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What Place for Peace Advocates After the Attack?

Can I speak out for peace, or is that a kind of treason? Welcome to the new sixties. How do I cling to my staunch belief that violence is never a solution, not even to, especially not to, violence?

Monday, September 17, 2001 -- Until last week, I could stand by my peacenik, wishing-I-was-alive-in-the-sixties philosophy and be considered a throwback, an "idealistic youngster" to be patted on the head by knowing elders. But times have suddenly changed, and I'm scared.

Who in America isn't terrified and confused right now? Our divided nation finally found unity in grief. Everyone I walk by, regardless of race or gender, is speaking about the crisis. I have never seen such commonality of experience, not even back at my tiny college campus. This condition just doesn't seem natural. Every new group of people you encounter just extends the conversation of those before it, like the Borg from Star Trek, like some giant collective unit. Unity in fear.

But of all the scared parties in our scared country, one group hasn't received much media coverage: those of us who believe in peace and nonviolence. In a moment when America is seeing unprecedented unification, in anger and in pain and in desperate search of a target, I am finding holding to my views a little dangerous.

Wearing my peace badge in the streets of downtown Boston last Wednesday was surreal. I shivered under the stares of passersby, saw their eyes sink disapprovingly to my chest level. As I held a candle along with dozens of others at a peace rally in Copley Square (which only hours ago had hosted heavily armed FBI agents searching a nearby hotel), shouts came from passersby.

"Hey, haven't you heard the pledge of allegiance?" a burly man called from a disquieting distance of three feet behind me. "It says one nation, INDIVISIBLE. How dare you divide us?"

I should have been careful I wished for. Welcome to the new sixties. How do I cling to my staunch belief that violence is never a solution, not even to, especially not to, violence? How, when my students come to class crying because they've lost loved ones in New York? How do I explain how retaliation has certainly never solved Israel and Palestine, that putting Afghans or Iraqis through the same torment that we are all feeling right now isn't going to bring back any of our dead, or make us feel any better? Who am I to say this? How can I even justify it to myself?

Are we now experiencing a healing unity, a patriotic coming together? Or are we risking losing the very America that we know? Groups of young people marched down Boston's streets all around me, waving American flags, war-whooping and throwing bottles. A man in a reflective jacket rode a scooter past us, crying "Damned Jews, it's all their fault." Germany looked much like this following the burning of the Reichstag. The last time America was attacked, we created Japanese internment camps. And with every cry, born of pain, for retribution, do we risk some slow erosion of our civil rights that an increasingly paranoid and martial America might create?

Can I speak out for peace, or is that a kind of treason? Can I speak of my worries when I hear my friends, or my 16-year-old students, talk about being drafted? When do I dare call attention again to the many ongoing American crises - healthcare, education, the income gap, the rights of women and homosexuals -that will be buried even further than usual thanks to a martial tide? I'm scared at how hollow any social advocacy arguments will ring in the face of a "new America" that might form, where no one will care about anything except killing or being killed. But how can I argue when one of my best friends, who was actually in New York and saw the towers burn with her own eyes, speaks though tears of how the flag-wavers on the streets bring her so much comfort?

Welcome back to the sixties, peacenik - except now your cause seems even less clear. I want to say, "Watch your rights lest they slip away," or "watch our human goodness lest we trade it in for vengeance, and grow more like the very people who dealt us this evil." Is this disunity? Is this even safe? Being at that Boston rally, hearing the jeers against us, opened my eyes to that distinct possibilities of violence toward the peaceniks. What on earth has happened to the world?

Like everyone else, I'm scared. Like everyone else, I don't know quite what our country should do to respond to this atrocity. How do I explain how war will do nothing but spend billions of dollars and kill people who aren't involved in what happened to us, Bush's logic regarding countries that "harbor" terrorists be damned? How can I listen to politicians use the language of "war," and somehow doublethink myself into appreciating the unity, while remembering that war seldom kills the real perpetrators of grievous crimes (case in point, Saddam Hussein), only scared young men holding guns, and women and children in the radius of bomb blasts meant to strike at a concept. You don't kill a concept with bombs. You don't kill terrorism with terror.

Instead, can't we use our pain to fuel a real effort at building a unified world? Not a world unified under globalization, a world where the rich of all nations unite for increasing wealth at the expense of the poor, as we were headed for before, and not a world that I fear we are headed for now, united under hate for invisible and unfindable terrorists. We need to build a world which values empathy and human rights, a world where terrorism can have no purpose as a sick and twisted "advocacy" because no one would feel so threatened as to resort to it.

How can I support America without sacrificing my ability to critique it? I yearned for the sixties. I should have been careful what I wished for.

David Nurenberg teaches English in Concord, MA. He writes a monthly column for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, MA, where this column originally appeared.

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