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Multi-Focus Or Bust

By Barbara Garson

Anyone that the US goes after these days is bound to be a really bad guy. In the New World Order power is so unbalanced that good guys give in.

When Nelson Mandela took office in South Africa global corporations handed him their neo-liberal shopping lists and he just about gave away the store. Perhaps he could have bargained a little better, still, he was wise to fear economic isolation. No one who cares at all about his people will risk the label “rogue state.”

That’s why our official enemies in the global era--Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban—have been men who don’t flinch at bringing more misery down on the people near to them. They also don’t mind murdering me. Now that I know they can reach me, I want protection.

A week after the World Trade Center was destroyed several hundred New Yorkers showed up to plan a big anti-war march. Before the meeting a sub-committee had come up with four “principles of unity” that they hoped we could all agree on: we mourn the victims and condemn the attack; we oppose anti-Arab and anti-Islamic racism (or any other kinds of racial and religious attacks, the group added); we won’t give up our civil liberties; war is not the answer. A young woman suggested we add: “The criminals should be brought to justice.” By a show of hands the group was about equally split on the addition. The chair ruled that since this point clearly divided us it shouldn’t be included as a principle of unity. “We’d better leave it out for the time being. Everyone is free to make their own signs and leaflets.”

No one in that room mistook Osama Bin Laden for a freedom fighter. It’s just that some people were flying on automatic pilot as they pinned on the generic peace buttons that they’ve fished out of the drawer every time the US intervened in yet another third world country. But Al Qaed isn’t a liberation front, it’s a gang of terrorists and all Americans want protection from terrorism. To say nothing about how we’ll protect ourselves is to say “leave it to George.” That’s too dangerous.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Since George has an army, he immediately called the attack on the World Trade Center a declaration of war. We, as an anti war movement, responded properly when we called it a terrible crime. George wants war. We want to apprehend the criminals and protect ourselves from other such gangs.

Crime fighting, as we learn from cop shows, involves legwork like interviewing witnesses and following the money trial. It may also offer the diversion of an occasional high speed chase or even a limited shoot out. But a cop who killed a building full of innocent by-standers, not to mention a country full, would be thrown off the force. By going with the crime analogy we say that we, like most Americans, want immediate protection from criminals. We also want long range crime prevention.


In the days after the attack, Downtown Manhattan’s Union Square Park was spontaneously transformed into a peace encampment. Like other public spaces in the city, it was also papered with the hand made MISSING signs that gradually metamorphosed into memorials. When relatives came to Union Square to place candles and American flags near the pictures of their dead, they set them down amid the peace symbols. Something, perhaps it was all the incense, made them feel the peacenik atmosphere was appropriate.

Union Square was comforting in those first days and I went there often. I also went to a couple of packed and informative anti-war teach-ins that college students got together quickly. These would have heartened me too except for a distressing flash- back.

I remembered Septembers in the early nineteen sixties. We students returned to campus after a freedom summer in Mississippi or a stint with Ceasar Chavez and the farm workers asking ourselves “Why do I work three months for the grape strikers and then study agribusiness nine months for the growers?” “Am I really going to spend my adult life breeding square tomatoes, mixing agri-poisons and programming computers to speed up workers?” Those questions led rapidly toward images of a deeper democracy. For a while it seemed like we really could change the country. Then came the Vietnam War. Our antiwar groups came together quickly because of the networks we’d formed through civil rights and similar activities. But to stop that one war we had to mobilize so many people, so often, for so long. And when the war was over all we had was the peace we needed to go forward in the first place, only everyone was exhausted. Occasional cynics still suggest that the Vietnam War “gave you guys a cause.” In fact, antiwar work was a terrible setback for our real causes. It was a decade of intense mark-time march.

That’s why I was disturbed when I saw so many antiwar events pulled together so quickly as campus anti-sweatshop/anti-IMF/anti-WTO networks switched gears. Despite all those antis, the movement carelessly labeled “anti-globalization” embodies it’s own positive image of a deeper democracy. Only it’s vision of equitable and ecologically sustainable societies is less provincial than ours was in the nineteen sixties. This time it was beginning to seem like we really could change the globe.

Indeed our infant movement had already slightly ameliorated the grim limitations that Nelson Mandella faced when the ANC first took office. For instance, South Africans are beginning to buy, if not manufacture, generic drugs against AIDS and other diseases despite the originally stern prohibitions from the Word Trade Organization and the US Government. This leeway exists because a range of “anti” globalization activists first had the patience to decipher and explain the Byzantine “Free Trade” regulations that actually increase trade barriers and drug costs. Then we mounted the world wide protests that gave small countries a little wiggle room.

Our vision of global justice encompasses more, of course, than a little wiggle room. But until recently you had to be a rogue state, a Saddam Hussein, a ruler with no concern for your own people to do something as defiant as buy generic drugs.

If our positive “anti” global movement gets subsumed into antiwar work, the world will be left with no choices, no wiggle room in between Bush and bin Laden. That’s why we can’t abandon global justice for peace or vice versa. We’re going to have to keep many balls in the air at once for the next few months, few years, or few decades.

Barbara Garson's latest book is "Money Makes the World Go Around: One investor Tracks Her Cash Through the Global Economy" Viking 2001.