Sacramento debates war and peace
War breeds hawks and doves, or at least it has in the past. The hawks want to use the military to soundly punish those who would do harm to Americans. The doves talk about never-ending cycles of violence and advocate better diplomacy. The hawks want enemies of the United States to fear its military might; the doves want to create fewer enemies.
But as Sacramento and the rest of the country weigh how to respond to the terrorist attack of September 11, neither the hawks nor the doves seem to believe that their approach alone can accomplish America’s goals, and those who do sound shrill and out-of-touch.
The polarizing labels from wars past somehow just don’t seem appropriate since this devastating act awakened us to the world’s complexities. The old slogans have started to sound outdated, and many of those who still utter them do so with a nagging sense of speaking only half-truths.
In the days after the bombing, the Sacramento Bee divided its letters to the editor into two sections: “Blast ’Em” and “Turn the Other Cheek.” Yet those who say “blast ’em” are rightly asked “blast whom?” and to what end? And those who would simply turn the other cheek must answer for what happens when these same terrorists attack that cheek, too.
And so it was in Sacramento last Friday, when those who tend to be a little hawkish by nature gathered in the Sacramento Convention Center and the doves took to the streets outside the Memorial Auditorium.
“Black and white”
The timing couldn’t be better. President George W. Bush had just spoken to Congress and the world the night before, stirring the country to wage war against terrorism. And now, here in the Sacramento Convention Center, Henry Kissinger was about to give his first speech since the attack on America.
That’s right, Dr. Henry Kissinger, the man who guided this country’s foreign policy through its darkest Cold War days, someone who did what it took to achieve American objectives, a tough-minded hawk who is paradoxically one of the only Americans with a Nobel Peace Prize in his cabinet.
Even the protesters with their “Kissinger is a War Criminal” signs who had planned on being in front of the hall during the speech were scared away when KFBK radio’s Mark Williams blasted these un-American malcontents, labeling the demonstration a “pro-Osama bin Laden rally.” So Kissinger was cleared for a big speech, and the mood among the 3,000 people inside the star-spangled hall was expectant.
“You could not have a better place and time for this speech, with all his knowledge and experience,” said 44-year-old developer Anthony Scotch, as he milled around the front-row-center Bank of America table. “To be lectured today about all the intricacies of foreign policy by Henry Kissinger, it’s just amazing.”
Scotch is steadfast in his support for an aggressive military action against terrorism. “I see it really black and white,” he said. “We should take them out. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s not impossible.” As to those who question Kissinger’s legacy, Scotch said, “People always try to rewrite history.”
That kind of conservative worldview is typical at the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce Perspectives speakers’ forums, said Frank Vellutini, himself a conservative Republican who has been to the last three. He and his wife, Carrie, support the president’s call for an “all-out war on terrorism.”
“I don’t think we have a lot of choice but to retaliate. We can’t just sit back and let it happen,” he said. Carrie nodded her head, adding, “Something needs to be done. We need to do something.”
The Vellutinis have supported every U.S. military action in their lifetimes. Well, except maybe the Vietnam War toward the end there, Frank admits, but he was just 19 at the time. His views haven’t changed, he maintains, he just thinks wars are only justified if they have public support.
Having a 13-year-old son at home, the Vellutinis know that the long, drawn-out struggle Bush speaks of could impact their family directly. Their son could eventually be called to go off to fight and die in this struggle, and that’s something they understand and accept.
“If the country is solidly behind this and we throw everything we have at this, then I’m for it,” he said, as the house lights dimmed and the program began.
“Peace to you”
“Peace to you! Peace to you!” shouted Phyllis Campanello to the stop-and-go traffic rolling along J and 16th streets. She held the long staff of Old Glory against her hip as she waved America’s symbol to a sea of cars waving back with their own little red-white-and-blues.
