A protest march without the marchers

Thursday, September 29, 2005

On Saturday, the media was invited to cover a protest march for peace in Storm Lake, to end at the office of Congressman Steve King, a steadfast supporter of continuing the military effort in Iraq.

Just one problem - no marchers showed up. A couple of activist BVU staffers gave up the ghost when no students at all proved to be interested in participating.

The assumption was that a bit of unpleasant weather had dampened the spirits of the march, but c'mon - really? Can you see Rev. Martin Luther King or the young Vietnam protesters of a generation ago scampering home in fear of a few sprinkles - not even enough to disrupt the football game down the street?

The true assumption has to be that (a.) people didn't get the word, (b.) people didn't agree with the stance against Bush policy, or (c.) people just didn't care enough to give up a Saturday afternoon over the issue.

As near as I could tell, the weather certainly did not hamper the turnout of collegiates in the bar parking lots that same night.

I fear C is the most correct.

A handful of hardy Bush supporters, however, showed up in place of the peace marchers, ready to counter the protest that never happened. Their message was, "Finish the Job."

I'm an unabashed fan of protest rallies. I think peaceful public demonstration is healthy, and I like to talk to people who believe in things strongly enough to put themselves out there in the line of critical fire. Such events make people think, whether they agree or otherwise.

I do wonder, however, if there is any middle ground to the current debate.

I don't believe that ultimately, war is the answer to global problems. I'm not sure you can "finish this job" with military muscle alone. And it is painful to see another group of families split apart as more local National Guard troops are sent Iraq's way for another year - some for the second damn time.

The message of most substance from former British leader John Major that same week on campus is that a global pact against terrorism, cutting the terrorists' lines of finance, supply, social support and safe hiding places, is the only real way to "finish the job..."

But hey, all that would be a lot to get on a protest sign.

On the other hand, I strongly believe in supporting our military men and women and the missions they are risking for our benefit, including funding for the equipment they need to be safe, and achieving the necessary goals so that their sacrifices are not destined to have no practical meaning. It makes me uncomfortable to see a president reduced to oafish cartoon status. Like most everyone, I imagine, I long for a clear strategy to end the conflict and bring our people home safe.

Can you be against war and for soldiers without being an utterly hopeless hypocrite? I hope so...

You just can't go around saying such confused treason these days, however. People want things in simple black and white. They will tell you that you can't have it both ways - Are you a Democrat or Republican?? (Nope). A liberal or conservative?? (Yes.) A pacifist or protectionist?? (Of course.)

At the least, such slanderous views will get you labeled as a gutless fence-sitter. But those who feel these mixed emotions did not build this particular so-called fence...

One can sense conflicted feelings as well in the sendoff of the Guardsmen the other day. Wives and girlfriends shed tears, children try to look brave as their lower lips quiver. Children in camo - does that image stir something in you? Feelings collide at mach speed - pride and fear, duty and longing. Godspeed...

If the protest march had come off in Storm Lake, I honestly don't know which side I would have most identified with. But I would have liked to have seen and heard them both.

If the goal here was to sway Steve King, that wouldn't happen with an atomic bomb. Only a change in voter attitude would move that seat from up against the far right wall of the Congressional chambers - and that would be a big task.

If anything, King will see that the anti-war group fizzled, and the pro-military effort group was small but solid, and take it as proof that his efforts are completely correct. But once again, is it all so completely black and white?

Of course, the purpose of protest is seldom really about making political votes anyway; it is about the people and their rights and their precious voice.

Whether for peace or for war, having some brave souls out there with banners and slogans on the street of your town lets others who believe as they do know that it is okay to speak their minds, too. It also inspires a voice of opposition, as even this failed peace march did. In that unencumbered discourse that results, is reborn the rights of freedom that make America unique, and its causes ultimately worth marching for.

We may not have had a dramatic event on that cloudy Saturday afternoon in Storm Lake, as they did in Washington, but the opportunity was and is there for local people to share what is on their minds and in their hearts.

Even if it is not all in black and white, right and wrong, war or peace.

No terrorists, no war, no vote of Congress or even an unexpected rain squall can take that opportunity away from us.

Speak up, friends, whether you are politically in the midst of the chanting crowd, or all, all, all alone.

* Dana Larsen is the editor of the Pilot-Tribune. He can be reached at dlarsen@stormlakepilottribune.com