Anti-war and pro-war demonstrators need to suck in their egos and face an unflattering truth: the nation has something more important to attend to right now than the regulation and policing of street protests, however fervently held the protesters’ beliefs. Preventing another terror attack is the highest imperative of the country’s police forces; street demonstrations divert police resources from that mission. Cash-strapped police departments are already stretched to the breaking point by their new anti-terror obligations. Every officer taken off his beat to prevent street violence or arrest civil disobedients is one less set of eyes to notice a cell member surveilling a power plant or leaving a bomb in a train station.
To date, it’s the anti-war protesters who have burdened police forces by far the most egomaniacally. San Francisco cops in full riot gear worked 16-hour shifts chasing anarchists as they shut down the city’s financial district last week. More than half the department took part in trying to quell the crippling “street action” that illegally took out intersections, bridges, and commerce. The Sheriff’s Department, the Fire Department, and the 911-call center—also first responders to a terror strike—found themselves almost as overwhelmed by the violent protests. Had al-Qaida struck San Francisco at that moment, it would have confronted an exhausted police force and an urban infrastructure already engulfed by deliberately created chaos.
Anti-war protesters in New York and Washington—the country’s top two terror targets—have almost as piggishly consumed public resources for the conspicuous display of their outraged sensibilities. Yesterday’s “die-in” at Rockefeller Center brought scores of cops off the streets who would otherwise be guarding the public from possible attack. The anti-war protests have spared few other localities.
But pro-war forces also staged large rallies over the last week: an estimated 16,000 people turned out in Fort Wayne, Ind. and 10,000 near Richmond, among other cities. However respectful of public and private property rights, these demonstrations require police presence just as surely as the Bush-bashers.
Each side has ample reason to cease these street displays. Many anti-war activists argue that attacking Iraq will inflame hatred of America, breeding more anti-American terrorists. They should be especially sensitive, then, to the heightened security risk the country now faces. Pro-war activists profess profound respect for the uniformed forces both here and abroad. They should understand the stresses that the nation’s police are under and try not to exacerbate their load.
There are plenty of other avenues for expressing one’s views about the war than taking to the streets. Organized communication campaigns directed to the White House and Congress will have more effect than blocking traffic in Oakland or waving yellow ribbons in Omaha. Protesters can hang banners and flags outside their homes and apartments, wear black or red-white-and-blue armbands, light candles in their windows throughout a city, or write for their local newspaper.
There has never been a war like this one, one where the visible battle abroad is shadowed by the specter of an invisible enemy, with possibly catastrophic power, on our own soil. Americans by no means need to give up their rights of speech and protest, but it behooves everyone to exercise those rights without heightening the country’s risk.