There are a lot of people waving American flags these days. But they’re not necessarily waving them for the same reasons as Campanello. As a matter of fact, a recent ABC News poll shows that 86 percent of Americans support military action against the perpetrators of the deadly September 11 assaults. In Congress, only one person, U.S. Representative Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), voted against using U.S. military retaliation and she has endured a barrage of angry calls and letters since then.
Campanello thinks the polls are a sham. She doesn’t believe the majority of Americans really want to go to war. She believes that those who want to don’t have a reason for why they do other than to express anger, which is not a good enough reason.
“Because if I ask a direct question—'How did you come to this conclusion? Why do you think bombing Afghanistan will solve the problem?’—they can’t say anything,” she said of the so-called hawks. “What they tell me is what they hear on television. I think people are so manipulated by the media, so controlled, that they don’t think for themselves.”
Working the sidewalk with an exuberance reminiscent of Betty Grable, Campanello is hard to miss among the activists in this peace rally. She wore a straw hat, Capri pants and beach sandals on this sunny Friday late afternoon. She had the biggest, most visible flag in the crowd, and she was among the loudest.
“Peace for negotiation to protect the U.S. and prevent World War III!” she yelled. A chorus of horns honked in harmony, and she cheered, “Peace to you! Peace to you! Whoa! Whoa!”
A herd of police officers holler for her to move away from the traffic. In her delight, she unknowingly stepped off the curb. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she apologized to the officers sheepishly. “I just get so excited!”
“I’ve had people ask me how can you believe the way you do?” she said. “Well, I wasn’t raised this way. I bought into the perpetuated lie. I was once very naïve.”
Then came the Vietnam War, and with it, Campanello’s awakening to the brutality of war, and the often self-serving or hypocritical reasoning that propels the United States into wars. Wars are more often about corporate economic interests than the high-minded ideals that get espoused, she believes. “I began realizing the corruption in the government,” she said. “We have leadership in this country that tragically don’t hold to the values and ideals of what this country is all about. They stand by the corporations.”
Campanello’s initial reaction to the World Trade Center attacks was shock, but not surprise. “I have been holding my breath because I have felt for a while that there has been imminent danger because the U.S. has created so many enemies,” she said.
Her long-term solution to the situation is to pursue less unilateral foreign policy, one that considers the grievances and perspectives of powerless people in the world, those who turn to terrorism as a weapon of last resort. But her short-term goals are a little fuzzier, and difficult to accomplish without some military component.
“We investigate this matter,” Campanello said, “do the research, apprehend, and bring these war criminals to justice, put them behind bars and throw away the key.”
“Drain the swamp”
The tone for the event was set by the color guard’s slow and somber march to the stage, with its backdrop of a huge American flag. The crowd, mostly corporate and political luminaries in sharp suits or seniors in golf shirts, was reverent. Then Chamber Chair Diane Miller gave that tone its relevance for this crowd: “It was the free market economic system, particularly the capitalist system of the United States, that was attacked on September 11.”
Master of Ceremonies Tom Sullivan did his usual shtick, hyping the event and plugging the long list of sponsors, even showing a Bank of America commercial on the hall’s four large screens before a BofA executive came out to introduce the “most respected and compelling American political figure,” Henry Kissinger.
After his standing ovation, a grave-looking Kissinger said he had scrapped his prepared speech, and would be giving his first public address since the tragedy “more or less extemporaneously about the events of the last two weeks, where we are and where we should go.” The room was still and receptive.
“First, let me say, I was proud to be an American last night.” Huge applause. “The president told us what the challenge is, and he told us what needs to be done, and this country has never failed in such circumstances, and it surely won’t fail now.”
He then sounded a theme that he would repeat several times in his speech and the press conference that followed—a theme that has echoed through the United States since the tragedy, sounded in varying forms by just about everyone who now supports military action by the United States—“It is they who declared war on America, not we on them.”
It is a statement usually uttered as the final word on the matter. We have no choice. They attacked us, all we are doing is responding. They started the war and now we’ll finish it. And beyond just the question of whether we must now engage in war, Kissinger said the attack ended the debate in America about whether, in the post-Cold War era, we must continue to involve ourselves in the affairs of other countries in both overt and covert ways: “That debate is now over.”
