September 1, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Syrian images hang over peace protest

Karen St. Peter had no cardboard sign as she fell in just after noon Saturday with the 50 or so anti-war demonstrators in Portland's Monument Square. Just a T-shirt emblazoned with the small words "Imagine Peace."

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Veterans for Peace, Code Pink and Peace Action Maine hold a rally against U.S. intervention in Syria at Monument Square on Saturday. Michael Anthony of Portland, right, joined the rally with other objectives.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

An ordained interfaith minister from Westbrook, St. Peter had agonized over whether to come at all. The pictures of all those dead Syrians, gassed by their own President Bashar Assad, so horrified her that she admittedly found herself "on the fence" as to whether the United States should take retaliatory action.

Yet here St. Peter stood in the middle of this noticeably subdued gathering because ... why?

"Because I don't believe in bombing," she replied. "I'm not sure that's the way to address the issue. And yet there is a part of me that thinks the only way to beat a bully is to beat the bully."

Ten years ago last March, on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Monument Square seethed with anger and indignation over a war launched not on hard facts, but on ominous claims that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled "weapons of mass destruction" and was on the verge of using them. Claims that turned out to be patently false.

Scores of protesters filled the plaza that late-winter day, singing, chanting and even getting arrested when two dozen or so sat down and blocked traffic in the middle of nearby Temple Street.

Not so this time. This crowd was smaller, quieter and, in more than a few cases, caught between a desire for peace and those images of dead Syrian children that for the past 10 days have haunted TV screens the world over.

Iraq, in its early stages, was all about speculation -- not just about the existence of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, but also how and when he might use them.

But there is little if any doubt about what took place on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21. While the verdict from a team of United Nations inspectors who just left Syria is still a day or two away, it's already clear that chemical weapons were deployed and that many, many innocent people died.

Still, just behind that inescapable fact, the ghosts of the Iraq debacle loomed.

Some of the Monument Square protesters still clung to the possibility, despite convincing evidence presented by Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday, that someone outside the Assad regime was behind the attack. Kerry put the death toll at 1,429 Syrians, including at least 426 children.

"Why should we believe Kerry? Kerry is totally biased. Kerry is in Israel's back pocket!" said Bill Slavick, representing Veterans for Peace and Pax Christi.

"There are some reports out there that aren't in the mainstream press that it was the rebels, it wasn't Assad," said Dixie Searway of Limerick. "And that actually it was an accident."

"I'm dubious -- only because of this country's history of buying into one endless war after another," said Pat Taub of Portland, a member of Code Pink. "I take (the latest intelligence reports) very much with a grain of salt."

So much for smoking guns. A decade after the administration of President George W. Bush forfeited any and all credibility in its build-up to the Iraq war, healthy skepticism for some has given way to knee-jerk denial of anything and everything the White House calls "intelligence."

Other protesters, like Wells Staley-Mays of Peace Action Maine, said they've found their way past the post-Iraq cynicism and at least accept that Assad truly is the bad guy here.

"I think Assad did it," Staley-Mays said. "I think he's as crazed as ... I don't know who to compare him to."

(Continued on page 2)

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