Crashing Symbols


It used to be easy. The hawks waved the flag, and the doves stitched it to the seats of their pants. The peaceniks carried candles, and the militarists drove with their headlights on. Each side had its emblems. If the opposition managed to steal one, it was only to twist and subvert it.

Now we're much smarter and more sophisticated in the struggle over symbols. Kidnapping is out this time around; joint custody is in. Old Glory flutters from front porches all over town, and street corners sprout candle-holders. But who's on which side? It's hard to tell.

Opponents of U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf have swiftly and effectively seized the chief tool of the policy-makers themselves, namely the old-fashioned definition of patriotism. Their self-proclaimed mission isn't simply to stop the war; it's to support the troops -- by bringing them home alive.

Proponents of Desert Storm, meanwhile, have discovered the allure of the street demonstration. If anti-war activists lay claim to an intersection, their counterparts crop up on the next curb with slogans just as clever and spokespeople just as savvy. Even the vigil, that time-honored public exhibition of pacifism, has been appropriated by the commander-in-chief.

But depending on the pulpit, President Bush's National Day of Prayer provided a forum for both points of view. From Minneapolis came a solemn plea to "topple the despot." In Harlem, the congregation prayed for the legion of casualties here at home -- the shell-shocked veterans of hunger, homelessness and poverty.

Even God is up for grabs this time around. And no matter which side he's (or she's) on, you can bet she's (or he's) wearing a yellow ribbon.

Isn't everybody?

I suspect the surface skirmish is more than a matter of strategy, that it also reflects a deeper conflict over what we're doing in the gulf. The polls show overwhelming support for U.S. military action, but the slightest probing reveals intense anxiety and self-doubt. A lot of people support the war because it's already under way, not because they think it's right.

Ambivalence strikes the other side, too. My friend, a die-hard left-wing Democrat, is typically balled up. "I'm not comfortable being 'for' the war," she writes me. "But I haven't found anyone arguing against the war who's able to settle my thinking."

My own position, while steadfast, is really a variation on the theme; I'm against the war because I've yet to hear a pro-war argument to muddy my thinking. When in doubt, I have no doubt: Stop the carnage.

And how should I express my conviction? Light a candle? Stand on a street corner?

The other day I pulled into a gas station that was bathed in a yellow sheen. I made certain assumptions. Out walked the proprietor, with a peace symbol stuck to his lapel. I revised my assumptions. I drove off wondering which, if any, were correct.

And so it goes in the battle on the home front. The symbols proliferate. But no one's quite sure what they stand for.

Barbara Roessner is a columnist for the Hartford Courant.

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