It was classic Kissinger. Just as President Bush and Congress are now considering overturning the ban on assassinating foreign political targets—a reform that came precisely in response to Kissinger-era (and sometimes Kissinger-directed) CIA excesses—he now claims such human rights gestures actually contributed to the attack: “We have been harassing our intelligence agencies for the last 20 years at least and subjecting them to endless inquiries.”
Kissinger said the terrorists require safe havens, so the United States needs to aggressively go after the countries sympathetic to the terrorists. “Terrorists as individuals are not so easy to find. Governments cannot hide, and we know, or can know, which governments are tacitly or openly supporting them.” Kissinger didn’t name or number those countries, but there are nearly a dozen on official U.S. government lists.
“If we discourage the majority or all of these countries from tolerating terrorism, then we are dealing with a group of fugitives running around the world. If we can force them to spend their time surviving, they cannot spend their time threatening our survival.” Again, huge applause. “And so, it is necessary to drain the swamp, to know who is doing what, and to find the appropriate penalty. You notice, I did not say the appropriate reward? Because I do not believe we should reward countries for not engaging in terrorism.”
He then went on to suggest some ways of doing that, such as denying visas to some foreign nationals, trying to maintain our international coalition and working to return our enemies to the community of nations once we have defeated and reformed them.
Yet it wasn’t until after the speech, during the press conference, when challenged on the past and present tactics that he supports, that Kissinger reaffirmed his old commitment to doing what needs to be done, whatever that may be, to carry out American objectives.
“We had to choose between evils and we chose the lesser of the evils,” Kissinger said, growing visibly irritated with the continuing questions about the United State’s role in atrocities in Latin America and elsewhere for which no American has been held accountable, before adding, “It’s these sort of arguments that are contributing to the problem.”
“Peace is patriotic”
A woman holding a sign that said “War fever is a disease” tried to hand a flyer to a man and woman coming from the Sacramento Convention Center. Dressed in business attire and carrying packages from the afternoon’s event, they were not amused by the offering, so a few hostile words were exchanged.
The flyer was a promotion for journalist Christopher Hitchens’ new book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, in which Hitchens makes the case for indicting Kissinger as a war criminal. The protester urged the couple to read it and learn the truth about Kissinger.
“Read my ass,” the man snarled, trailing his last word.
There might have been more such conflicts if the Ad Hoc Committee to Greet Kissinger had protested at noon in front of the convention hall as planned, rather than after the event a few blocks away, where they retreated to join other peace groups out of fear of the right-wing radio listeners who had been encouraged to confront them.
Yet they were still making their point that Kissinger’s brand of Machiavellian foreign policy is wrong, using signs like: “Missing: Chilean Children, Kissinger’s Conscience,” “Realpolitik, Real Genocide,” “Kissinger, International Terrorist” and the Kissinger quote: “The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”
The 100-plus crowd included members of Sacramento-Yolo Peace Action, Middle East Peace Project, Grandmothers for Peace, Sacramento Coalition to End the War on Iraq and the Green Party. It consisted mostly of old hippies and young idealists, those who have struggled for peace since the ’60s and those who grew up wary of a world dominated by consumer culture and policed by the U.S. military. They held signs like “Honk for Peace,” “Peace is Patriotic,” and “World Court, Not World War.”
Every few minutes, someone would honk or give a thumbs-up, and the protesters would be buoyed and wave their signs with more gusto. Behind the protesters stood a phalanx of about a dozen Sacramento Police Department officers, a visual deterrent to those who might want to do the protesters harm.
Many of the officers looked stone-faced and grim, as if they were angry to have to be protecting these people at a time like this. Officer S.D. Walters refused to speak to the protesters, or to even acknowledge a question from a journalist about his views on the event, eyes fixed straight ahead, jaw clenched.
