It was a huge, vibrant exclamation point on a fraught and confusing week. After politicians traded barbs across the Atlantic, and Hans Blix swathed Iraq's secret weapons in even-handed ambiguities at the United Nations, across Europe across the world millions marched on Saturday with one bright cause: No War.
In London, police estimated 750,000 protesters and organizers claimed 2 million. Either way it made this the largest protest in the country's history. The mood was undoubtedly serious, but also good-humored and exuberant. Along the route to Hyde Park there were families, dogs wearing antiwar T shirts, Conservatives, Trotskyites, students banging drums, trade unionists. break saddam but no war, read one poster unfortunately, it didn't say how. the monkey and the flunkey, quipped a banner with unflattering pictures of George W. Bush and Tony Blair. Another poster called for victory to the intifadeh to some of the marchers, not all wars are created equal.
"I feel we are rushing in," said Tom Houston, 32, a corporate fitness club manager who said he had never marched before. "We are not using enough diplomacy." osama bin laden wants you to invade iraq, said a hand-scrawled sign, and 12,000 meters above, a Nimrod surveillance aircraft offered mute testimony that the sign might be right. Its patrol was part of a huge effort by police and armed forces to prevent an al-Qaeda missile attack on an airliner, which an intelligence alert earlier in the week had warned against.
In Brussels, where 40,000 gathered, one placard proclaimed we are all iraqis now; another declared proud to be an old European. In Rome, monks marched alongside lesbian activists and families pushed baby buggies in a 10-km snake through the city bearing more than a million people. Many protesters expressed fear of provoking more terror in Europe and a wider rift between Islam and the West. Gemma Luzzi, a 60-year-old high school teacher, said she wanted to avoid "the chain reaction this war would set off." Her reluctance to fight "is not anti-Americanism, it's finding another road, a European road."
In New York, Susan Sarandon, Pete Seeger and Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressed an estimated 500,000 people in below-freezing weather, the whup-whup of police helicopters clattering overhead. In the crowd were 11 boys from St. Augustine Preparatory School in Richland, New Jersey. The Pope says nope, proclaimed one of their banners. Dan Nicholas, 17, said the only other protest he had ever attended was against abortion. "My No. 1 principle is you always have to value life," he said. "This war would be a total annihilation."
War = Terrorism with bigger budget, read a banner in Prague, where 1,500 assembled in protest, despite former President Vaclav Havel's support for Bush's tough stance. Erazim Kohak, a philosopher, wondered why Iraq was being singled out. "We are told that Saddam Hussein could have weapons of mass destruction within five years," he said. "North Korea has them today and so does Pakistan, Israel and India." Many who attended a rally organized by the Communist Party were pensioners, reeking of cheap liquor as they shivered in a snowstorm. The party's chairman, Miroslav Grebenicek, called Bush a "planetary nut" and expressed a view that polls show most Americans dismiss but most Europeans endorse: "This is, above all, about asserting control over an economically lucrative region." Daniel, a 23-year-old student in Warsaw who wouldn't give his last name, put it this way: "Iraq is not able to threaten anyone, and the Saudi regime is worse, only it is pro-American. The question is not terrorism but oil, money."
The huge, earnest, passionate crowds evoked memories of earlier tidal waves of international protest: against the Bomb, Vietnam, Pershing missiles. The expression of conscience on a vast scale is always moving, but it is historians who get to judge its wisdom. Some of the antiwar speakers in London had previously denounced Blair over going to war in Kosovo and Afghanistan now widely thought to be successful, morally upstanding uses of lethal force. Characteristically, it was Blair acutely aware that his unrelenting toughness toward Iraq is raising the chance of regime change in Downing Street who tried to answer the protests with a forthright moral case for war, in a speech he rescheduled so excerpts could play alongside live coverage of the marches. "If we do not confront these twin menaces of rogue states with weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, they will not disappear," he said. "They will just feed and grow on our weakness. If the result of peace is Saddam staying in power, not disarmed, then I tell you there are consequences paid in blood for that decision too."
He may be right, but he has an uphill fight. Nicolas Buttin, an 18-year-old Frenchman who marched through Paris, neatly summed up the quite different arguments now resonating in Europe in what he wrote in the stripes of an American flag he purchased at Ground Zero in New York: "We love Iraqis, we hate Saddam Hussein. We love Americans, we hate George Bush. No Mass Texecution. Let's roll, but for peace."