March 17, 2003

Antiwar movement should shut up about 'shutting it down' – before the state shuts us down

As we shiver in the shadow of war, waiting to be shocked and awed by the malevolent magnificence of militarism in action, some in the antiwar movement are calling for "direct action." What this amounts to is what happened the other day in downtown San Francisco, when about 200 people marched to the Pacific Stock Exchange, and a few dozen of these sat down on the steps, refusing to move, while their brethren disrupted traffic and tied up the downtown area for hours. Why did they do it? Let Warren Langley, former president of the Pacific Stock Exchange, and newly converted to antiwar activism, explain it in his own words:

"It's my history and my lifetime. This war seems very wrong for the entire world. I decided I was willing to do whatever it takes to show a strong stand against it."

Me, me, me, it's all about Me! Langley's narcissism is embarrassingly apparent. Like someone standing there with his fly wide-open, happily unaware, he perfectly embodies the unabashed self-absorption of the "direct action" movement. In nominating themselves for sainthood, the direct-actionists are acting out their personal fantasies on the political stage. In their little morality play they are the stars, moral paragons who, by the sheer power of their goodness and bravery, will shut down the war machine. "Shut it down!" is their slogan, and they mean the whole country. On the day war comes, we are instructed to go on strike and pour out into the streets. Not only that, but, as the Washington Post reports:

"Frustrated dissenters plan sit-ins and blockades at government buildings, financial centers, congressional offices and military bases and installations. The day after war begins, dissenters in at least 50 cities are planning direct actions. In New York's Times Square, protesters are planning to stop traffic. In Detroit, protesters are planning 72 hours of nonviolent disruptions at government installations. In St. Louis, they are planning to block the entrance to a Boeing bomb-making factory. North of Santa Barbara, Calif., activists – many of them religious leaders experienced in civil disobedience – are strategizing to shut down Vandenberg Air Force Base."

It is hard to imagine what the rationale behind this strategy could possibly be, other than the psychological satisfaction afforded by grandstanding. As Zein El-Amine, described by the Washington Post as "a Washington, D.C.-based organizer," explained it:

"'People want to do more, and those of us who have been activists for a long time have become demoralized by protesting that has not resulted in any recognition.' Civil disobedience, he said, 'is just the next logical step.'"

Never mind that such a strategy will alienate 99.99% of the population. All that really matters is that El-Amine and his compadres feel better about themselves and get a little "recognition."

Me, me, me it's all about me!

Aside from this rather unappealing psychological profile of the direct-actionist mentality, there are three major problems with this approach as a strategy. First and foremost is its almost child-like naivete. What, exactly, is the point of trying to infiltrate Vandenberg Air Force Base? It's hard to believe they really think they can win a pitched battle against squadrons of enraged Military Police. No one doubts the ability of the U.S. military to fend off such a hare-brained assault: what the nutball caucus of the antiwar movement is counting on is the unwillingness of the authorities to make martyrs out of them. But, if I were them, I wouldn't count on it. As the Sacramento Bee reports:

"Security forces at Vandenberg Air Force Base may use 'deadly force against protesters if they infiltrate the military complex if a war starts, officials said. Some anti-war activists plan to trespass onto base grounds in hopes of disturbing Vandenberg's mission and to vandalize sensitive equipment they contend helps guide the war effort. Vandenberg officials revealed Friday that military security police may shoot to kill, if necessary, to protect base residents and machinery."

The road to sainthood often ends in martyrdom. Are these crackpots really willing to go that far? I hope not. It is clear, at any rate, that such a strategy would be largely ineffective. That is, it would not accomplish its ostensible goal: to stop or even slow down the U.S. assault on Iraq. On the other hand, it would succeed in giving John Ashcroft and the War Party a perfect means by which to test the more draconian clauses of the "Patriot" Act and a rationale for proposing even harsher legislation in the near future.

The "direct action" faction would put the broad antiwar movement directly in the crosshairs of the state apparatus. Their suicidal actions could be the catalyst that unleashes a tsunami of repression unlike any seen in this country since World War I. Open authoritarians like David Horowitz, who accused the hundreds of thousands of antiwar marchers in this country of being "Communists" guilty of "sedition," are licking their chops, gleeful at the opportunity to call for jailing their political opponents all in the name of defending "freedom," of course.

Secondly, the direct-actionist approach will alienate most everyone. From an antiwar point of view, it was utterly pointless to go into downtown San Francisco and tie up traffic for hours, making everyone late. Working class people, stuck in traffic, had plenty of time to brood on the question of what makes people behave like total jerks. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the most antiwar region of the country, most didn't mistake the antiwar cause for its ostensible representatives. Elsewhere, however, enraged commuters may perhaps be forgiven if their support for the war is emboldened.

Another big problem with the direct-actionist panacea is that it is bound to be a complete flop. The plan is, essentially, to call for a general strike that will bring the country to a screeching halt. As the Post reports:

"The day – or days – after war begins could see the largest coordinated displays of civil disobedience in the United States since the civil rights era. Protesters around the country plan on blockading avenues, stopping traffic and generally disrupting business as usual."

