More Than Antiwar
By BOB HERBERT
It was a few minutes after 11 a.m. when the scattered crowd began moving slowly toward the stage at the end of the Mall. The sky was a beautiful sunlit blue and the Capitol building, huge and white and majestic, offered the protesters an emotional backdrop that seemed almost close enough to touch.
“It’s so big,” said a woman from Milwaukee, who was there with her husband and two children. “It’s lovely. Makes you want to cry.”
You can say what you want about the people opposed to this wretched war in Iraq, try to stereotype them any way you can. But you couldn’t walk among them for more than a few minutes on Saturday without realizing that they love their country as much as anyone ever has. They love it enough to try to save it.
By 11:15 I thought there was a chance that the march against the war would be a bust. There just weren’t that many people moving toward the stage to join the rally that preceded the march. But the crowd kept building, slowly, steadily. It was a good-natured crowd. Everyone was bad-mouthing the Bush administration and the war, but everybody seemed to be smiling.
There were gray-haired women with digital cameras and young girls with braces. There were guys trying to look cool in knit caps and shades and balding baby boomers trading stories about Vietnam. And many ordinary families.
“Where’s Hillary?” someone asked.
That evoked laughter in the crowd. “She’s in Iowa running for president,” someone said.
When a woman asked, “What’s her position on the war?” a man standing next to her cracked, “She was for it before she was against it.”
The crowd kept building. There were people being pushed in wheelchairs and babies in strollers. There were elderly men and women, walking very slowly in some cases and holding hands.
The goal of the crowd was to get the attention of Congress and persuade it to move vigorously to reverse the Bush war policies. But the thought that kept returning as I watched the earnestly smiling faces, so many of them no longer young, was the way these protesters had somehow managed to keep the faith. They still believed, after all the years and all the lies, that they could make a difference. They still believed their government would listen to them and respond.
“I have to believe in this,” said Donna Norton of Petaluma, Calif. “I have a daughter in the reserves and a son-in-law on active duty. I feel very, very strongly about this.”
Betty and Peter Vinten-Johansen of East Lansing, Mich., said they felt obliged to march, believing that they could bolster the resolve of opponents of the war in Congress. Glancing toward the Capitol, Mr. Vinten-Johansen said, “Maybe we can strengthen their backbone a little bit.”
Even the celebrities who have been at this sort of thing for decades have managed to escape the debilitating embrace of cynicism. “How can you be cynical?” asked Tim Robbins, just before he mounted the stage to address the crowd, which by that time had grown to more than 100,000.
“This is inspiring,” he said. “It’s the real voice of the American people, and when you hear that collective voice protesting freely it reminds you of the greatness of our country. It gives you hope.”
When Jane Fonda said, “Silence is no longer an option,” she was doing more than expressing the outrage of the crowd over the carnage in Iraq and the president’s decision to escalate American involvement. She was implicitly re-asserting her belief in the effectiveness of citizen action.
Ms. Fonda is approaching 70 now and was at the march with her two grandchildren. It was very touching to watch her explain how she had declined to participate in antiwar marches for 34 years because she was afraid her notoriety would harm rather than help the effort.
The public is way out in front of the politicians on this issue. But the importance of Saturday’s march does not lie primarily in whether it hastens a turnaround of U.S. policy on the war. The fact that so many Americans were willing to travel from every region of the country to march against the war was a reaffirmation of the public’s commitment to our peaceful democratic processes.
It is in that unique and unflagging commitment, not in our terrifying military power, that the continued promise and greatness of America are to be found.