Someone once said that convictions are tested not when things are easy, or when circumstances do not challenge the mettle of your beliefs. Convictions are tested when standing on your principles causes inconvenience and pain. If you are able to withstand the test with your convictions intact, you come away with a clearer knowledge of your own strength.
There are thousands and thousands of Americans today who can say their convictions passed intact through a small but significant testing. They came by bus, by car, by rail and by plane to the nation's capitol to shout down a push for war in Iraq. Citizens from as far away as Alaska and Oklahoma made the trek, a sacrifice of time and money that is noteworthy. Moreover, these people endured for an entire day temperatures that lingered several degrees below freezing down on the Mall.
If you think that is not a test, try it sometime. While standing and listening to several hours of speeches, the cold crawls through your boots and up your legs, turning your feet and toes into blocks of frozen wood. The muscle cramps begin once the skin loses feeling. Your face becomes a chapped mask. Speaking is painful. The skin of your hands reddens and cracks. Simple tasks like writing and shaking hands become a misery, even with gloves on. The wind is always there. At the end of it all, when your body has lost circulation and the pain truly becomes all-encompassing, you are asked to walk from the Capitol steps to the Navy Pier so you can do it all over again.
Anyone could have bailed when it became too uncomfortable, but I did not see anyone taking themselves away from the scene. The purpose behind the International ANSWER Coalition's rally against looming war was far too important to walk away from. At stake is nothing more or less than the future of this republic.
A war in Iraq, pursued in the unilateralist fashion the Bush administration is slowly being relegated to by disinterest and hostility from former coalition members, would leave us isolated in a time of unprecedented danger. A pre-emptive strike would set a precedent for other nations around the world, further destabilizing an already rocky global situation. Thousands of American troops could be killed, and tens of thousands more face the permanent disability from exposure to chemicals, ill-tested vaccines and petroleum smoke that some 28% of veterans from the last Gulf War currently endure.
A unilateral attack without international support would assuredly bring more terrorism to our shores. When those fires go out, they will have done more than extinguish more innocent American lives. Those fires will burn to ash, finally and irrevocably, the Constitution and Bill of Rights. We have seen the Bush administration's rights-restricting reaction to the first attack. Further attacks will motivate them to finish the job once and for all.
The war will not be fought 'over there.' It will be right here, on your street and mine. It will be fought with those constitutional protections so many of us have come to take for granted right there on the firing line.
Some have argued that the Bush administration does not truly mean to go to war in Iraq, that this incredible buildup has been a diplomatic tool to pressure Saddam Hussein into UN compliance. Done properly, this might have been a canny process. With this administration, however, it is a game of Russian Roulette with five bullets in the chamber. This is the administration that has told the world, though its bungling of the North Korea situation, that the best way to deal with America is to blackmail us with nuclear weapons. This is the administrations whose utter disregard for diplomatic engagement has caused the Israel/Palestine situation to worsen dramatically in the last two years.
When a nation sends 150,000 troops into a region, along with all of the weapons of war, the situation develops an inertia of its own. The administration may once have seen this as a bluff. Now, they are faced with the reality that backing down will be an embarrassing and expensive defeat.
Some frostbite is a small price to pay for taking part in an action to see such a disaster stopped in its tracks.
Counting the pinked noses at this protest is, as ever, something of a subjective affair. The organizers pegged the crowd at 500,000 people, but few in the media believed that to be accurate. A more likely number falls between 200,000 and 300,000 people. Whatever the actual numbers may be, the crowd stood shoulder to shoulder from 3rd street, in front of the Capitol building, all the way down the Washington Mall to the Washington Monument. It was a sea of signs and faces that, when on the march from the Capitol to the Navy Pier, stretched for several miles.
D.C. police chief Charles Ramsey said, "It's one of the biggest ones we've had, certainly in recent times." U.S. Capitol Police chief Terrance Gainer said, "I know everyone is skittish about saying a number, but this was big. An impressive number." A C-SPAN cameraman I spoke to spent the entire protest on the roof of a cargo truck just to the side of the stage. He told me that he had covered dozens of protests in his time, and that the crowd on Saturday was the biggest he had ever seen.
Combined with the hundreds of thousands of protesters who came to Washington during the relatively balmier late-October rally, the number of people who have gone out of their way to say 'No' to Mr. Bush in downtown Washington is creeping slowly towards one million strong. This, for a war that has not started yet. The crowds on Saturday and in October had their share of fringe elements; the inevitable free-Mumia-free-Peltier-super-socialist folks were loud and proud. What made Saturday notable were the tens and tens of thousands of very average, mainstream Americans who braved the distance and the elements to be there. The rally became a referendum against so much of what the Bush administration has done, from rights restrictions to economic malfeasance. God help the administration if they get this one wrong.
The rally in Washington coincided with massive gatherings all across the nation and the world. In San Francisco, over 100,000 people marched. They were joined by huge protests in Michigan, Oregon, Boston, Denver, Portland, Moscow, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong and elsewhere. At one point during the Washington rally, I spoke with British Labour Minister Jeremy Corbyn. He could not explain Tony Blair's slavish adherence to Bush policy - noting at one point that a recent poll in Britain showed that 97% of the people there think Blair is far too close to Bush - but he was clear in one respect: The people of England do not support this action, and the looming February 15th protests there promise to be enormous.
This was not some isolated twitch to be dismissed. Saturday, January 18th was a day when a good portion of America and the world stood in solidarity against a very bad idea being promulgated by an American administration whose priorities are badly out of joint. It bears notice, again, to point out that the war has not even started yet. There is something happening here, and it is getting clearer by the day.
William Rivers Pitt is a teacher from Boston, MA. He is the author of War On Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn’t Want You To Know (Context Books, 2002) with Scott Ritter, and The Greatest Sedition is Silence which will be published in May by Pluto Press.