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War Torn

What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding?

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It's quitting time on this blistering Thursday afternoon nine days after terrorists turned hijacked planes into guided missiles to destroy New York's Twin Towers and smash the walls of the Pentagon, killing more than 6,000 people. As the U.S. rattles its sword toward the war-ravaged mountains of Afghanistan, a crowd gathers in front of the federal building in downtown Tucson, waving signs that proclaim Washington Capital of Terrorism and Mourn for All the Victims of Violence while cars creep along Congress Street on their homeward commute.

A green pickup rolls to a stop and a curly-haired woman rolls down the passenger window. "Why don't you come back next week when they've poisoned our water supply!" she yells, "They bombed us!" the driver angrily shouts. "They declared war on us!"

The driver's anger builds as a tiny elderly woman approaches with a leaflet. The light changes, the woman rolls up her window and the truck speeds off.

"That's what you have to deal with sometimes," says Jack Blawis, an 88-year-old member of Veterans for Peace who's holding a sign reading Punish Terrorists, Not Innocent People. "Some of 'em don't have the brains they were born with."

Blawis is a regular at the weekly vigil, which he says has been gathering here every Thursday for two decades. He saw action himself when he served with a field artillery team in France toward the end of World War II. "I met French people who would now be called terrorists," he says.

War didn't seem so bad to him back then. "I hate to say I had a good time, when people were dying by the carload, but I couldn't figure out why anybody wouldn't want to go," Blawis says.

But he found himself becoming disenchanted with U.S. foreign policy while working in Latin America in the 1970s. He says after he got involved in political activity in Chile during the Pinochet era--"I've always been on the side of working people, wherever I am"--the U.S. State Department blocked future travel to the country.

The gusty winds of war have brought out about 100 people to the protest. It's the largest crowd in recent months, says Joe Bernick, who helps direct the loose-knit Tucson Peace Center, a non-profit umbrella group of anti-war, anti-nuclear, social justice organizations that sponsors an annual peace fair here in town. "In the summer, it gets down to a half-dozen or so," he says.

If public opinion polls are accurate, the demonstrators are swimming against the national tide. A Zogby poll asking "Would you support or oppose an all-out war against countries which harbor or aid terrorists?" showed support for military action ranging from 67 to 75 percent between September 17 and 21.

Those numbers don't discourage Bernick, a wiry 55-year-old peace activist sporting a People's Weekly News cap. Bernick is behind the crowd, painting signs for the demonstrators: No War. War is Terrorism. War is not Justice.

"I know the American people don't really want a war, even if they're jingoistic," Bernick says. "They want to strike and they want people to be punished, but they don't want a war."

But he sees the country's leaders moving closer to conflict every day. "I'm real afraid we're going to have a war and we're going to sacrifice more American lives," he says. "We had enough Americans killed in New York. We don't need to sacrifice them in the hills and canyons of Afghanistan."

Bernick remains unconvinced that Osama bin Laden, named as the prime suspect behind the terrorist plot, is guilty. "They accuse bin Laden of a lot of things, but I don't think there's any evidence yet," says Bernick. "There may be. He may be implicated, he may not be."

Born in the United States, Bernick grew up in a left-wing Jewish family in Israel, returning to the U.S. as a teenager. He has deep roots in the peace movement, beginning with protests against the Vietnam War and continuing with a statewide initiative campaign opposing nuclear proliferation in 1982. (The initiative was on 10 state ballots that year; it failed only in Arizona.)

Bernick calls the September 11 attacks a "horrible thing."

"It's the kind of horror that many people in the world experience on a regular basis," he says. "Jerusalem is about the size of Tucson and when I was there recently, there were three bus bombings one day. And I could hear shooting going on near my 95-year-old father's nursing home. There, life goes on. People ride the buses less when they're getting blown up, but people still go to work and it doesn't come to a halt."

He blames last week's attacks on the globalization movement. "The same policy that strives to bring Third-World wages to workers here at home also spreads these kinds of things," he says.

Bernick is heartened by the support for Muslims in the wake of the attack, but worried about the possibility of new national restrictions.

"A lot of people are fearful that our powers that be in this country, our corporations and their tools in government, will use this to curtail our civil liberties," he says. "On the one hand, people are willing to give up some liberties for security, but there's also a fear that once you give something up, you'll never get it back."

Bernick introduces me to Felice Cohen-Joppa, who with her husband, Jack, publishes the anti-nuke newsletter The Nuclear Resister. Besides this demonstration, Cohen-Joppa often attends a weekly vigil of Women in Black, named for a similar protest group in Israel. She believes attacking Afghanistan won't deter future terrorist action.

