No politics please, we’re peace campaigners

At a peace vigil in London on 22 September, what seemed to bother the protesters more than anything was America's 'attitude'.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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‘No placards, no slogans, no politics.’

This wasn’t your average anti-war line-up. Standing on Whitehall opposite Downing Street at a CND-organised vigil on Saturday 22 September, we were encouraged to wear black, keep our politics to ourselves, show ‘respect for the victims’ of the terrorist attacks in America, and make sure ‘everybody feels comfortable’. ‘It’s about coming together to oppose what happened as well as what’s going to happen’, explained one attendee. ‘Peacefully and respectfully.’

There was none of the jostling, chanting or arrests that might normally accompany a protest outside Downing Street about a UK prime minister’s war plans. But then, this was no protest. ‘It’s more of a coming together’, explained a seasoned CND marcher. ‘Coming together to express grief for the deaths in America, and to say to Bush and Blair: you can’t make amends by doing the same in return.’ Behind her, a forest of A4 sheets of paper (not placards) said, ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind’, ‘Stand shoulder to shoulder for peace and justice’ – and ‘Use brains not bombs’, conjuring up unfortunate images of Blair and Bush dropping brains all over Afghanistan.

So what was it all about? ‘We want to tell our leaders that the solution is not to have more violence’, said 21-year-old Robert, a well-spoken art student from London. But this non-protest wasn’t doing a very good job of telling our leaders anything at all, considering that the organisers had requested that everybody ‘remain silent’ and leave their politics at home. ‘Ah, but our silence is louder than any bomb’, said Robert’s friend, cryptically.

Talking to the mixture of fiftysomething CNDers, thirtysomething professionals – some with kids in tow – and twentysomething lefties and anti-capitalists, I soon discovered that very few were opposed to intervening in Afghanistan or the Middle East – the question was, what form should intervention take? One young woman said, ‘I know it’s a cliché, but war is not the answer’ – preferring Western leaders to use ‘an international court of justice or some kind of diplomacy’ to ‘stop the terrorists’. ‘Afghanistan needs our help’, said another, ‘not our bombs and bullets’.

What seemed to bother the non-protesters more than anything was America’s ‘attitude’ to the rest of the world – its big, bully-boy, cock-of-the-walk attitude to international affairs. ‘Bush’s Wild West stuff was just ridiculous’, said a charity worker. ‘America should reassess its attitude towards other countries’, said a chartered accountant. Another attendee complained about America’s ‘gung-ho arrogance, the idea that they can go anywhere, do anything, and the rest of us will just sit back and watch’.

One even suggested that President Bush was getting ‘a bit of payback’ for the sins of his father: ‘His dad had the same arrogant approach to the Middle East and now his son is paying the price – and if the son does what his dad did, things will just get worse.’ Another thought that America’s response would put it in the same camp as the terrorists who crashed planes in New York and the Pentagon: ‘It would just be one fundamentalism against another.’

‘Take a step back’, ‘caution’, ‘restraint’ – words and phrases like these kept cropping up in conversations, seeming to indicate that those assembled were less concerned about America’s right to intervene in Afghanistan and the Middle East than about America arrogantly taking clear and decisive action. One elderly man had a hand-written note pinned to his back, saying ‘America: think twice’ (though he did also have ‘Why is nobody pointing the finger of blame for the World Trade Centre at Ariel Sharon?’ pinned to his chest…) – and even the ill-thought-out ‘Use brains not bombs’ seemed to be more about telling America to think, be calm, don’t act just yet, than about opposing America’s war machine in any traditional ‘hands off’ sense.

I remember angry anti-war gatherings outside Downing Street in the 1990s, around Ireland and Kosovo and other hotspots – and they at least had some clear idea about what they were opposing and why. By contrast, this non-protest was confused, with the attendees seeming more peeved and powerless than angry.

‘It’s just like, you know, America being, like, extreme, and too much’, said one of the non-protesters. I see.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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