“This country means something,” activist Eric Vega yelled to the gathered protesters, “but it won’t mean much unless we look at our history.”
At one point during the event, a Sacramento Fire Department engine pulled up to the curb in the middle of the protesters, there to render medical aid to someone who had complained of shortness of breath. A huge American flag was attached to the back of the engine, and a sign in its window declared, “We will never forget September 11, 2001.”
“Freedom will win”
Back in the convention hall, waiting for the afternoon’s slate of speakers to begin, Vellutini reflected on the morning. He said Kissinger’s speech reaffirmed his belief that “we have no choice” but to respond militarily. That kind of affirmation was a high point from the podium, but Vellutini said the best aspect of the event was simply to be part of a group of like-minded Americans at such an important time.
“It’s good to be in a building with this many patriots today,” he said. “It feels good.”
It was a point echoed by Rusty Hammer, CEO of the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce: “It is a good thing because it gives people a chance to come together for the first time since September 11.”
Past Perspectives events have been raucous and partisan, like last year’s event, when Newt Gingrich’s pointed attacks on Democrats and liberals drew some of the most spirited responses of the day, including standing ovations for his less governments/lower taxes appeals.
With that kind of crowd gathering at a time when war fever was running high, one might have expected that this year’s Perspectives event would be tantamount to a pro-war rally, particularly with guests like Kissinger, right-wing action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger, conservative columnist and aborted Bush cabinet nominee Linda Chavez, and the last minute addition (replacing political comedy troupe Capital Steps, who was dropped because of concern that comedy isn’t appropriate now) of Scott O’Grady, a Navy pilot who became “an American hero” in 1995 when he was shot down over Bosnia and rescued after surviving for six days in hostile territory.
But it wasn’t. Underneath the flag-waving patriotism that has erupted over the last two weeks, people of all political stripes are worried about what lies ahead. Just as the doves are taking no joy in their long-standing warnings that American unilateralism was inviting an attack like this, so too the hawks aren’t anxious to go to war against such a shadowy enemy.
“It has not been as energetic as years passed,” Hammer said of the event, which saw a few moments of ovation and emotion, but only a few. Even O’Grady’s amazing war story and patriotically polished speech, which was largely a series of “God, family, country” applause lines, seemed to stir the speaker up more than his audience.
“Freedom is at war at this time with terrorism and evil, and make no mistake about it, freedom will win,” O’Grady declared with a stern, emotional voice. “I stand behind my president, my government and my military, and I ask every American to do the same.”
It was a statement that drew applause and probably agreement from almost everyone in the crowd, yet as the speech wore on, O’Grady’s brand of military man hyper-patriotism seemed to fall flat with the crowd. It was as if they agreed with him, but were too emotionally drained to respond with much vigor.
And so it was that the only foreigner on the speakers’ slate, former South Africa president and Nobel Peace Prize winner F.W. de Klerk, would deliver perhaps the most quietly stirring, thought-provoking speech of the day, during this time of strong American unity.
“Justice not revenge”
Those activists who are vocally opposed to Bush’s “all-out war on terrorism” focus on how short-sighted U.S. policies have made enemies of Osama bin Laden and others, and how a unilateral rush to retaliate could trigger World War III.
“I think a lot of our foreign policies are terrorist in nature,” said Maggie Coulter, vice president of Sacramento-Yolo Peace Action. “It’s violence against civilians. It’s genocide in some cases. It violates international law. Look at the list of governments we’ve overthrown since World War II.”
Yet few advocate just turning the other cheek now, and that’s caused a tough internal struggle for many Sacramentans who hold pacifist beliefs. They know this isn’t like Vietnam or the Gulf War, where we injected ourselves into other countries’ business. They agree with Kissinger that we were attacked, and now must somehow respond.
“No one can commit such a heinous crime like that and go untouched, absolutely not,” said Ruth Holbrook of Sacramentans for Peace. “But I don’t think we should go bomb innocent civilians.”
