Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

 

DONíT FEEL POWERLESS. THE PEACE MOVEMENT IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER.

Ira Chernus

When the bombs start falling, the peace movement must either grow stronger or fade away. It can not just stay as it us. All of us who worked so hard to prevent war must now decide which way it will go.

The government will try to persuade us that the movement is over. An army of PR consultants will twist media arms to put out a single message: a wave of Gulf War-style patriotism is sweeping across the nation, drowning out peace activists and making them irrelevant. Antiwar activists will say, "We wonít give up; weíll protest more loudly than ever."

But letís face it. Many of us are discouraged and tempted to give up. Itís just like any other temptation. If we understand its root causes, we can resist it more easily. One obvious cause: We are all tired. But the people running the war are tired too, and they are not giving up. Exhaustion is only a small part of the story.

A bigger part is depression. The old cliché says that depression is anger turned inwards. Depression strikes when people feel powerless to do anything with their anger. That is a huge danger for the peace movement. We mobilized the biggest prewar peace movement in living memory, and it didnít stop the war. Doesnít that prove that we are powerless to stop war no matter what we do?

Not necessarily. A logical analysis could lead to many different conclusions. The Bush administration desperately wanted international support for its war, and our global movement prevented it. We came damn close to preventing the war itself, against all odds. If we learn the right lessons from this close call, we will probably stop the next war. So we could conclude that we won a huge victory.

Our sense of powerlessness does not come from logic. It is a feeling. Yet it grips us all the more strongly precisely because it flows from emotion, not reason. Why do so many of us feel so powerless?

Just listen to your fellow peace activists. How many have told you: "It doesnít matter what we do. Bush is going to do whatever he pleases. He wonít listen to anyone." Sometimes Bush is pictured as greed-driven oil man; sometimes a testosterone-laden warhawk; sometimes a religious fanatic; sometimes a son driven by Freudian needs to outdo the father; sometimes just an irrational maniac. Across the peace spectrum, however we explain it, we tell each other over and over that Bush is impervious to public opinion.

Again, logic collides with emotion. If you stop to think about it, what could matter more to George W. than public opinion? He has only one goal in life: to get re-elected. He knows from his Dad that ex-presidents just fade away. If he is going to die a contented man, he has to make his mark in the next five years. Itís not so much his fatherís fate that he must fear now. It is Lyndon Johnsonís, the president who was forced to quit when his war split the nation apart. The peace movement holds Bushís fate in its hands.

Why, then, do so many of us think that he and his administration, not we, have the power; that our protests are useless; that heíll ignore us no matter what? Yes, we are conditioned to feel powerless. "The system" is so huge, as it keeps reminding us in a million ways. We are so small, it tells us in a million ways. What can a handful of citizens hope to accomplish, anyway?

But the fact that we protest against war proves we are not puppets of the system. We think for ourselves. We make free choices. Why would we choose, even unconsciously, to feel powerless?

Perhaps it is partly a defense against guilty conscience. If we fail to stop war, we can say it was not our fault. No need to evaluate our shortcomings, we can say. Nothing we might have done differently could have mattered. No need to feel guilty for lack of effort, for those weekends we went camping or stayed home and watched TV. Even if weíd worked twice as hard, we were doomed from the start. Those are comforting thoughts.

Perhaps it is partly a defense against disappointment. From the start, many of us mounted this defense. As we worked against war, we hedged our bets. We knew we might fail, so we protected ourselves emotionally by refusing to believe in our own power. Failure is far less disappointing if you can say, "I told you thereíd be war anyway. I knew it all along."

Perhaps it is partly a way for us to express the immensity of our moral concern. The actions of our government strike many of us as so wrong, so evil, in so many ways. It is hard not to demonize, to see the immensity of this evil as absolute. Unconsciously, we may let our picture of George W. become a mirror image of his picture of Saddam Hussein: the all-powerful Devil whose evil is implacable, unstoppable.

Whatever the reason, this feeling of powerlessness is the biggest danger we face right now. We have just made history: the first organized global movement to stop a war before it starts. We have a world-historical responsibility to keep up the momentum. If we succeed, we really could change history.

What can we do to keep up the momentum?

First, we should use the antiwar movement as a huge support group. We should talk about our feelings of powerlessness, and the other forces that discourage us. We should make solemn commitments to each other that we will not let those feelings and forces sap our energy. We should nurture each otherís emotional energies and boost each otherís morale.

Second, while we do the psychological caretaking, we should also become a giant media octopus. We should read as much as we can of the alternative press, and share what with learn with everyone we know, using every tool we have. We are the only ones who will spread the truth and keep the public well informed about the reality of the Iraq war.

Third, we must keep up the pressure to end the war immediately. The horrors of war, even if under-reported, will turn some Americans against this war. Moreover, the people who made the war have no idea how long it will last. If they get bogged down in urban guerilla warfare, public opinion could quickly turn against the war. We must remain alert and well organized to seize on changes in public opinion. That means keeping up a broad-based movement, not alienating potential allies but building bridges to them wherever we find them.

Fourth, we must transform ourselves from a movement against war in Iraq to a movement against imperial U.S. war anywhere. We must educate ourselves about the larger context of the Iraq war, the Bush administration's quest for empire. We must understand that the movement we built is not simply about stopping war in Iraq. It is about stopping the whole chain of war that Bushís imperial doctrine will demand: North Korea, Iran, and who knows where else.

The destruction of Iraq is in large part a theatrical performance. The audience is the whole world, anywhere that people might dare to think they could escape the clutches of the U.S. imperium. That gives us a leading role to play in the drama. We must make it clear that whenever the empire threatens to smash another enemy, we will be there to say No to war and Yes to peace.

The peace movement did win a huge victory this winter, simply by assembling itself as a global force that must be reckoned with. As we learned on February 15, the whole world wants to take a stand against the march of empire. But they expect us, who live here in the heart of the empire, to take play a leading part.

The U.S. peace movement today is far from powerless. In fact, we are more important than ever. No matter how disappointed and discouraged we are, we must promise each other that we will use this war to build our forces ever stronger. We must reach out to new allies, learn from our past mistakes, and plan to do it better next time. Now is the time to begin stopping the next war.


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