The stay-at-home-dad Popular Anti-War Front took to the streets of DC today to join the march against the ongoing insanity of US and British involvement in Iraq. Not that I was very popular with the kids for dragging them out of a warm house on a sub-zero day with added wind chill just to walk from the Vietnam War Memorial to a Pentagon car park, but the ride on the Metro cheered them up enough to forget where they were going. And one day, just possibly, they might be proud to say that they were there.
There’s something reassuring about the continued existence of various bedraggled bands of leftists and pseudo-anarchists that always show up at these things with their megaphones, inky propaganda sheets and repetitious demands for revolution, NOW! There were some imaginative banners among the predictably po-faced cries for instant justice, everywhere, including, “Bombing for peace is like fucking for virginity.” And there were enough vaguely sane people of all ages not trying to flog you unreadable newspapers to give you the sense that you hadn’t accidentally turned up at an anti-fashion show for third-hand clothes worn by people with a chronic allergy to shampoo.
But most entertaining of all today was the counter-demo. Usually this is a sorry collection of maybe a few dozen short-haired rightwing nutjobs with manic expressions, and toes twitching to perform a goosestep across the police line to kick a hippy in the nuts. This time, though, a whole new breed of unsettling protest-hater had been shipped in from the parts of America populated by thick-set blokes in their 50s and 60s with grizzly beards and leather jackets. Or maybe there just happened to be a reunion of ex-Dead roadies in DC today.
“You’re all Al Qaeda supporters!” yelled one man through a megaphone. “They’re looking at this and smiling.” A banner manned by a few more henchmen in front of Arlington cemetery read “GO TO HELL TRAITORS”. A lot of these men had fought in Vietnam, which has apparently pissed them off that four decades later some people are opposed to a similarly senseless campaign in a part of the world where Allied bombs and bullets have brought untold grief and chaos.
“You won’t be around when I have to deal with this mess!” yelled my oldest daughter at them, unprompted. “Give us a smile, for Christ’s sake!” I called across (I’m not as politically conscious as my ten-year-old). For the counter-demonstration, impressive as it was in size compared with previous efforts, was characterised by its absolute lack of humour. Many of these miserable men looked as though they would love nothing more than to walk over and kill us. Some shook their heads disdainfully, because they just know we’re all naïve idiots playing into the hands of the terrorists. “Stand behind our President” exhorted their posters. Though that’s just a recruitment call, not an actual argument.
In fact it’s hard to discern what the anti-anti-war argument is. I remember when we marched over four years ago before the start of the war, they said that now wasn’t the right time to protest. So if before the war wasn’t the right time, surely four years into a clearly disastrous campaign, with around 60,000 Iraqis and over 3,000 US soldiers dead, is the right time. But no, we’re still terrorist-hugging traitors. If we didn't bomb countries thousands of miles away, we wouldn't have the freedom to protest at all blah blah.
Once we'd passed the last counter-demonstrators, things got boring. The kids were cold, and the march kept stopping and starting. In the Pentagon car park, the shouty rhetoric made for poor entertainment, so we headed for the Pentagon mall, sneaking past a line of baton-wielding riot police in some sort of a standoff with a sit-down protest on the road to the Pentagon. The girls were now beyond freezing, and very hungry too. When we finally made it into Macy’s, my eight-year-old sighed, “Ah, heaven!”
Not quite. In the line for coffee down at the food court, a friendly mall policeman asked two elderly demonstrators to peel off their anti-war stickers. The mall is private property, he said. Political expression is not allowed. God forbid that while they’re shopping for clothes on a Saturday afternoon, Americans might momentarily have to be reminded of the war that 68% of them were in favour of four years ago.
My daughters were happy, however. They were now eating strips of potato cooked in fat. Hail, the land of the fry!