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On the Road

One man walks to Washington, D.C., in hopes of swaying the war debate

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A small group of shaggy-haired hippies, lefties and just curious shoppers gathered around Bill McDannell as he talked about his coast-to-coast walk.

Seated near the organic juices and bottled waters at Fourth Avenue's Food Conspiracy Co-op, McDannell calmly explained to more than a dozen people that he set out from his home near San Diego on Nov. 4 and is bound for Washington, D.C., where he hopes to present a petition demanding an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the country's leaders. He calls it the "Walk to End the Wars."

"My wife and I have sold our house; we've sold most of our possessions to finance what we're doing," he told his audience.

It's a risky--some might say crazy--gamble, but it's one McDannell, 57, sincerely believes is worth taking. He's accepting donations to help pay for his expedition, but he's not sweating it if he doesn't raise enough money along the way to pay back what he invested.

"We'll look around and see where life leads us next," he said over the phone several days after his talk, as highway traffic sped by in the background. "I'm healthy; I can still work. My wife is reasonably healthy and can still work. We're not going to worry about that. What will come will come."

Chief among his petition's points is that the United States cannot be at war with a tactic, a tool or a weapon--in other words, terrorism--as the Bush administration would have Americans believe. To claim otherwise is to expand the definition of war until it has lost its meaning, in much the same way as the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty have become trivial PR slogans.

"All of us, in our darkest hearts, are capable of terrorist acts," McDannell said. "If we're talking about eliminating terrorism, then we're talking about eliminating humanity."

If, in fact, this is a new type of war, as some have suggested, then McDannell is all for adopting new ways of waging it.

"Let's think about it," McDannell said over the phone along Interstate 10. "The fact of the matter is that we haven't thought about what we're doing, and, again, we have been applying either conventional wisdom or no wisdom at all to a new situation. It's clear that it hasn't worked--we need to go back to the drawing board."

One of the most aggravating aspects of the Bush administration's approach to terrorism, according to McDannell, is that it has "legitimized a bunch of sociopaths," bestowing upon terrorists the veneer of authority typically reserved for states.

In addition, he said a cowed Congress has abdicated its responsibility to check the power of the executive branch, allowing President Bush to send soldiers into harm's way, when it passed two bills authorizing the use of force in Afghanistan and Iraq, McDannell said.

The petition, which currently has some 1,000 signatures, seeks to rescind the "extraordinary" wartime powers granted the president and to redeploy troops in a way "consistent with the fact that our country is not presently at war with any other state, nation or sovereign power."

On Saturday, Dec. 30--the day of the talk--McDannell had made it to Irvington Road and Alvernon Way, on Tucson's southside. He has averaged about 15 miles a day--not counting a 3 1/2-week hiatus to finalize the sale of his Lakeside, Calif., home. McDannell carries a GPS device to mark where he stops each day, a cell phone to field calls from anyone who's interested in his journey and a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes to smoke.

At night, he had been sleeping in a 22-year-old camper that his wife, Jonna, was driving as a support vehicle. However, she flew to Missouri to visit a daughter for the holidays, leaving McDannell alone until he "gets out of New Mexico," he wagered. Local churches and friends of friends had been putting him up around the New Year's holiday.

The way out of this mess, McDannell said, depends upon Americans standing up and being heard as citizens. And he hopes that his cross-country trek will serve as a rallying call. He doesn't believe the country is split down the middle, with half the country believing that everything is hunky dory in the Middle East.

"Everybody that I've come in contact with, with extremely rare exception, is fed up," he said.

Generally speaking, listeners at McDannell's talk were among the receptive, but perhaps that's because not many hard-core right-wingers shop at the bohemian co-op.

Some members of the audience expressed views that are stereotypically associated with the left: The conflict in Iraq is all about oil; the Israeli/Jewish lobby has too much power in Congress; war is always futile in the end. Others agreed with McDannell about the way President Bush had framed the wars.

"It's marketing," volunteered Leslie Fisher.

Not everyone raved about McDannell's walk. One man questioned whether anything would get the attention of leaders in the nation's capital, advocating instead for throwing up our collective hands in despair. As it turned out, the most cynical of the bunch also proved to be the most paranoid: He refused to give his name to the Weekly while browsing the fresh vegetables, claiming he had encountered FBI and CIA agents posing as journalists in the past.

McDannell took exception to the man's naysaying, at one point pounding a table laden with free organic treats to reiterate the point that people, when they link arms, can create change.

"I believe one person can make a difference," he said, "and I'm putting that to the test right now."

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