"Don't talk to anyone," she said, her daughter nodding assent in time with the flapping of the little flags they carried in the Saturday afternoon breeze, and I wondered why. They'd been polite - even nice - when we arrived an hour ago, walking past and exchanging a few pleasantries.
They wore the image of a man in dress uniform on their chests - father, husband. The small banner - "Support Bush and our troops" - was held upright by two thin wires, which had become bent in the warm wind. We'd helped straighten it when we arrived, now it'd become bent again. The first time they'd thanked us, and we all smiled at each other.
This time, though, they knew we'd been across the street. Now they knew we were with the peace protesters.
It'd been a fairly typical afternoon - a few flipped middle fingers, an occasional yelled insult, many who ignored us, and the few that flashed a smile, thumbs-up, or another sign of approval. There weren't as many peace protesters as in past weeks - the shooting war is, for all intents, over - but the reduction was even more noticeable with the counter-protesters. There was only that one family of... of...
What are they, really? I mean, how do they see themselves? Pro-war? I sincerely doubt it. Any additional war puts their loved ones directly in harm's way. Their main message seemed to be "support our troops" - but is that really any different from what we were saying across the street?
My signs have changed over the last month. They've morphed from a simple "No War" and "War Kills People" to more complex messages, ones that require a few moments of thought, that ask questions that are, hopefully, enough to make someone question things just a bit. Things like "We support our troops - Bush cut veteran's benefits - You do the math". Things like that.
That family who was across the street from me, waving flags, wearing a soldier's image on their chests, probably want roughly the same things I do. They want him to come home safely. They want to be safe themselves. They want their paycheck to make it to the end of the month. They want their kids to have more opportunities than they did. They love - and identify with - their country just as I do. In short, they want things to be right in the world.
Now, though, they are "Us" and we are "Them"; our common interests are forgotten in slogans and preconceived ideas. We are evil and traitors. We are now "Them".
It's time to stop bothering with the manipulators, trying to play the game on their terms. The successes of the peace movement weren't due to that. It's time to talk to everyone else, and most especially to "Them". It's time to listen - not to argue, not to convince, and definitely not to "win" - but to listen and try to understand, to find common ground. It's time for our words to be mirrored by our actions, to deny those divisions forced upon us, those divisions that keep us under someone else's thumb.
The protest over, we begin dispersing. As I open my car door, I overhear another peace protester haranguing the wife, and I realize why she'd just told her daughter not to talk. They're not the only ones who have been seduced by the simple polarization of "Us" and "Them".
I recently read a wonderful idea: The United States could keep a fleet of cargo planes at hand, ready to ship aid and assistance to any disaster area in the world. Imagine it: we can already deploy to anywhere in twenty-four hours. Imagine our President standing in front of the cameras, saying truthfully "Al-Queda destroys and kills - America will only help you. We forgive you." Imagine how that would destroy Osama's recruiting when the "Great Satan" is actively fulfilling the caring that's commanded by the holy books of all three Abrahamic religions. Imagine that Al-Jazeera can only show images of Americans helping, can only show images of the poor saved by American know-how and generosity. What do you think the "arab street" would say then?
As I start to back out of the parking lot, I stop and roll down my window. She is still visibly agitated from the confrontation, fumbling her family's signs into the back of the car. "I hope everything goes well for you and your husband," I call out.
She turns and thanks me, and a swear I see a hint of a smile.
I think this week I won't just say "Hi", I'll bring them cookies and something to drink too.
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