Politics & Policy

What I Saw At The Walkout

The intellectual bankruptcy of Harvard's peaceniks.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS — At 12:30 P.M. Thursday, over 1,000 students and faculty of Harvard University walked out of classes and assembled in Harvard Yard to protest the war of Iraqi liberation. Unconvinced by the usual antics of peacenik protesters, I made my way to the rally in search of intelligent reasons to oppose war. Surely 1,000 Harvard minds could produce such reasons.

#ad#I encountered a motley assemblage of worthies. Aside from the students, there was the Spartacus Youth League, gracing us with a poster: “For Class Struggle Against U.S. Capitalist Rulers.” The Socialist Workers party distributed its weekly newsletter. Rita Hamad, a Harvard senior, reminded us of the evils of Zionism in a speech (“the Israeli government will use the Iraqi war as a cover for committing future atrocities [in Palestine]“). In a touching display of multiculturalism, one sign proclaimed “Finland Against This War” — while another bore the Chinese characters for “Fandui Shiyou Zhanzheng“: Oppose the Oil War.

Searching harder, I found this trenchant injunction: “Healthcare Not Bombs.” I asked the woman holding the sign to explain exactly how health-care will stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. “If we use our wealth to provide health-care and solve problems like AIDS,” she answered, “we will have better relations with other countries, who will help us solve problems like weapons of mass destruction.” Q.E.D.

At this point, I had an epiphany: Maybe I was listening to the wrong people. Not all of these peaceniks were affiliated with Harvard, and those who were, were mostly students. Perhaps their powers of reasoning were as yet unrefined. If so, then surely it was to their refiners that I should turn. So I listened to a speech by Brian Palmer, lecturer on the study of religion, whom I expected to be a paragon of rationality.

Palmer began by assuring us that the war would be a massacre. He added that “the Iraq war is a skirmish in the war between the Bush administration and the rest of the world.” For those unaware of this war, Palmer offered some details. First, Bush is “at war against other democracies, international law, and global institutions.” As evidence for this claim, Palmer repeated the statement of the current president’s father that “the American lifestyle is not up for negotiation,” and construed this to mean that there must be “an SUV in every garage.” Next, Palmer waxed metaphorical: “Ghosts of angry Cold Warriors are emerging from the dead ranks of the Reagan administration to wage war against the working classes.” As if that weren’t spooky enough, Palmer warned that Bush is at war “against us in the universities. We produce inconvenient results, such as that the Bush brothers pushed and bullied their way through the Florida elections.”

Here, at last, was the immorality of the war made manifest. Let’s summarize: George W. Bush, aided by a handful of ghouls, is removing Saddam Hussein from power so that he can put an SUV in every garage, oppress the poor, and commit election fraud. This was precisely the sort of serious thought I had hoped for.

What I had not hoped for, however, was a revelation from God. Yet Timothy P. McCarthy, lecturer in American history and literature, delighted the crowd by providing one. In a sermon on the topic of “dissent and God,” McCarthy announced in his lordly baritone (think of Charlton Heston as Moses) that President Bush has a policy of “waging war against anyone at any time when the Spirit moves [him].” Silly Bush. He should know that the Spirit only moves anti-war protesters — who must, in McCarthy’s words, “reclaim the authority of God as we, the prophets of peace, keep doing what we are doing” — namely, opposing the war “in order to save every last one of our souls.”

Let me assure the reader that each of the above quotations is real. This is what antiwar intellectuals are saying today. I haven’t made up a word.

What is most vexing about these peaceniks isn’t the falsity of their claims, but the utter irrelevance of those claims, even if true. A few examples:

“Saddam Hussein Is Not the Iraqi People,” read one poster. This is trivially true, but utterly useless as an argument unless one is making the ridiculous assumption that targeting a regime requires targeting an entire people. (Of course, many did make this assumption. Matthew Skomarovsky, the student emcee, accused the U.S. of planning to “shock and awe Baghdad the way Osama bin Laden shocked and awed New York City on September 11.”)

American support for Saddam Hussein in the 1980s was roundly condemned, as though the United States were responsible for having failed to divine the horrors Saddam would commit. But suppose the U.S. did bear partial (or total) responsibility for the humanitarian disaster in Iraq? The peacenik argument would still be getting the idea of moral responsibility backward by assuming that to cause a problem is to free oneself of the duty to resolve it.

Endless venom was spat at George W. Bush, as though to insult the man was to discredit his policies. What if President Bush were stupid, or did steal the election, or really wanted to gain access to Iraq’s oil? The war is not being justified on those terms, but on grounds of national security and humanitarian concern. The sufficiency of those justifications doesn’t rest on claims about Bush’s intelligence, political activities, and personal motivations, and you don’t need a background in formal logic to understand this.

The utter irrelevance of these arguments only exposes the intellectual bankruptcy of the antiwar movement. Any serious criticism of the war must rely on one or both of two claims: First, that it is not in the security interests of the United States forcibly to remove Saddam from power; or, second, that a war to rid the Iraqi people of a psychopathic dictator is worse for that people, in humanitarian terms, than letting them continue to suffer under him.

Rather than make these claims, Harvard’s high-minded intellectuals recite their usual litany of complaints about capitalism, about globalization, and above all, about George W. Bush. Yesterday’s protest was an exercise in many things: vanity, condescension, evasion, arrogance, and smug self-righteousness. But it failed miserably as an effort at persuasion. This should come as no surprise to those of us who recognize that war is tragic, but who also know that life under tyranny, or life overshadowed by the danger of apocalyptic slaughter, is more tragic still.

Jason Steorts is a senior at Harvard University.

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