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Jewish World Review April 11, 2003 / 9 Nisan, 5763

Julia Gorin

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At peace at war | It was the third day of the war and a sunny Saturday afternoon in Manhattan. Young couples leaning in to each other as they strolled seemed carefree. At the same time, they couldn't have been oblivious to the reality that we were at war. Obliviousness, apathy and disaffectedness are rare these days. As used as I was to encountering them when trying to tap into people's political passions before 9/11, today they are almost impossible to find among the populace.

I recall sighing on the last Super Bowl Sunday before that day in September: "If only people would take foreign policy as seriously as they take sports." Today they do. The stakes have become clear. Average Joe has gotten off the sports couch, and the impassioned fevers he once reserved for cheering his favorite team he now employs in cheering either for or against the president and U.S. policy. Politics have become at least as big a part of the family weekend as sports, with talk radio hosts serving as casters and referees.

By now everyone, no matter how disengaged a life he or she has led, has been forced to pick sides and take a stand. So if the strolling couples I noticed that Saturday, who didn't seem burdened or disturbed by the new international scene, weren't at the protest rally in Washington Square, I guessed that they trusted the decision our leaders had made. The female half of one young pair made no secret of it. Her t-shirt read "Standing with America."

Sometime over the past 18 months, everyone became at least an emotional player. At the very least, no one is living in this country without giving thought to what it means to be able to. Whether they appreciate the privilege or resent it, they are not complacent about it.

The formerly non-political--those who didn't know where they stood on the issues because they'd never given any of it much thought-have been compelled to admit that it does make a difference who is in the White House. (Before 9/11, I'd frequently hear statements like: "It makes no difference in my life who wins the election," and wisdoms like "It doesn't make a difference who wins the election. Either way I have to work.")

Such people were chosen, in a sense: They didn't pick sides. A side picked them. Those among them who were reluctant to see this even after 9/11, and were dragged kicking and screaming into taking a position either for civilization or against it, had to do some reflecting and soul searching. The frequently spouted claim, therefore, that criticizing the Iraq war constitutes critical thinking while supporting it constitutes "conformity" is ludicrous.

So today it is not just the "political types" who are easily riled up and willing to jump into the fray. The scene in New York has been especially heartening: Few "Stop Bush" and "No War" stickers remain perfectly preserved on payphone, bus stop, public bathroom and telephone pole surfaces without being answered by attempts to scratch them off. Messages like "Make love to Iraq" spray-painted on fire hydrants have competition from "Bush rules" and "Go Bush go" scrawlings.

Even before the short string of recent pro-troop, pro-Bush, pro-war rallies, when the anti-war protesters still had the monopoly on demonstrating and were marching back and forth along 42nd St. daily, something new started happening: The protesters began receiving challenges from the random but no longer mute passersby. They found that the unorganized, amorphous opposition no longer shied away from political confrontation when it came across it in the middle of a work day. The way its members used to yell at the TV during the game they now yell at the opposing camp. Furthermore, thanks to talk radio, Fox News and the Internet, everyone is armed with a staple of sophisticated arguments they can use to stump the enemy.

On the Saturday of the multi-city pro-troop rally last month, two lone female protesters who appeared to be of college age stood across from the one taking place in Times Square, holding a sign that read, "We love our troops, but we're against war." A young man leaving the rally toward its end said something to them in passing, to which one of the women replied, "War doesn't solve anything." The man stopped and said, "It defeated Fascism in the 1940s. You should have been there." This was apparently enough to stun the young woman, who could only think to answer, "That's not fair!" while looking around for moral support from bystanders on the corner. She got none. At this point another young man leaving the rally asked them, "Have you ever protested Fidel Castro?" No. "How about Saddam Hussein?" No. "Any of the world's tyrants?" No. "Maybe you should think about that."

It seemed like an obvious point to make, yet the girls were both speechless. Clearly, neither had given any of it much thought. They are what the left relies on--foot soldiers who won't think first, much less do some research.

In the larger picture, however, gone are the days when musicians and other artists could assume their antiwar lyrics or statements represented their young audiences. (Indeed, even two years ago Michael Moore's Oscar night display would have been suffered without any booing, as this would have felt like a futile exercise.) Gone are the disaffected days of the 90s, when using words like "enemy" was gauche and when most Americans reserved a huge blank spot in their minds for international politics.

A country in the throes of an intellectual civil war finally knows it, and for the first time the left can see that it is not the only one recruiting hearts and minds. The country has reconnected with its forefathers and has again become a populace that will not be subjugated. Finally, having recognized the need to fight, we are willing to. While our soldiers fight the war on the front lines, we are fighting it here in our streets. Nor is our "fighting" a figurative term anymore, now that the rules of war have changed and American civilians are fair game. Those who supported going to war did so accepting the risks involved, opening themselves up to the possibility of increased terror attacks the likes of which Israel sees weekly on buses, at discos and in cafes. For the first time, we're putting our bodies where our mouths are.

It has all been a character-building process that will serve us well when it comes time to face the longer and more complicated conflicts that lie ahead.

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JWR contributor Julia Gorin is a journalist and comedienne residing in Manhattan. Send your comments by clicking here.

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© 2003, Julia Gorin