Politics & Policy

The Real Meaning of The Cindy Sheehan Vigils

Yes, the protesters oppose the war in Iraq. But they opposed war in Afghanistan, too.

Jim Douglass is against war, period. As a young Catholic activist in the 1960s and 1970s he protested the war in Vietnam, once organizing a “resistance Mass” at the University of Notre Dame in which, according to an account in The National Catholic Reporter, he and a few other men “ripped up draft cards and placed them in the chalice as part of the presentation of the gifts.”

In the 1980s, Douglass moved to the Seattle area, leading protests at the U.S. Navy’s Trident submarine base. When he and his wife Shelley found a house close to the railroad tracks that led into the base, they chose to live there, amid the rumbling and the noise, so they could protest as so-called “white trains” brought nuclear warheads to the subs.

Douglass founded an organization called the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, and for years he was a leader in anti-Trident demonstrations. But then, in 1989, after a Trident base opened in Kings Bay, Georgia, Douglass left the Pacific Northwest. He found another house hard by the railroad tracks–this one in Birmingham, Alabama, along a route that weapons traveled on the way to Kings Bay. There, in Birmingham, he became involved in a variety of causes but continued to protest the Trident program, which he once wrote “seemed to epitomize all the violence of our society.”

In 1991, Douglass headed to Iraq, just after the end of the Gulf War. As part of the Catholic peace organization Pax Christi, he went three more times in the 1990s, opposing the sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations. In 2001, he protested against the war in Afghanistan. And in 2003, he fasted in St. Peter’s Square before heading back to Iraq with a “Christian peacemakers team” to be in Baghdad during the “shock and awe” attack. After each protest, he returned to Birmingham.

And it was there, on the city’s south side, by a fountain in the Five Points neighborhood, that Douglass stood Wednesday night, a candle in his hand, in yet another antiwar vigil, this one in support of Cindy Sheehan, the woman who is protesting outside President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. For Douglass, it was routine; he has organized hundreds of vigils in Birmingham. He used to hold them once a month, but ever since the September 11 terrorist attacks, he has been holding them twice each week–Wednesdays at noon and Saturdays at 5 P.M. “We felt the urgency of peace and justice work because of the attacks on 9/11,” he explained Wednesday night. “I personally oppose all war.”

The Sheehan vigil, officially sponsored by MoveOn.org, along with the liberal groups TrueMajority and Democracy for America, was part of a nationwide series of protests Wednesday night. According to MoveOn, there were 1,627 such meetings, with a total attendance of at least 50,000 people. The Birmingham crowd–in the heart of one of the nation’s reddest states, where George W. Bush defeated John Kerry 63 percent to 37 percent last year–was significantly larger than the attendance at Douglass’ usual vigils. Although 50 people had signed up to come, it appeared that the crowd actually numbered between 60 and 75.

On its website, MoveOn offered protesters what amounted to a pre-fab vigil kit, including talking points, a “sample media advisory,” and pre-designed signs–placards that read MOMS FOR PEACE and MEET WITH CINDY and, apparently for pet lovers, DOGS FOR CINDY. But the Birmingham protest appeared a bit more homegrown. People carried signs that said WE ARE ALL SISTERS AND BROTHERS: LOVE YOUR ENEMIES. And as they stood around–there were no speeches–they expressed opposition not just to the controversial war in Iraq, but also to the war in Afghanistan, which polls indicate was overwhelmingly supported by the American people.

Several felt that in the days after September 11, the United States went too far by attacking Afghanistan. “It was the Taliban and Osama bin Laden,” said one woman. “So why didn’t we just go after him? Why did we attack the whole country?”

“I didn’t like us doing that,” said another woman.

“I’m opposed to war generally,” added a third woman. “I believe that both of those wars [Afghanistan and Iraq], but Iraq especially, are wrong.”

Their statements echoed the words of Cindy Sheehan herself, who on Monday was asked by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, “If your son had been killed in Afghanistan, would you have a different feeling?” Sheehan answered, “I don’t think so, Chris, because I believe that Afghanistan is almost the same thing.”

“But Afghanistan was harboring the Taliban, was harboring al Qaeda, which is the group that attacked us on 9/11,” Matthews said.

“Well, then we should have gone after al Qaeda and maybe not the country of Afghanistan,” Sheehan said.

Sheehan’s words, in turn, echoed statements made by the leaders of MoveOn opposing the war in Afghanistan. What that suggests is that the vigils across the country last night were only partly about the war in Iraq. Yes, that is the focus of the protesters’ passions today. And yes, they support Cindy Sheehan. But the antiwar movement is also about opposition to the very foundation of the war on terror–the war in Afghanistan and the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks. Last night, the signs and the slogans were about Cindy Sheehan. But the protest was about much more than that.

Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President–and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.

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