For the second weekend in a row, my wife and I brought our young children to a small peace demonstration last Saturday at the one stop light in our small town in upstate New York. Approximately 30 people, mostly women, stood silently holding signs with anti-war slogans such as "Peace is Patriotic," "No War in Iraq," "Support Our Troops: Bring: Them Home."
Across the street, a smaller group of war supporters waved flags and held up "Support Our Troops" and "Honk for the USA" signs, while their loudspeakers played a loop of country music songs and President Bush's speech in the wake of September 11, 2001-the one where the President suggested that the country prepare for a long, indeterminate "war on terrorism". The war supporters were far more boisterous than the peace demonstrators, but the two groups-pro- and anti-war demonstrators-stood virtually side-by-side with little overt hostility.
Zoom in on the variously solemn (anti-war) and euphoric (pro-war) demonstrators, and you might read this as a sign of a vibrant civic life and healthy political debate. Zoom out, however, and you see a very different story. For no matter how distressing I find the unbridled enthusiasm of war supporters, it was the response of passersby that was the most revealing.
A generation ago, the political scientist E.E. Schattschneider advised students of social conflict to "watch the crowd" when a fight breaks out, because it is the response of the spectators that shapes the outcome of the conflict. A substantial percentage of "the crowd" was decidedly hostile toward the anti-war demonstrators and their message, as they showered us with a steady stream of catcalls and obscene gestures. In one case, a 40-something man shouted obscenities at a dignified 50-something woman who was holding a peace sign, urging her to move to another country.
As we walked home from that corner to our house three blocks away, I tried to explain to my children why opponents of war are the targets of such hostility. I did the best I could, stressing the narrow version of patriotism that emerges in times of war. But, frankly, I could not convey the full answer because I am still struggling to figure it out myself.
I do know that the answer tells us something about the profound incivility and intolerance that is at the heart of contemporary American political culture. Ever since President Bush told the world, in the wake of September 11, that it was time to choose sides-you are either with us or against us-our domestic political culture has traveled progressively farther down the low road. Citizens who adopt this with-us-or-against-us attitude are simply following the President's lead.
Those who don't fall in line-including our longtime ally, France-are subject to ridicule and political threats. In this climate, fear mongering and name-calling substitute for political discussion; intimidation and economic inducements substitute for diplomacy. Vocal policy critics face charges that they are not sufficiently patriotic. Citizens hear that they need to watch what they do and what they say. And the climate has only become more extreme in recent months, as pressure mounts on political leaders to fall in line or risk the consequences.
Through it all, television news has only fanned the flames of this intolerance, as war coverage routinely employs the us-versus-them attitude. Over the past two weeks, American journalists have demonstrated that they are American before they are journalists. The cable news networks have all adopted so much of the Pentagon's war language-from their casual use of the slogan "Operation Iraqi Freedom" and the pronoun "we' to describe the U.S. military to routine discussions of "softening up" and "taking out" "the enemy"-that it can be difficult to discern whether the cable networks aim is to cover the war or support the war effort.
Among war supporters-from leading politicians and vocal journalists to citizens who yell obscenities at peace demonstrators-a smug tone of moral superiority permeates their celebration of American military power. Whether the war in Iraq lasts for weeks or months, the human toll will be significant, including death and destruction throughout Iraq and a generation of U.S. soldiers who will bring this home with them.
The full costs of this war, however, will be far higher than we now imagine. We are beginning to see how this war is emblematic of an emerging political culture in the United States where fear and polarization, rather than leadership, drive politics. The arrogance bred of power and certainty inhibits our ability to understand how people outside the United States conceptualize this war or the meaning of American power.
Amidst the cacophony of cheering and horn honking, we cannot even hear the most valuable message of the peace movement: that the true horror of war is killing, not dying. It is this lesson that I want my children to learn, but I fear that it will be drowned out by the loud sounds of America's new patriotism.
William Hoynes (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Chair of the Sociology Department at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he teaches courses on media, culture, and social theory. He is author or co-author of several books about the contemporary U.S. news media, including Public Television for Sale (Westview Press) and, most recently (with David Croteau), The Business of Media: Corporate Media and the Public Interest (Pine Forge Press) .