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Jewish World Review Jan. 27, 2003 / 24 Shevat, 5763

Neil Steinberg

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War protesters' worst enemy is logic, not spies | CHICAGO "Are you a spy?'' an older lady in oval orange-tinted sunglasses and a pink hat asked me, one very cold afternoon earlier this month in the little clock-shaped park north of the Sheraton Hotel.

I told her no, I'm not a spy, I'm a newspaper reporter. Of course, that is exactly what a real spy would say if he were monitoring those attending a peace protest outside where President Bush was speaking. But she seemed satisfied with that answer, and took me into her confidence.

"A policeman told me 'Why bother? You're not going to make a difference,' '' she continued. "It's sad that people are so beaten down, they don't even try.''

"Or maybe,'' I said, unable to resist, "the reason they're not here is because they support the war.''

There were perhaps 300 people at the rally, well salted with young green-fatigue anarchist types selling "The Daily Socialist'' and gray-haired NPR radicals. Half the group seemed like the brand of bone-deep activists who would show up to protest a kindergarten picnic.

The woman narrowed her eyes and asked me if I support the war.

"Yes,'' I said. "I do.'' I didn't add there isn't yet a war to support or oppose, that right now all that was being done was pressuring Iraq. War might still be avoided, and then wouldn't these people look silly?

But that would confuse the issue. The peace movement is proceeding, on autopilot, as if we were already fighting. Their logic, I suppose, is: Why wait? ("Logic,'' I realize, might be too strong a term.)

"That means,'' the woman said, looking at me with distaste, "you support the United States taking over Iraq and Iran and Syria.''

I was about to say that Iran was moving closer to us and Syria is such a wretched sinkhole of despotism and anarchy nobody wants it.

But I was here to listen, not to talk, so I moved on, into the crowd. There was a brisk business in $1 "Stop the War'' buttons and $20 flags that showed a photo of the blue globe.

"We want people to display a million of them,'' said the woman hawking the flags, who wore a black-and-white Palestinian kaffiyeh around her neck but looked like Kitty O'Shea's heavier cousin. "We really think this is an important contribution to change the world.''

Give the people selling $5 felt pennants at the Wolves games credit: At least they don't claim buying one will usher in the New Jerusalem.

Honestly, I wasn't there to make fun of the group, not initially. I sincerely wanted to hear what their ideas were. There is a core of sense lost somewhere in the anti-war movement--Iraq, for all the bluster of Saddam Hussein, is a nation still in the dark ages in many respects, and while the famed "weapons of mass destruction'' are certainly a threat, they are not the only threat, and an intelligent person could not be damned for asking, "Why there? Why now?''

Sadly, there were few ideas on display at the rally, only fierce, reflexive anger and suspicion. The "are you a spy'' comment was reflected again and again, as if these people don't realize they live in a democracy with a news media. Or perhaps the idea of one of their protests drawing sincere attention was so novel as to defy credibility.

I walked up to a man holding on to one end of an enormous orange banner reading, "No War On Iraq.'' I asked him his name.

"Why?'' said Bill Massey, who belongs to a group called ANSWER, or Act Now to Stop War and End Racism. I told him because he had just spoken to the crowd and I might like to put him in the newspaper.

He had told the crowd this: "Take the chief criminal, President Bush, and put him in jail, not the White House.'' There was a lot of that kind of thing. One speaker only referred to the president as "damn Bush.'' Again and again. "If this damn president goes to war. . . ''

No insult was too much. One speaker tried to lead a chant:

"Arrogant, stupid, racist too/George Bush, we know you.''

Some people chanted, softly, their breath puffing white in the frigid air, but many didn't. So the leaders kept trying other chants. Another one went: "Hey Bush/We know you/Your daddy was a killer, too.''

Think about this. A dozen years ago Iraq invaded Kuwait, its peaceful, prosperous neighbor. Bush's father spent a careful six months assembling a broad international coalition, giving Saddam every opportunity in the world to pull back and avoid war. But Saddam didn't, and the United States, joined by the world's might, went in and kicked him out and the only thing--the only thing!--that kept them from sweeping into Baghdad and finishing the job was the knowledge that people such as these back home would pour into the street and damn him.

It was Edmund Burke who said the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. Looking around, at the peace protesters, at how angry they are over a war that has not yet started, how much hate they have for their country, it was hard not to see them as the very agents of evil itself. The devil, when he comes, of course, will come cloaked in disguise, as a man of peace.

A white-haired man, with a colorful scarf around his neck, came over and touched my arm. "They wear their beliefs on their sleeves,'' he said, in a thick accent. "You and me are here, and we see that nothing is going on. It is an exercise in irrelevance.''

That seemed to sum it up nicely, and I closed my notebook and left.

JWR contributor Neil Steinberg is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. His latest book is Don't Give Up the Ship: Finding My Father While Lost at Sea . Comment by clicking here.

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