It looks more like a 12-step group than a brainstorming meeting -- people shifting on folding chairs in a church common room, the burnt smell of long-standing coffee, men and women rising one by one to talk about their feelings. Only the long white fencepost placed on a table, reading "May Peace Prevail on Earth," makes it plain this isn't your everyday support group.
Instead, Jeff Moebus and about 60 other New Orleans-area "peacemongers" are trying to stop a war.
The 54-year-old Moebus, a social and political activist and veteran of the Vietnam and Gulf wars, was among those who called the gathering. He's directing the meeting with the efficiency and brusqueness one generates from a 28-year career in the Army. When people begin to ramble, he asks them to get to the point. When others make suggestions, he cuts in to find out whether they plan to act as organizers. Moebus has no time for people who say they want peace but aren't willing to work for it. "We're doing something different than just waving a flag and saying we care," he tells the group.
This meeting is taking place on Thursday, Sept. 13, two days after the suicide attacks that put the country on alert for war. Polls show that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that the assaults merit some sort of military response.
According to a Time/CNN poll taken Sept. 13-16, 85 percent of Americans approved strategic air strikes against isolated military targets; 81 percent favored assassinations of terrorist leaders; 55 percent favored ground invasion of American troops even if they were likely to result in the loss of U.S. lives; and 48 percent approved of massive bombings that might kill civilians.
The people sitting around in the common room of St Paul's United Church of Christ know their views rest firmly among the minority. This is not an established group; the people in this room say they are a loosely based "community of conscience, concern, and commitment" with no official spokesperson. In his emails to the group, Moebus refers to it as "c3."
Moebus believes that if the group is going to be effective, it has to fight national sentiment about war as vehemently as the terrorist hijackers fought America. "We don't have peacemakers who are as prepared to pay the ultimate price to wage peace," he says. "If all we're going to do is say 'Don't do what you're thinking about doing,' we'll be blown out of the water. We need to move into an action phase."
Others in the room seem fired up. A man with gray hair and glasses stands up. "Someone has thrown a hand grenade in the middle of the world," he says, "and we've got to jump on it." Another man who has brought his young son suggests, "We need a motto -- something like 'Fighting for Peace.'"
Moebus brushes off any suggestions that don't involve direct action. People are assigned to various tasks: planning a peace vigil; monitoring the media's coverage of pacifist groups; contacting local Muslim leaders to offer support and, if necessary, protection; organizing a teach-in.
A woman rises. She says she considers herself a pacifist, but she adds that she supports some military action. "What does the peace community think is the appropriate response?" she asks. "I would like to know: is armed military violent response appropriate in the face of such terrorism? If not, what is appropriate?"
People respond by talking about compassion, about ignorance, about fear. Nobody directly answers her question, though Moebus later says it's an issue the peace community will be forced to address.
"It's the single most important question that this group of people is going to have to answer, and we're going to have to answer it pretty quickly," he says.
National polls show uncharted waters in American history: a majority of the population calling for war, yet unsure about who the enemy is. America doesn't quite know where to direct its anger, and that makes the Rev. Roy Bourgeois nervous.
The maverick Catholic priest has been fighting terrorism for years -- only he identifies a source of that terrorism within the United States itself. He is the leader of a crusade against a U.S. Army base commonly known as the School of the Americas (SOA). The Fort Benning, Ga. school trains Latin American soldiers in what Bourgeois calls terrorist and torture techniques, and some of its graduates, including Manuel Noriega of Panama, have been implicated in human rights violations in their native countries. The U.S. military responds to its critics by saying it can't be held responsible for the actions of a few of its graduates.
For years Bourgeois and others have called for the federal government to close the school; last April, Jeff Moebus embarked on a 52-day juices-only fast in Fort Benning in protest of the SOA.
The priest has spent stints in federal prison after various demonstrations and actions at SOA, including one for dumping blood on the school's Hall of Fame. He also snuck onto the camp and played a recording of a sermon given by a priest slain by Latin terrorists.
