An Iraq War protest in Washington, D.C. in 2007
An Iraq War protest in Washington, D.C. in 2007 // Sage Ross/Shutterstock.com

Goodbye Anti-War, Hello Anti-Secrecy

On a recent Saturday morning, a small group of people gathered along a Cape Cod roadside to wave antiwar protest signs for weekender passersby to see. They probably had no idea that one of the nation’s preeminent antiwar voices since the 1960s drove by and saw them, drawing a small amount of encouragement at seeing that people still do that sort of thing in America.

“I’ve seen it before, but I hadn’t seen it in some years,” said Todd Gitlin, long-ago the president of the new left’s Students for a Democratic Society, now a sociologist and chair of Columbia Journalism School’s Ph.D. program. “Maybe 20 people out there. ‘War is not the solution.’ Very non-specific.”

For Gitlin and other stalwarts of the peace movement, the popular mass-protest antiwar movement of old is hardly visible to the general public today. Ever since global protests by millions of people in February 2003 failed to alter President George W. Bush’s march to war in Iraq a month later, many simply gave up trying, Gitlin told Defense One. With the sinking feeling that there was no ability to influence national security decisions — President Obama has pledged to continue the war in Afghanistan at least through 2014, despite 73 percent of Democratic voters last fall saying he should end it immediately — the movement’s members moved beyond street protests. Mass protests were reserved for Occupy Wall Street, which had little do to with war or national security.

Instead, another contrarian uprising has emerged, at least in the public mind, that resembles some of the early signs of true movement: Call it the anti-secrecy crusade. It’s not very impressive, just yet. On July 4, a nationwide call went out by the groups “Fight for the Future” and “Restore the Fourth,” among others, to protest the National Security Agency and the federal government’s pursuit of Edward Snowden, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, and Julian Assange, the world’s most notorious secret-leakers. In Washington, the call was answered, well, tepidly. In MacPherson Square, just blocks from the White House, “a few hundred” people showed up, the Washington Post reported. That’s hardly approaching the estimated 30 million antiwar protesters who rallied globally in 2003.

Defense One asked some of the most notable peace movement scholars and leaders exactly what is happening out there now, and how much the Pentagon should be concerned about it. For them, the new movement — if that’s even the right word — is much more complex than opposing secrecy. It’s not just about privacy, either. It’s not even about equality. It’s about transparency. It’s about control.

“I wouldn’t call it anti-secrecy; it’s not a question of secrecy as the main issue. It’s how do you get information to the ordinary public, to the wider world about what the government is doing,” said Richard Flacks, a sociology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Pay attention to what Manning and Snowden are after, he said: “It’s not the secrecy that’s the target. It’s the making of decisions by small groups of people that have big effects — decisions that have huge consequences, and most people that have to live with those consequences don’t have a voice in them.”

“It’s not about privacy,” either, Flacks argued. “It’s about what people who you don’t know can do with the information that is out there. We need to know what can be done with it — how can that be controlled, and so forth.”

The nascent movement isn’t motivated by any concern for national security, as well. “There’s not that much interest, I least I didn’t hear anything, about security after the Bradley Manning thing blew,” said Gordon Fellman, Brandeis University sociology professor and chair of Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Studies. “There were no rallies on campus, impeachments, or programs about national security. It didn’t grab people.”

“Who on the national scene is saying this is an outrage and has to be stopped?” Fellman added. “Maybe Daniel Ellsberg, OK, but so what? And maybe Noam Chomsky, but again, so what?”

It’s not about surveillance either. “The deeper issue is the control,” Fellman said. He and his colleagues all consider Snowden and Manning to be hero whistleblowers, but so far their revelations have had little impact on people individually. “It’s hard to see its effect on me. And I’m guessing a lot of people would have that reaction. There’s nothing I’m doing in my daily life that is affected by Snowden’s revelations. … I don’t change the email messages that I write. If anybody is monitoring who I talk to — let them monitor it.”

Everyone today may use email and have a Facebook page, but compare government monitoring of such systems to subjecting every young man in America to the military draft during the Vietnam War.

Is It a Movement?
“There’s a lot of huffing and puffing on the Internet about this, and I share it and I read and I sign petitions and so on and so forth,” said Fellman. “My guess is it’s not going to catch on as a major movement. “There’s nothing corresponding to [Vietnam] in the anti-government intrusion, anti-surveillance movement issue. I think there’s simply nothing that’s really grabbing people all that much. I think its secondary to things like unemployment, to things like climate change, to things like the role of the banks in the world, to thinks like the Koch brothers now taking over North Carolina having taken over Wisconsin, to things like the Supreme Court’s decisions on Citizens United and on the Voting Rights Act, and to things like gains on the LGBT movement — all of these things are much more pressing for most people than surveillance.”

“I’m guessing also…nothing’s going to happen. The government’s not going to pull back on its surveillance activities and they don’t have to, partly because it doesn’t matter who’s in office. Republicans and Democrats will do the same thing.”

