentially endless
enemy. Do they understand the consequences of a war that the secretary of
defense has said has no "exit strategies" and will be "a sustained
engagement that carries no deadlines"? What do they imagine will be the end
result of "draining the swamp," a reference by that same secretary to an
old counterinsurgency term that means destroying societies suspected of
harboring terrorists by creating refugees or killing civilians?
A growing number of Americans are nervous, wondering how this bellicose
talk of war is going to make them more secure. It is not a big jump from
that nervousness to the conclusion that a military strike is not going to
bring terrorists to real justice and may well start a war in which
civilians on all sides will be victims. A recent poll indicates that 63
percent of Americans believe that strikes on Afghanistan will increase the
threat of terrorist attacks; that's a good place to start.
The president has encouraged us to "return to normal" i.e., politically
detached and passive. The television anchors encourage us to stick to the
narrow spectrum of opinion they allow on the air. We must say no, not only
to the policy being sold us but to that conception of politics and public
A new, richer, public dialogue, is crucial. We need to re-create a genuine
public sphere of political disputation and conversation, and recover a
broader sense of society as well as of democracy. This war may finally be
making it possible.
Rahul Mahajan serves on the National Board of Peace Action. Robert Jensen
is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas. Both are members
of the Nowar Collective (www.nowarcollective.com). They can be reached at