"We have a really good example of some heartbreaking series of terrorist acts and responding violence in Israel in the occupied territories," she says. "I think if we look at that situation, we can see that addressing terrorism with violence only creates more violence. It doesn't solve the problem. Of course, the terrorists that committed this horrible act should be brought to justice, but military action will only incite more terrorism."

Not that she's a fan of the gang of religious zealots who have taken control of Afghanistan. "My opinion of the Taliban is not particularly high, especially because of the way they've been treating women for years and other citizens in Afghanistan as well," says Cohen-Joppa, criticizing the U.S. government for giving the country millions of dollars in humanitarian aid.

She sees attacking Afghanistan as just another misstep of a flawed U.S. policy in the Middle East.

"For the last 10 years, I have been mourning and thinking about the loved ones in Iraq whose children have been dying because of U.S. government policy and the sanctions," says Cohen-Joppa. "The violence and innocent deaths that we create around the world are sadly coming home to us. All life is sacred and no innocent people should be killed."

She believes sanctions against Iraq should be lifted and a global justice court established to deal with world leaders like Saddam Hussein. "I think that people who are committing crimes need to be brought to justice, through international courts and other means," says Cohen-Joppa. "We need to advance the whole notion of international courts."

She's chilled by recent rhetoric promising a war fought in the shadows by intelligence agencies. "The record of CIA operations in other countries in the '80s was disturbing, and there are a lot of people in the capitol criticizing the CIA and the FBI for not having any idea that these attacks were about to happen," she says. "I find it a little disturbing that we don't know what those bureaus will be doing."

Like Bernick, Cohen-Joppa is "deeply concerned" by talk of new restrictions on civil liberties. "All we're doing is giving the people who are trying to attack our way of life exactly what they're looking for," she says.

That sentiment is echoed by Scott Wood, who sits on the board of BrassRoots, a pro-gun advocacy group.

"The whole purpose of terrorism is to inflict terror on the general populace to gain some kind of political means," says Wood. "If the people who did this can make us make those kinds of drastic changes and really make us change our lifestyles because of fear, then they've won."

Wood says the American people must not turn on Middle Eastern immigrants. Already, a Mesa man stands accused of killing a Sikh convenience store owner in a shooting spree.

"I'm really concerned about what's going to happen to Arab-Americans," says Wood, a 10-year Air Force vet who owns Pryde Business Systems. "There are Arab Americans who are second-, third-, fourth-generation Americans at this point. I really hope we don't go down the path of what we did to the Japanese during World War II."

He plans to pay particular attention to the newly created federal Office of Homeland Security, which will be headed by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.

"Don't get me wrong," Wood says. "I think there needs to be some kind of mechanism in place to share all the intell that the different agencies in place don't normally do, but we can't let it go too far where it starts encroaching in our everyday lives."

Wood says some steps need to be taken, calling current airport security measures "a joke." But dramatic new restrictions on civil liberties could give rise to more domestic unrest from the anti-government militia groups that rose in numbers in the early 1990s. Following homegrown terrorist Timothy McVeigh's 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, those groups lost much of their momentum, despite the occasional stand-off with law-enforcement officials.

"People like that are opportunistic," Wood says. "They wait for the opportunity to come and then will start saying what they believe and what they think everybody else should believe. I don't foresee that right away, but as this drags on it's probably pretty likely, especially if we do see any type of clampdowns on our travel."

Wood might share a concern of civil liberties with the peace activists, but he won't be joining the Thursday afternoon vigil anytime soon.

"I think we have to take out the Taliban government and I think we have to do something about Iraq, also," Wood flatly says, noting numerous news reports have linked Iraqi government officials to the hijackers. "I don't think it's going to be an easy task."

Wood says the first Bush administration made a mistake when it ended the Gulf War with Saddam Hussein still in power, while the Clinton administration didn't do enough to deter terrorist gangs.

He says people in America are not prepared for the future terrorist attacks he anticipates. But he's encouraged by the Bush administration's response to last week's diabolical attack.

"Bush is on the right track," Wood says. "There is a lot of covert stuff that needs to go on that frankly most Americans don't want to know about. But on the other hand, there has to be some type of retaliation that Americans see, because I don't think that Americans will put up with seeing what they perceive as zero action if it's all covert."

While he's not sympathetic to the view of the anti-war crowd, Wood says he's unhappy to hear that a passerby tore a protestor's sign up during a vigil last week. "That's not right," he says. "I certainly respect their beliefs and their ability to stand out there. I don't agree with them. But I would never want them to not have the right to do that."

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