Since the attacks, Bourgeois has stuck to his speaking schedule at various locations around the country -- a schedule that will bring him to New Orleans next month. At a time when most Americans denounce second-guessing the president and government, Bourgeois is staying critical. On Sept. 11, he spoke at a high school in Pennsylvania. "I picked up the newspaper and there was this big photograph of a young guy, about 18, signing up for the military. ... I brought that to the class and said, 'This was me many years ago.' I signed up when we were asked to go to Vietnam ... we were very angry, we had to go get those Communists, and we did not question our president.
"The violence there, and the suffering that we were exposed to, and the death of friends -- it was a turning point in many of our lives. It forced us to really question the whole issue of violence."
Bourgeois, a Louisiana native who lives and works just outside the SOA's gates, fears that the collective outrage of American citizens after the terror attacks will stifle their sense of reasoning. "When people are angry we don't think clearly," Bourgeois says. "At a moment like this, we put our reason and our faith aside and we go by raw emotions, we lash out.
"[Bush] is the leader of our country, and he and his advisors -- they are going to say [war] is the way out of this. And right now they are so angry, so embarrassed. The most powerful people in the world were brought to their knees ... and they want to just lash out to show that they are still strong. What we need now, I feel, is some wisdom to prevail."
Bourgeois will be speaking about the SOA and terrorism in October at three Louisiana universities. Civil rights attorney and Loyola University law professor Bill Quigley, who is helping him organize his Louisiana visit, predicts the terror attacks will lead to packed attendance at Bourgeois' lectures.
The American people want to know more about terrorism, says Quigley, and will demand more information from the government before they can fully support a U.S. military strike. "I don't think this is going to be another Vietnam thing where people trust their government to just put in troops and start examining what they're doing later," he says. "I think people are going to ask for a lot more information before they invest their kids in a big vague retaliation."
Bourgeois hopes his lectures will help others understand the connections between terrorism in the world, starting with the SOA. The school is now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC), after the Department of Defense in January renamed the school and made changes in its curriculum that Bourgeois calls "purely cosmetic."
The priest hopes Americans' reinforced fears about terrorism will draw them to his crusade against the school. "A lot of people want something they can connect to, something they can put their hands on, something that will bring them hope," he says. "This is an issue we can address. It's in our backyard, it's funded with our tax money. We can go to Washington, we can write letters, we can come to Fort Benning [in protest] ... our actions can bring us hope."
One week after the attacks, the peace community followed through on the plans made in the church-room meeting. The first was to hold a peace vigil in Jackson Square on Saturday, Sept. 15, and organizers were thrilled at the turnout.
"Nearly 250 people showed up in front of Jackson Square, which is about five times what everyone expected," Quigley says. "It shows the real hunger in New Orleans for discussions that are not based on retaliation." He says people from all walks of life came to the vigil. "It was a great New Orleans event where you had a palm reader, a jazz band, and a vampire tour right in there on the action."
Moebus says there will be similar peace vigils every Saturday, either at Jackson Square or other locations, "until this thing is over."
He also plans to resurrect his SOA protest this Tuesday with a week-long fast in Jackson Square. "We're going to bring the Fort Benning diet to New Orleans," Moebus says. "On Tuesday morning, September 25, I will begin a 168-hour fast and prayer vigil. It will start at 7:40 Central Daylight Time, which was when the first tower was hit, and it will run to 7:40 Central Daylight Time the following week."
Moebus plans to spend "Operation Isaiah 2:4," as he's calling the vigil, studying the spiritual texts of several religions and reflecting on "peace, justice, truth, repentance and reconciliation." He believes that the United States should reject a massive attack campaign in Afghanistan, and will instead launch an intensive investigation that will lead to a worldwide dismantling of terrorist cells. He hopes his actions will draw others to his way of thinking.
Bourgeois hopes so, too. "We are certainly a minority, but we've got to try and let our voices be heard," he says. "A lot of people are pulling together, and what I hope does not happen is this deep-rooted patriotism in the sense of 'blood for blood; let's go to war.' If that's what's going to bring us together, we will not grow.
"If we unite to go off to war, it's going to lead to a spiral of violence and more death there, and more death here."
- Cheryl Gerber
- The American people will demand answers from the government before they fully support a U.S. military strike, says local attorney and law professor Bill Quigley (center). 'I don't think this is going to be another Vietnam thing where people trust their government and start examining what they're doing later,' he says.