Generals are always fighting the last war, and that goes for the direct-actionists in the peace camp as well. But the grandiose comparison to the civil rights movement is absurd. The position of the antiwar movement in this country is in no way analogous to that of blacks in the South who had to live under Jim Crow. In the latter case, what Americans saw on television were searing images of African-Americans being humiliated and spat upon for trying to get a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. In the case of the former, however, they will see a bunch of spoiled children sitting down in the middle of traffic and throwing a public tantrum.

The narcissist, by definition, cannot see himself as others see him. Blinded by self-love, the direct-actionist cannot see the immense apparatus of repression represented by the State, that will crush his dreams of vainglory as effortlessly as one swats a bothersome fly. In announcing the policy of using deadly force to stop incursions into Vandenberg Air Force Base, Major Stacee Bako showed a much more acute and realistic understanding of the theory of the State than the quasi-Marxoid direct-actionists and self-proclaimed "anarchists":

"This is not fun and games anymore. We're living in post 9/11. We don't know what's going to happen with the war effort in Iraq. These folks have got to realize their actions. ... They're illegal intruders."

The State never was about fun and games, and it is now embarked on a deadly serious business, that of extending its dominion overseas in a frankly imperial adventure. The conniving cabal of chickenhawks that has usurped power in Washington is not only willing but eager to crush domestic dissent. If anyone was in a joking mood, the idea that a few self-deluded publicity hounds represent an obstacle to the War Party's plans would be laughable. But this is no laughing matter. These fools are hurrying us along the path to war and repression by building popular support for both. They might as well be on the War Party's payroll, and no doubt some of them are.

Nothing is wrong with peaceful and legal protests on the day war breaks out, but the advocates of disruption who self-righteously howl "No business as usual!" and advocate illegal acts have got to be told off, in no uncertain terms. How dare they endanger the rest of us, and subject the organized antiwar movement to State repression at a fateful moment like this?! It's outrageous, and impermissible. In San Francisco, in the aftermath of the last mass protests, a contingent of self-proclaimed "anarchists," who go under the vague general rubric of the "Black Bloc," split off from the main march and descended into the financial district, breaking windows, throwing rocks, and creating havoc. Dozens were arrested, but most were out of jail in a few hours later, and all charges were dropped.

A sinister note is added to this turn of events by the revelation that undercover agents of the San Francisco Police Department were deployed in the crowd, videotaping protesters and doing whatever. The antiwar movement of the 1960s, you'll recall, was thoroughly infiltrated with police agents who routinely provoked violence, in the guise of "radicalism," in order to bring discredit on the antiwar cause.

Okay, then, smashing windows is out, but what to do on the first day of the war? Stay home from school? Don't go to work? That is the somewhat milder version of the "No Business As Usual" mantra being pushed by "Not In Our Name" (NION). This is a tactical error based on an over-estimation of the antiwar movement's numbers. Even if every person who marched in the massive February rallies participated in NION's symbolic general strike, that would amount to only a very small fraction of the general population. Not only that, but it just goes to show how disassociated from reality the direct-actionists really are. Most people, of course, can't afford to miss a day of work, and, in this economy, can hardly afford to be fired.

One can sympathize, of course, with the idea that we have to somehow mark this occasion, Day One of the American Empire, by doing something unusual. But why not use that day to gather together, look to the future, and come up with some new tactics?

We're going to war without having a real debate, either in the Congress or in the country: this is often said by the antiwar opposition. Well, then, instead of preaching to the converted, let's challenge the other side: I propose a series of town hall debates at which we confront the advocates of war, right and left, and expose them in full view of the American people.

Both visually and intellectually, such a device is so much more interesting than a sea of chanting protesters: it has a built-in dramatic structure made for television. The 21st century equivalent of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, re-enacted in hundreds of cities and towns across the country: what better way to reassert the legitimacy of dissent and throw down the gauntlet to the War Party? If the civilian advocates of this war fail to pick it up, then they lay themselves open to the charge of cowardice. We can then point to the anomaly of a War Party that doesn't flinch at mowing down whole cities full of Iraqi civilians, but is too scared to face their fellow Americans on the battlefield of ideas.

There are, after all, plenty of questions that need to be posed, as this war progresses, escalates, and spreads throughout the Middle East, the first one being: when and where does it end? How long will the troops stay? How much is this going to cost us? How soon will a plebiscite be held? Do they plan on admitting Iraq to the Union as the 51st state, or will it be accorded commonwealth status, like Puerto Rico? The American people think we are going in there to clean out the bad guys, and then declare victory and go home. Wait until they find out that it will take several hundred thousand troops, in place indefinitely, to keep the peace. As more reservists are relocated overseas, and the costs become all too apparent, the soft support for this intervention will collapse.

Barring a nuclear attack by Kim Il Jong on American forces in Korea, or some diplomatic rabbit pulled out of a hat, war in Iraq by the end of this week seems likely. What antiwar activists must realize is that we are in this for the long haul. The day war starts marks not the end but only the beginning of our struggle. On that day, antiwar activists should meet in conclave, and watch the horror with like-minded souls: not with "shock and awe," but with full understanding of what we are up against, and what it will take to win.

– Justin Raimondo

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.

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