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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 12, 2003

It's a war of cynical slogans

By David Shapiro

I was driving my grandson Corwin to soccer practice when we came across a group of young demonstrators on Ke'eaumoku Street protesting the coming war with Iraq.

The students sported a lot of body jewelry. One anti-war sign polluted the intersection with the foulest vulgarity in bold letters, while the protest leader shouted obnoxious slogans into a bullhorn.

The noisy display got Corwin's attention, and I tried to explain what was going on. Looking at the language on the signs, I was suddenly grateful he had resisted all efforts to make him an early reader.

This demonstration had nothing intelligent to say about the war. It was more of a childish attempt by the demonstrators to draw attention to themselves — "Look at me, Ma, I'm sticking peas up my nose."

If these protesters truly wanted to persuade others to their cause, they would have presented themselves in a respectful way that had a prayer of getting the job done. The shame of it is that a lot of people are on the fence and willing to listen to thoughtful arguments.

On the other side of the Pali the same day, 250 pro-war demonstrators gathered at Castle Junction in Kailua. Many of them had family in Hawai'i-based military units deployed to the Persian Gulf.

Their most prominent sign proclaimed: "Honk If You Love America."

While I could understand their desire to support U.S. troops headed into battle, I found their crude equation of the peace movement with disloyalty as offensive — and as immature — as the obscenity-laced placards on Ke'eaumoku Street.

There are legitimate reasons for good Americans to question this war, and it's vulgar to suggest patriotism can only exist at the point of a gun.

Together, the two demonstrations pointed up the obtuse thought that has come to dominate public dialogue about a war that may well define our times. Jingoistic name-calling has overtaken our proud American tradition of respecting the opposing point of view.

President Bush sets the tone when he exhorts the nation to war in simplistic terms that seldom rise above comic-book notions of friend vs. foe, good vs. evil.

This draws caricatured criticism from the left that the president is an out-of-control cowboy intent on carrying out a conservative plot to destroy the United Nations and rule the Middle East by military force.

Which draws simple-minded accusations from the right that protesters are "nauseating, so-called Americans" who don't care about fellow citizens killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and welcome more such brutality.

We hear little considered discussion of the central issues: Will a war to overthrow Saddam Hussein make Americans safer from terrorism or move us further from that goal? Is there another way that spares loss of life and national resources? Do we have a legal or moral right to act pre-emptively without the international sanction of the U.N.?

State officials are busy making plans to cope with the economic fallout to Hawai'i if war occurs, but nobody has stepped forward to prepare us emotionally for war or lead a thoughtful community discussion of the sacrifices we'll have to make.

The Legislature tried to take up the matter with a joint resolution expressing reservations about unilateral U.S. military action, but the debate descended into the same partisan name-calling we see on our street corners.

People are going to die in this war — Americans and Iraqis; men, women and children — and we owe them more elevated thought. Their lives are worth more than cynical slogans.

David Shapiro can be reached at dave@volcanicash.net.