Not everyone agrees. “I think it’s too early to say. I think we’re in the midst of it,” said Barbara Wien, a professor in the International Peace and Conflict Resolution graduate program at American University. It takes time for a movement to form, she explained, and a bit of a spark. “This is a more abstract debate,” than “meal ticket” issues such as the ones Fellman listed, she said. And it’s less concrete than, say, European economic protests. “It’s not as tangible and it’s still unfolding, but I still think we’re seeing the rise of popular movements,” Wien said. Indeed, at least part of what Occupy Wall Street protesters called for was for the United States to cut its military budget and “put it into human needs.”

Where the anti-secrecy/surveillance/control drive shows similarities to historical movements is that it has origins in tangible acts by a few dissenters who assume immediate change will follow. “It doesn’t quite happen that easily,” said Flacks. Sociologists are waiting to see if others are spurred to action. “You can’t necessarily know what people will do once they have some awareness,” he explained. “And often mass movements start because someone you have no knowledge of figured out to do something. … I mean, in the civil rights movement no one told a group of four students to sit at a lunch counter in North Carolina in 1968. They got that idea themselves.”

That’s where the anti-secrecy movement may be right now, in Flacks’ view. It’s waiting for the secondary people to pick up on ideas and turn them into real action that their originators — Manning, Snowden and Assange — could never have anticipated.

Common Themes
This may be a cause for concern at the Pentagon. Listen to Flacks quickly begin to sound more activist than scholar: “I would like society to be structured so that when people’s lives are implicated by government, they’ve had a chance to have a voice in that policy. ‘No taxation without representation’ is why we had a revolution to begin with,” he said. “I think the theme of democratization does tie together a lot of what appear to be very disparate forms of opposition and protest.”

So what’s the common theme between the anti-war and anti-secrecy?  “I think you could take almost any opposition theme and realize that the core of it includes this feeling of being forced into a position that you have no voice in deciding,” said Flacks.

NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander and other U.S. officials seemed almost exasperated this summer at having to explain to Congress, at think tanks, and to journalists, that all three branches of government have some oversight of federal surveillance programs and that Snowden should be considered an enemy of the state. That, in turn, infuriates veterans of the peace movement.

“I find it unbelievable that people think that this is traitorous act,” Flacks said. “And I find it unbelievable that people would be willing to let a small group of people in secret be able to have that degree of capacity for surveillance over the rest of us. I’ve grown up my whole life with Brave New World and 1984 — all kinds of science fiction images of what kind of monstrous society could come from that. I’ve grown up knowing that [former FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover had surveillance over presidents and was able to blackmail them — I mean how could we not blow the whistle on those things?”

Quickly, and without prompting, several of the professors of peace shifted into voicing their disdain for modern warfare and its tools — drone strikes, secrecy, indefinite detention, pervasive conflict — and the emotion in their reactions was palpable. “I think policy makers have come up with an alternative to the peace movement: It’s drones, so we don’t have to send soldiers,” Wien said.

“I think its horrifying that people can sit thousands of miles away and order the destruction of people without their own lives being at all implicated in that,” said Flacks. “[It] just seems somehow morally very reprehensible that you can play that kind of remote game — kill people without any threat to your own existence. But that’s modern warfare.”

Disconnected From Decision Makers
Ultimately, it may be about inclusiveness. With a national security decision-making process reserved to elite policymakers in the insider circles of Washington, and the now proven-viability of an all-volunteer Army, the public feels disconnected from the decisions made on its behalf, and disillusioned by the institutions — Congress, the courts, the executive branch — tasked to protect them.

“In their eyes, the hoarding and acquisition of information and a whole variety of forms of surveillance is an encroachment upon a fundamental liberty. It’s what [British King] George III would be doing if he were kicking today,” said Gitlin. “For the anti-secrecy people…it’s the Stamp Act and the suppression of speech and a whole deal of grievances against King George put together. This is an infringement upon our core being.”

“When we have a robust debate, and government insiders speak out and there’s healthy dissent, that’s good for democracy, that’s what we want,” Wien added. “Lincoln surrounded himself with dissenters.” She insists the peace movement, in any form, is not dead. Instead, it has seeped into less visible but far more pervasive veins of society, and is now seen in everything from anti-bullying campaigns to small town alternative justice organizations to her university’s rapidly overflowing stack of applications for the conflict resolution graduate program.

Maybe Wien is right, and we’re seeing the beginning of — something.

“Information is citizenship,” Gitlin said. “But even more, information is identity. Information is currency. Information is cultural capital and even more than that. Somehow, identity is of the essence. And so I think people can feel that something’s at stake — their being is at stake in a way that isn’t true with the war. The war, no matter how rotten you think it is, I think it doesn’t cut you to the quick unless you have some blood in the game, some skin in the game, which most people don’t.”

But if you think some people’s emotions aren’t at least simmering, read what Heather McRobie, commissioning editor at the website openDemocracy, who participated in London’s February 2003 anti-Iraq war protest, said on this year’s 10th anniversary: “These last four years have been disquieting, in terms of how — while seemingly drawing a line under what now feel like the ‘dark days’ of the Bush-Blair era — the Obama administration has stitched the poison of that period into ‘legitimate’ practices. The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act that legally entrenched indefinite detention was a turning point for me, losing any last ‘hope’ that Obama would reverse the damage of the ‘war on terror’ era.”

(Image via Sage Ross/Shutterstock.com]