Peace groups find anti-war message is hard to sell

With the Taliban on the run and Kabul freed, members of the peace movement in Seattle and across the county are confronted with the possibility that their dire forecasts were wrong.

As U.S. bombs began to rain on Afghanistan, peace activists warned that the war would result in millions of Afghan civilians starving to death during an unforgiving winter.

But an argument now can be made that the U.S. bombing achieved what the peace movement wanted — a better chance for food supplies to reach those who desperately need them.

While consequences of the bombing have been different than peace activists imagined, they are not backing down. The values behind their beliefs, they say, still ring true: violence eventually begets more violence and love always overcomes hate. They vow to continue to promote a halt to the bombing even though they acknowledge their message of peace is unpopular.

The Rev. John Boonstra, executive minister of the Washington Association of Churches, which is behind the formation of a local peace coalition, said if fewer people are subject to starvation this winter because bombs were dropped on Afghanistan, then the peace movement celebrates that outcome with everyone else.

"But that doesn't mean we condone the means that brought us there," he said.

Decry 'quick fix'

Leaders of Seattle's peace movement also say the political rationale behind opposing the war is just as valid today as it was before Kabul fell on Nov. 13. Short-term success, they explain, does not equate long-term triumph.

"Anyone who at this early stage is willing to say the war has worked is expressing a combination of wishful thinking, an ignorance about what's really going on and a lack of understanding of who the Northern Alliance are," said Howard Gale, of the Seattle 911 Peace Coalition.

Gale and others believe it is their duty to challenge Americans to think about the long-term ramifications of the war in Afghanistan — even if the public appears to not want to hear what they have to say.

"It is part of American culture to look for the quick fix," said Alice Woldt, interim executive director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, which also wants the bombing stopped.

Even in a liberal city such as Seattle, people with reservations about the bombing are accused of being unpatriotic and impractical. The peace movement's humanitarian message of aiding the welfare of Afghan civilians is being rejected by a public much more concerned about its own safety, Woldt said.

Grief, anger and fear have gripped the country since Sept. 11. The emotions, at times, have been overwhelming. And they seem to some to have overwhelmed any chance to debate whether the U.S. strategy to bomb Afghanistan is the best option in the long run.

"Most people are not thinking long-term at the moment," says U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, one of the only members of Congress who questioned the wisdom of the bombing's timing.

A lonely voice

McDermott wrote in a brief statement to his Seattle constituents on Oct. 8: "It has been less than a month since the terrorist attacks against our country. A scant four weeks to plan and implement an operation like this doesn't seem like a very long time to me. ... I'm not so sure President Bush, members of his administration or the military have thought this action out completely or fully examined America's cause."

As a lonely voice in Congress expressing any reservations whatsoever, it didn't take long for McDermott to be typecast on the talk-show circuit as the anti-war politician — even though, as he was quick to point out, he was not against the war and enthusiastically supported the troops. But in an atmosphere where politicians were cutting in line to stand behind President Bush, McDermott was as close to a contrarian as the media could find.

During a recent appearance on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, McDermott faced off against William Bennett, who wants the U.S. war on terrorism to extend to unfriendly Arab states, starting with Iraq. The NewsHour segment focused on the apparent lack of dissent in America over the war.

Bennett and other conservatives had criticized McDermott after he questioned whether the U.S. airstrikes came too soon after Sept. 11. Their followers branded him unpatriotic. During the show, however, Bennett told McDermott that even though he disagreed with the substance of his position, he supported his right to express it.

McDermott recalled that Bennett told him later, "Jim, I'm supporting you not because I think you're right, but because when I criticize the president for not going far enough and fast enough, I don't want to be called unpatriotic."

Now, McDermott must confront the same question as the peace movement. Were his warnings about the rush to bomb wrong?

In his Seattle office this week, McDermott expressed surprise that the Taliban government seems to have collapsed so quickly.

"But I don't think they are gone and I don't think they are done," he said.

He added, however, that the timing of exercising military force in Afghanistan has worked better than he had anticipated.

"It looks like we had a plan and executed it well and it worked," he said. "So far, so good."

Attracting little support

So far, the peace movement's execution has not worked well, with the public uninspired by its message. Boonstra, of the Washington Association of Churches, realized soon after Sept. 11 that the movement had grown stale over the years. His first hint came during a peace march in Seattle a few days after the terrorist attacks on America. Marchers struggled to find appropriate songs to sing during the procession from one Capitol Hill cathedral to another. But the peace-song playlist was of golden oldies, stuck in the Vietnam era.

So marchers began to sing "America the Beautiful," Boonstra recalled. And that troubled one of the marchers.

"Why are you singing that song?" the marcher said. "That's the song they are singing."

The peace movement has found it difficult to sing its song across Seattle and the rest of the country. Sing too loudly and critics tie the anti-war position to disrespecting the memory of Americans who died on Sept. 11, Boonstra said.

"It was as if people believed the more public debate you had, the weaker you would be as a society," he said.

The White House framed the debate early when President Bush declared in essence: You are either for us or against us. Although the president seemed to be addressing other nations, Boonstra said he interpreted it as a warning also against domestic dissent.

"Let's just say it wasn't exactly an invitation for us to come together as a nation and carve out our response to a very complex political situation," he said.

As the peace movement warned of a humanitarian crisis because of the bombing, the White House emphasized it was dropping food on Afghanistan, too. U.S. military officials promised no bombing would target civilians almost before the peace movement could raise the issue.

Boonstra, however, said representatives of international relief organizations denounced the food drops as token gestures and said that Americans were misled before when told there would be no indiscriminate bombing of Vietnamese villages.

"I ask of people, 'Do you believe everything you are told and if so, on what basis has this government earned that kind of credibility?' " Boonstra said.

Radical or religious?

Members of the peace movement are not surprised that elected officials have been unwilling to put their political reputations on the line by supporting the peace movement's message. Woldt, of the Church Council, said local peace activists have solicited support from U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee to no avail.

"They surely thought that being seen as outside the mainstream would result in them losing all of their effectiveness," Woldt said.

Woldt, however, does not view her church council's opposition to the war as radical.

"I think it is in the greatest religious tradition to act out of a center of nonviolence and peace," she said.

In the past, the peace movement has criticized U.S. foreign policies in the Middle East and South Asia, including the economic sanctions against Iraq.

"We have people who see what we are doing in Afghanistan as having ramifications on people who already are suffering," Woldt said. "So there is more willingness on our part to view the war in Afghanistan as part of a bigger picture."

Americans, however, do not seem ready to look down the road, she said. The emotions are too raw.

"It's still too early, obviously," Boonstra says.

Stuart Eskenazi can be reached at 206-464-2293