By Zubaida Mustafa
Have you heard of Cindy Sheehan? She is an American woman whose son Casey was killed in the war in Iraq in April 2004. You may well ask what is so extraordinary about Sheehan when more than 1850 American soldiers have lost their lives in Iraq and many must have left behind grieving parents.
Casey’s mother is different. She has been drawing headlines on page one of the American newspapers and receiving plenty of coverage on television channels since August 6, when she decided to camp outside the ranch in Crawford, Texas, where President George W. Bush is on his vacation.
She describes her mission to persuade President Bush to meet her and answer her questions about why the Iraq war that took her son’s life was started. She also wants to know why it is being continued as more American soldiers continue to die. This way, Sheehan believes, she will be able to stop the war and prevent more deaths.
Since President Bush, who is said to have had cursory meetings ritually with the aggrieved families of soldiers killed in the war, has not acceded to Sheehan’s request. She has drawn behind her many other parents who are in a similar situation as she is. Now there is quite a crowd gathered in Camp Casey, as it is called, on a neighbouring ranch whose owner is sympathetic to Sheehan’s cause.
The people assembled there have put up crosses on an empty plot with the names of their dead sons/husbands/brothers inscribed on them. On the night of August 18, as many as 1627 vigils were held all across America in support of Cindy Sheehan, drawing 50,000 people.
Analysts believe that this protest night will go down in history as the movement which led to the end of the Iraq war, just as the campus troubles in 1968 after the Tet offensive drove the Johnson Administration to pave the way for an ultimate withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975. It is known that the support for America’s war in Iraq has been falling. Only 34 per cent of the Americans now support the war. More than half of the American adults now question the wisdom of going to war in Iraq and the president’s popularity rating has been falling.
In a situation where there is a diffused sense of discontent, a person who is loud and articulate and can voice the opposition of the dispersed and diverse elements is able to rally the crowd behind him/her. That is precisely what Cindy Sheehan is doing.
It is, therefore, unlikely that this crowd will melt away. As more and more body bags arrive from Iraq, the discontent is bound to grow. This phenomenon represents what in modern parlance has come to be known as ‘people power’. It was first used in the Philippines where the autocratic ruler Ferdinand Marcos was forced to step down when his people took to the streets in a massive demonstration of protest in 1983 in support of Senator Benigno Aquino.
So persistent and sustained was their protest that it could no longer be brushed aside. Even though the Senator was shot dead, his wife Corazon went on to become the President in 1986.
People power generally comes into play when a government turns a deaf ear to the demands of a substantial section of its population and refuses to respond constitutionally to them. People are then left with no option but to come out in protest.
The main characteristic of this protest is that it is peaceful. Any demonstration that turns violent immediately loses the public’s sympathy. If people are killed or injured in the course of the protest, then the public’s sentiments become divided. Many who had supported the original cause start wondering if they are right in doing so. Nobody wants lives to be lost because some people are protesting.
Many of the people who have lost their sons in the Iraq war and have joined Sheehan’s protest have also expressed sympathy for the Iraqis. They know that the war was started by President George W. Bush and they hold him responsible for all the deaths that have been caused.
Cindy Sheehan’s protest carries weight though history alone will tell what the outcome of this exercise will be. But it carries a message for all of us.
If an injustice is being done and people are aware of it, those who stand for civil liberties and human rights must raise their voice to register their protest. If the response is silence, it is assumed by the oppressors that there is nothing wrong in what they are doing and their deeds are generally acceptable to the public.
Besides one man’s protest may not have the impact which the collective expression of opinion can have. But someone has to make the first move to act as a catalyst. Thus others, who hold similar views but have not been courageous or vocal enough to be the first one to speak out, should also join in.
Cindy Sheehan was alone when she went to Crawford. Within days, a big crowd had collected in Camp Casey. The movement demanding an end to the war in Iraq has begun.