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Anti-war challenge 

Groundswell of Atlantans struggles to give peace a fighting chance

Once seen as crucibles of leftist radicalism, American colleges have spent the last decade or so turning out record numbers of computer programmers, business administrators and NBA stars, but the ranks of matriculated activists, idealists and peaceniks have fallen dramatically.

In the wake of the Vietnam era, large-scale protests in America have become events that usually take place within sight of the Washington Monument, pitched primarily to federal decision-makers and the television cameras. Outside the Beltway, city parks are sit-in free. Dormitories remain politically dormant.

You'll have to pardon the peace movement for being a bit rusty; it's been a while since Americans have had cause to take to the streets to urge non-violence.

It's only now that the United States and its allies have begun laying (further) waste to Afghanistan that a unified peace movement is expected to take tangible shape on campuses and in urban areas around the country, including Atlanta, predicts Georgia State University political science professor Jennifer McCoy. Last week, before the bombs started dropping in Kabul, her assessment of a domestic anti-war movement was that it "seems pretty weak, limited to vigils in mourning for the victims and calls against reactionary violence."

A Sept. 29th "Town Hall Meeting for Peace" in a GSU auditorium underscored her point in convincing fashion. An audience of about 60 sat politely and mostly listless while a series of speakers hammered on now-familiar tracts: War is bad. Not all Muslims are extremists. Killing civilians would bring us down to the terrorists' level.

The low point came when a GSU professor schooled in "liberation feminism" launched into a screed that helps explain why so many angry white guys turn to Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan for answers.

Speaking in the vagaries of leftist academia, she addressed the current national crisis by explaining that "the real war is against ... domination and oppression" -- all without naming countries, leaders or military objectives. Actually, without employing a single proper noun, except to point out that we need to overhaul "the American psyche."

Others, including representatives from the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition and the Quakers, made heartfelt pleas for pacifism, but it's doubtful that even those messages would have gained much traction outside the friendly confines of the auditorium.

"Unless the anti-war movement has some ideas about how to end the terrorism, the American public isn't going to pay attention," says Emory University political science professor Harvey Klehr, an expert in American radicalism.

Obviously it's still very early in what is shaping up to be a prolonged period of national turmoil and introspection. It's not realistic to expect that a coherent, effective anti-war message would have taken shape less than three weeks after the attack and before most people knew what our government's response would be.

"I'm not surprised an anti-war movement hasn't been more visible," says the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the dean of American activists, by telephone from his home in Vermont. "It's really too soon and it's a complicated situation that represents a real dilemma for pacifists."

Coffin says Pres. George W. Bush wrongly fanned the flames of militarism by almost immediately using the term "war," but adds that he had been reassured in the days following as Bush "backed off his initial macho rhetoric."

GSU's McCoy says she's likewise been encouraged as students in her Global Issues class have progressed beyond an initial stance of knee-jerk retribution.

"I've seen a real shift in my own classes from, 'We've got to bomb the hell out of them,' to a more nuanced, complex viewpoint that considers both pragmatic and ethical concerns," she says.

Of course, a few days later, we did start bombing, so an updated attitude toward war will presumably take another few days to gestate.

However, one dissent movement that was already off and running in this age of ideological inertia seems uniquely poised to take up the banner for a nascent anti-war activism: anti-globalism.

At first glance, experts attest, the two would appear to be an odd fit. But then, the anti-globalist protesters who descended on Seattle in 1999 and in Genoa this summer already represent strange bedfellows, Emory's Klehr explains. Traditional pacifists, neo-Marxists and environmentalists blend uneasily with conservative-leaning labor groups that are trying to prevent more blue-collar jobs from shifting to underdeveloped countries.

The goals of anti-globalism, too, overlap the peace movement's goal only tangentially. Anti-globalists oppose international lending practices and trade agreements seen as allowing multi-national corporations to run roughshod over third-world workers and elude the environmental restrictions they'd face at home. Kathie Lee Gifford seems a tepid villain compared to Osama bin Laden.

Yet, many anti-globalists share a passion for peace that will be required in any effective argument against continued military force, says Klehr, who believes anti-globalism will splinter apart and be subsumed into an anti-war movement that has become even more timely and relevant as we bomb Afghanistan.

"The labor unions will not want any part of an anti-war movement, so they'll drop out," he says, citing the example of the recent anti-globalism protests planned for Washington, D.C., that instead morphed into a much-smaller peace march. "Even mainstream environmental groups canceled because they didn't want to antagonize the American public. Virtually everyone left to organize the march were Marxists on the margins of society who don't care what other people think."

Lance Newman, an English professor at West Georgia College in Carrolton, concedes that the peace movement has yet to define a consistent message to deliver to the rest of the country. Joining in a peace rally through the West End a couple of weeks ago, he noticed other marchers reverently carrying American flags, a visual inconsistency with the popular image of flag-burning peaceniks.

"One guy explained, 'I can express patriotism and pacifism at the same time,'" he says. "People's ideas are mixed right now, but things are really just getting started."

Newman, a socialist who believes American militarism helped get us into our current conflict, says anti-war activists are even split over whether to go after bin Laden, although that would now appear to be a moot point.

One of the core organizers of the Georgia Coalition for Peace, a start-up group that has so far had four gatherings at the American Friends Service Committee headquarters downtown, Newman says the movement will pick up steam as it draws on the base of anti-globalism activists for support.

John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA in Washington, says his organization will stick to its environmental mission, but he predicts the Sept. 11 attack its aftermath will spur a new generation of Americans to become more socially active, whatever their politics.

"What you see happening here is the world got hit on the head with a two-by-four and it has expanded our thinking," he says. "What Sept. 11 did was make us realize the world is a lot smaller than we thought it was. It's a remarkable thing that the first thing dropped from U.S. bombers into Afghanistan was food," referring to a news report that was later recanted.

The change is already beginning, says Kara Vona, director of the Quakers' Help Increase the Peace youth program.

"A 50-year-old man I would describe as conservative, who'd never written a letter to a congressman in his life, told me he wrote Sen. Zell Miller to criticize him for his 'collateral damage' remark," says Vona, another Georgia Coalition for Peace steering board member who had returned to her office Sunday after the bombings to quickly help organize an anti-war demonstration that evening in Woodruff Park.

"We're hearing from a broad spectrum of people, including some who hadn't taken part in activism since the Vietnam War," she says. "Right now, people calling for peace in America are in the minority, so it's a tough road to hoe. But, then again, in 1964, there were 200 people in Harvard Square protesting Vietnam; four years later, there were tens of thousands."

scott.henry@creativeloafing.com

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