According to recent opinion polls, most Americans are now firmly against the war in Iraq,bringing them into line with what the rest of the world has always felt. A more surprising result, from an Ipsos poll, shows a clear majority in favour of impeachment if Bush can be shown to have lied about the reasons for the war. These numbers are evidence that most ordinary people are peace-loving, but this sentiment has failed to penetrate to the political level. Early withdrawal of the troops from Iraq is still an unmentionable on Capital Hill.
This leaves a dilemma for peace advocates. How can the war machine be stopped? In the absence of courageous political leadership, the peace movement has found an unlikely hero in Cindy Sheehan, the bereaved mother of a soldier. Beginning with the simple gesture of camping out with a few friends in front of President Bush's holiday ranch in Texas, she has become the focus of a growing anti-war movement.
This movement swelled to a march of several hundred thousand in Washington on Sept. 24. But, sadly, the political leadership, including almost all the Democrats, seem not to have noticed.
There is a very common dilemma faced by mass movements for peace. The activists, motivated by a sincere passion against tyranny and injustice, end up becoming hostile and aggressive. In short, they fail to be peaceful themselves. The tactics of waving placards and shouting slogans might hearten supporters, but tends to further harden and alienate opponents. To her very great credit, it seems Cindy Sheehan is aware of this and has some creative ideas. For instance, she has organized one-on-one meetings between other bereaved war mothers and individual congressmen.
On Oct. 8, in Los Angeles, Cindy Sheehan joined ten thousand others in another kind of peace march, this one organized by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. He is very well known and respected amongst both Buddhists and peace activists for his writings and actions for world peace, beginning with his attempts to end the carnage of the war in his own country, a war that has many disturbing parallels to the present conflict.
This march was done in absolute silence, and without signs and banners. The crowd was instructed to make it a meditation walk on the theme of peace. One of Thich Nhat Hanh's prominent ideas is that we can make peace only by being peace. This may seem just another futile gesture, but for one small and telling detail in the press reports. At one point the marchers encountered a small counter-demonstration. These people, although dissenting from the politics of the marchers, picked up enough of their spirit to express their disagreement in silence. There was none of the back-and-forth heckling that usually occurs in these incidents.
It does seem that our world is heading into dangerous waters. Iraq remains a place of chaos, and the danger is real that the Americans and/or the Israelis will attack Iran, unleashing an even more horrendous level of violence. One feels at a loss to imagine a short-term solution, although one is urgent. In the longer view, it is clear that the only thing that can save us is a transformation on the spiritual level. We need to become peaceful as a species, and to abandon forever the folly of settling our problems with force. The stakes are becoming too high. This can only begin at the individual level, in each human heart. As the Buddha said; hatred is never overcome by hate. Hate is overcome by love, this is a law eternal.
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