thu 27 mar 2003 12:00:00 osdorp / de aker
(essay i sent to vanessa e)
one saturday afternoon in mid-february i was standing in the middle of the dam, in a crowd so thick i sometimes couldn't move my arms at my sides. voices were echoing from the speakers' platform near the palace wall. my dutch wasn't good enough to catch more than a few words here and there. but the sentiment was palpable. and i couldn't see the end of the people. all shades and flavors of people. young, old, very old, babies, confused pets. conservative-looking, hippie-looking , rasta-looking, i could go on. i snapped a picture of a teenager with a peace sign painted on her cheek, thinking this shot could have been taken in 1968. i turned and saw a woman who clearly had been here in 1968.
helicopters were counting us. the first estimate i heard was 25,000, then 40,000, and finally i heard we were 70,000 people in the square. such was the weight of humanity around me that any slight shift in its balance would have squished the life right out of me. but i felt safe. and i felt redeemed. this meant i wasn't crazy to be against the war.
still, i had to wonder: if everybody in that crowd had been there for exactly the same reasons as mine, would we have been even a thousand? would we have been more than two hundred? i couldn't know.
times like this create accidental agreement. people had many reasons for being there to stand against this war. some socialists were there to bristle at another flexing of american imperialism. some people were there in a gesture of pan-islamic unity, or to voice the hope that their relatives back home might not be killed. some were against this particular war, because they think it is insufficiently justified, but might well favor a different war. some folks were there simply to protest war itself because they prefer peace. and i'm sure many were there only to be with the boy or girl they were sweet on. the most numerous signs said "geen oorlog tegen irak," no war against iraq. signs saying "no war ever" were scarce. and i saw zero signs saying "never hurt anyone, never coerce anyone."
on another day, i checked out an aol message board where people were discussing whether it was appropriate for one of the (then touring) dixie chicks to tell a london crowd she was ashamed that the american president was from her home state of texas. there were 53,000 messages before i stopped counting. the majority view was that sure we have freedom of speech, but you shouldn't say stuff like that on foreign soil, especially now when we should be showing unity, supporting our troops, and standing behind our president. i wrote a few posts myself, pointing out that the people who invented america believed that the right to free expression was inalienable, not some kind of gift from government. nobody was listening. the theme of the day was to bash peaceniks for their unamericanism. the prevailing assumption was that saddam hussein was responsible for 9/11, so we had to do something — and if you disagreed, you should move to baghdad.
the sense i got was that inside america, those people who felt this particular war was needless were still at least part of mainstream discourse — whereas anyone who felt that all violence was immoral was suddenly, by definition, a fringe wacko. it occurred to me that if so many millions of americans firmly believe that nonviolence is innately anti-american, then gee, maybe they're right. why not let them be? it's easier for me if they are. and it's better if they get to decide what the adjective american means, because they stayed and i didn't. over the years i had heard the "love-it-or-leave-it" argument so many times, finally i just left it. if america estranges me because of my basic spiritual beliefs, then why shouldn't i cheerfully accept this label, "anti-american"?
even such a moving moment as being surrounded by 70,000 briefly like-minded people cannot persuade me that protest is anything more than another form of begging. protest is necessary, but it doesn't change anything. people like bush "respectfully disagree" and shrug those millions of dissenting voices off like a bit of dandruff. all life is an economy. people will deal with you if you have something they want. the only way to impede evil is to withdraw your material cooperation from it. fringe lunatics may be ready to do that. real americans, per se, are not. and they will not be, as long as mainstream media reads and writes their minds.
the sheer weight of humanity could make a difference by mere inertia, if only we were all wise, brave, and resolute. real resistance isn't about protest, it's about simply saying "no thanks." even the holocaust could never have happened if everyone simply sat down, saying okay buddy, you want me to go there, drag me there.
terrorists who think america can be defeated by violence are now demonstrably, and extremely, wrong. now we are, as a world, faced for the first time with an adversary who cannot be defeated by violent force. so those who never faced up before to the moral challenge of nonviolence now have to address it. because we know that violence will not help.
we can also say with some certainty, after 11 september 2001, that it is not possible to prevent evil. our illusory "prerogative to forbid" finally finds the moral trashcan it always deserved. if nineteen guys with box-cutters can kill over 3000 people, that's all the proof we need that we simply can't stop other people from doing the wrong thing.
the point is not to do the wrong thing yourself. the point is to let evil be somebody else's business.
so as the amercian war on iraq became more obviously inexorable, i tell myself that all i can do now is try to radiate a bit of good will into the air. there's nothing else left to say or do. it's time to just get back to the business of being a nice guy.
and then a weird thing happens. on the eve of war, a beautiful polish woman arrives at my doorstep. spring comes one day later. i fall in love. that saturday, another peace protest in amsterdam turns violent, when water-cannons and horsemounted riot police are called in to clear the area surrounding the (now heavily barricaded) us consulate. for the first time, i am not there in the crowd. i am, at that moment, walking with a beautiful polish woman along a grassy dike out in osdorp. i am admiring strange shades of moss on the side of a tree, and listening to the list of her favorite smells. this dreamy idyll of birds and flowers is just somebody else's struggle for life and death. but as i listen to her conjugating the polish verb "to click," the sound of her voice makes my mouth water. i learn some new lessons. i am sweating and breathing love.