I've never considered myself a "full-time" activist. There's always been a progressive bent to my politics and a general lack of patience with those who seek to use arguments of tradition to support repressive policies or deny others their basic rights. But a crusade to save the world has never been my No. 1 priority. I see political involvement and awareness as being basic duties for the citizen of a meaningful democracy. In my high school library there was a poster with a little star wearing a sad face and a dunce cap. "Free-dumb doesn't work" was the caption. The last four years have, if anything, proven that message to be truer than ever.
After our drive from Greensboro, my fellow citizens and I disembark in front of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. I lived for a few childhood years outside of the nation's capital, in Prince George's County, and my grandmother lived in Arlington, Va., on the other side of the District, so my ties to the nation's capitol go beyond mere feelings of patriotic pride. When I was young, one of my favorite places to visit was this very museum. Now, however, my duty is to attempt, in some way, to change history, not look at its artifacts.
When I first became involved in the anti-war movement, I assumed it would be a short-term thing. I had been taught that mine was a nation that drew valuable lessons from its past mistakes, and the notion that the country, or the Bush administration, would willfully ignore the experience of the Vietnam War and other unsuccessful attempts by the United States to remake the world in its image by force seemed preposterous.
I didn't quite realize that what President Bush sought to do was remake the United States itself - from a democracy concerned with its own affairs into a nation that seeks to impose its values upon the world, to instill into its deeply isolationist citizens the belief that this country should shoulder the God-mandated "White Man's Burden" previously borne by the extinct British Empire. To that end Bush has simultaneously attempted to rally citizens behind this crusade while turning the actual war into just another background drone, ignored by all but those who are affected in the most direct way.
As I survey the not-quite-as-large-as-expected crowd gathered on the Washington Mall, I think of the ways in which the distant war has entered my life. The ex-girlfriend who lost her job at a local community college after she made an anti-war comment in class and the trauma that she, and I by association, went through because of that. The way my social circle contracted after I realized that "Trying to stop this damn war" was not the answer some people wanted to hear when they asked what I had been up to lately. While not directly affecting my life, the war has certainly been more than just a few minutes of combat footage glimpsed on the TV at the local bar.
At times I've become burned out by my anti-war activities, worn down by the constant feeling that I have to do something, yet not really knowing what the most effective thing to do is.
Do these marches really change anything? I ask myself as I walk past the Capitol Building yet again? At my first protest in 2002, when those opposed to the war were in the minority, it seemed enough just to be in a crowd of people who shared my then-unpopular beliefs. I believed, numbers notwithstanding, that I was on the right side of the most important issue of our time. I felt a sense of exhilaration, perhaps even ecstasy, at being there.
In the ensuing four years I've become more cynical, I admit, about protests and just what they can accomplish. If millions of people in the streets in March 2003 were unable to prevent the war, how will thousands in the streets today bring it to an end, when the president insists that he will not withdraw US troops and hints that he may even expand the war to other countries? As I board the bus for the trip back to Greensboro, a sense of frustration creeps over me.
Is there any way to end this nightmare?, I wonder.
As we roll south down I-95, I lean my head against the bus window and watch the rays of the late afternoon sun play across the condominium and apartment towers of Fairfax, Va. I've always been fascinated by urban cityscapes, amazed at how the size of these buildings, much like the war itself, leaves me feeling insignificant and helpless in their presence, but at the same time pondering the possibilities for personal and social reinvention that exist within the society that created them.
It's a contradiction in feelings, I fear, that won't be reconciled anytime soon.
Danny Bayer is a freelance writer living in Greensboro