September 27, 2001: Peaceniks usually right, but not now


Chances are, you've never heard of Jeanette Rankin. It was immediately after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that she became, for a moment, famous. Or maybe the word is, infamous.

Congress was in session to consider a declaration of war. For most Americans, this was little more than a formality. Before the attack, there had been a lively peace movement in this country - people determined, at all costs, to keep the U.S. out of the conflagration in Europe. Afterward, the hue and cry everywhere was for war.

So it was something of a surprise when Rankin, a Republican representative from Montana, cast the lone vote in opposition. Her dissent so outraged onlookers that an angry mob chased the committed pacifist through the corridors of the Capitol, finally cornering her in a phone booth. Only police intervention allowed her to safely escape.

I've always liked Jeanette Rankin. Always appreciated the lonely courage of her stand.

Something like that stand is beginning to emerge in the wake of Sept. 11. As the country cries out for war, peace rallies have broken out on college campuses nationwide. There have been ecclesiastical statements urging against military action. Social activists like Harry Belafonte and Rosa Parks are questioning the wisdom of retaliation. And a letter making the rounds on the Internet urges America to ``bomb'' Afghanistan with butter, rice and other staples the starving poor of that wretched country find in short supply.

Some in the peace movement simply oppose an indiscriminate military campaign that cannot help but target innocent civilians along with the thugs who have hijacked their country - an argument with which I have no quarrel. But others crusade against any military response, period. For them, as for Jeanette Rankin, I suppose, no provocation ever justifies the use of force.

I couldn't disagree with that assertion more. Yet I'm pleased to hear it nonetheless. And no, there's not a punch line lurking in that contradiction.

These are troubling times. We've just seen more than 6,000 human lives obliterated, one iconic building grievously damaged and two others destroyed. The people want retribution. We are as united in that as we have ever been in anything.

There's righteousness in that demand. There's also a certain danger. When emotions are this raw, it's easy for a crowd to become a mob, for them to slip across from justified outrage to unthinking fury. It's easy - too easy - to lose any sense of perspective, any claim on the moral high ground, any restraining shred of human reasoning. Not surprisingly, you can already see signs of it happening. Some have said we ought to turn Afghanistan into the proverbial parking lot. Some have said we ought to use nuclear weapons. Some have used their pain and anger as excuses to visit violence upon fellow Americans who are - or simply ``look'' - Arab.

Terrible things can happen when passion is unhindered by reason. So the counterweight the peace movement provides is a valuable one. But at the same time, the argument that violence is never justified is spurious at best.

Martin Luther King was probably the greatest pacifist in American history, a man who was stoned and beaten, yet never raised a hand to retaliate. Yet even he acknowledged that there were times violence was necessary. If called to service in the Second World War, he said in a 1967 sermon, ``I believe that I would have temporarily sacrificed my pacifism because Hitler was such an evil force in history.''

Most Americans are not pacifists, but we are lovers of peace. You'd never know it from our popular entertainment, but we abhor war. Yet the ugly truth is that sometimes, war cannot be avoided. Sometimes, history demands that aggrieved people draw an uncrossable line.

This is one of those times. Otherwise, what comes next? We've already been hit with stolen planes. Is the next hit chemical? Biological? Nuclear? How many lives will that cost? How many families and towns wiped away?

The nascent peace movement will be the necessary conscience of the mob in days to come, and that's a good thing.

But most of us understand - as King did, and as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain famously learned - that sometimes, the cost of peace is too high. Sometimes, peace costs more than war.

I like Jeanette Rankin. But she was wrong.

Read more Leonard Pitts Jr. stories from the Miami Herald

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