I was among the million people who marched through London on February 15, 2003, to protest the imminent invasion of Iraq. I don’t think anyone in the crowd thought a single march would stop the Anglo-American coalition from launching a war of aggression, but most felt it was important that the widespread anger and dismay at this murderous course of action be embodied, literally, on the streets, by a broad cross-section of the public.
This was done. And it was not totally unimportant, as an act of bearing witness. But now, years later, the people of Egypt — especially the young people — have shown us what a small, feeble act that 2003 march really was, and how we all let thuggish leaders play us for fools. We showed up, we marched, we massed — then we quietly went home, back to our lives, and let the brutal machinery of aggressive war roll on.
What would have happened had we possessed the courage and commitment that the Egyptians are demonstrating today? What if we, like them, had refused to go home, and had stood our ground, thronged in the center of London, day after day, railing against a regime bent on aggressive war: “the supreme international crime, only different from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of all the others,” as Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal put it. (It also added: “To initiate a war of aggression is a crime that no political or economic situation can justify.”)
Day after day after day, the Egyptians have withstood the blows of a vicious police state, the savage attacks of paid goons, the strain, exhaustion and deprivation of constant vigil under threat of arrest or death — and still they are standing there, more and more of them all the time, in a remarkable, near-miraculous display of moral courage that will undoubtedly topple the criminal regime, despite the desperate, clueless delaying tactics that Hosni Mubarak pulled on Thursday night.
But in London on that long-ago day, which now lies behind us across a surging river of blood choked with the bodies of a million innocent dead, we simply melted away in the course of an afternoon. A single day; a few hours; a few speeches — then nothing. How Blair and Bush and all the militarist apparatchiks must have laughed at that! “Let them have their little march. Who gives a shit? Give them their permits, redirect the traffic for them, let them wave their signs. What does it matter? When it’s over, they’ll just go home, and we can get on with our business.”
But what if we had stayed? By the tens of thousands if not the hundreds of thousands? What if we, like the Egyptians, had gotten in the way of business as usual, and brought more and more pressure to bear on the system, forcing the issue of aggressive war on the public consciousness, unavoidably, day after day — and by this, as in Egypt, forcing officials of the system to declare where they stood? How badly would the power structure and its functionaries have been shaken? How many of the latter would have been emboldened to begin at least asking questions and demanding more information about the senseless rush to war? How many indeed might have voted “no confidence” in a government so deeply enmeshed in a scheme of deliberate deception aimed to perpetrate mass murder?
Maybe it would not have stopped the war. There’s no way of knowing now. But we have seen in Egypt and Tunisia how an explosion of mass moral courage — and physical courage — can tear a hole in the zeitgeist and make a space for new realities, for transformations which seemed unthinkable only days before. Such kairotic moments (to borrow Tillich’s phrase) are rare, and if they are not seized, the window closes. There we were, a million people in the center of London, of all classes, all races, all creeds, all professions, united against war. Kairos hung heavy in the air, like the invisible pressure before a thunderstorm.
But we turned away. We let it go. The moment passed. “And the war came.”
That’s why February 15 will remain nothing more than a brief footnote in a long, still-churning saga of atrocity and slaughter, while January 25, the day the Egyptians first took to the streets — and stayed in the streets — will be honored for generations as a landmark of human liberation.