The peace movement in this country has always been big on slogans, and the one that has taken root to describe its position now seems to be “justice not revenge.”
“We must demand to see the evidence leading the U.S. to declare Osama bin Laden as the responsible party,” said Sacramento peace activist Laroy Smith. “If, in fact, the evidence does prove bin Laden to be responsible, we ask for a surgical strike, and not a widespread war that will mean suffering and death for thousands of innocent civilians.”
The activists decry the fact that there is no “World Court” with which to prosecute bin Laden because such a tribunal has been opposed by the U.S. They want to see the attacks treated more as a crime than the opening salvo in a war, yet some also acknowledge that arresting those responsible could be messy business.
So the doves may tolerate some hawkish behavior by the United States, but they would like to see the hawks become a little more dove-like once those directly responsible for the attacks are caught.
“While we must demand that the responsible parties are brought to justice, we must also demand with equal fervor that our nation’s activities in the Middle East and, indeed, throughout the world, be openly discussed, fairly debated, and thoroughly included into the decision calculus for taking appropriate action and making necessary reform,” Smith said.
“So while we recognize that America must be strong in the face of such an attack on our beloved soil, we also recognize that, so long as light is not brought to bare on what our country does in other parts of the world, the American people will never be truly safe from terrorism.”
“What is right?”
“I’m sorry that my visit comes at such a tragic time in your history,” began F.W. de Klerk, who shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela for ending the racial apartheid policies that had submitted their South Africa to violence and international scorn.
Like Kissinger, de Klerk said he had considered abandoning his prepared speech to discuss the attack on America and its ramifications. Yet he decided to stick with his speech, titled “Doing the Right Thing,” both because he thinks America has responded well to the attack, and because the speech offers valuable lessons at a time like this.
He addressed the basic ethical questions—“what is right and what is wrong?”—with which Americans now wrestle as we decide whether to support the country’s war against terrorism, whether to pursue a foreign policy that will make us a less-hated target or some combination of those approaches.
De Klerk said the world can basically be divided up into three philosophical groups: the religious fundamentalists, social idealists and economic pragmatists. The first group is driven by strict moral codes, the second by a vision of a more egalitarian world, the third by the principles of the market—and most hold their views supreme over those of the other two.
“The global ethical debates tend to be dominated by these three areas,” he said. “That is the struggle.”
While de Klerk said the positive manifestations of each of these three belief systems have contributed to the world’s progress, their negative manifestations have been the most damaging forces that our species has known. Religious fundamentalism has given life meaning, but it also crashed airplanes in the World Trade Center. Social idealism ended slavery and child labor, but also gave us the reigns of both Stalin and Hitler. Economic pragmatism created wealth and technological progress, yet also exploitation and subjugation of the weak and environmental degradation. And so, now more than ever, we must realize that in this infinitely complex world, there is something to value and fear in each approach.
“No individual can say I have the absolute truth,” de Klerk said. “We need balance. We need to isolate the extremists or radicals wherever they may be.”
So in answering his earlier “what is right?” question, de Klerk said the answer usually lies at the intersection of the three worldviews, even on questions in which the worldviews seem to be in conflict. For example, he said the world should feel a moral duty to help impoverished, disease-wracked Africa, and should set socially idealistic goals that are attainable using current economic realities.
Ultimately, he seemed to borrow a concept from Kissinger’s press conference, although de Klerk was talking less about sidling up to unsavory allies than he was about finding less ideologically rigid solutions when he said, “Often, the best decision is the one that is the least bad.”
Sacramentans and the rest of the American citizenry are now presented with a choice among many bad options, some of which may even entail a loss of life, power, wealth or maybe all of these things, depending on the fallout from the choices our country makes.
Yet if the views expressed last Friday in the halls and on the streets of Sacramento are any indication, maybe the complexities of the current crisis are causing more Americans to adopt de Klerk’s conception of “what is right?” Perhaps the hawks and doves in this country can fly together toward that uncertain horizon.