Friday, August 19, 2005 | Cindy Sheehan has captured a lot of people’s attention with her vigil in Crawford, Texas, including mine. So when I heard by e-mail about local peace vigils to support her, I signed up on the MoveOn.org Web site for my wife and I and two of our children to attend in Encinitas. Maybe, in this cyber-planned protest, it should have been no surprise that at least three people who spoke at the vigil urged us to visit other political Web sites, repeating the URL several times so we’d get it.
The setting at Moonlight Beach was beautiful, with a brilliant full moon setting off several hundred candles, some outlining a large circle in the sand within which we all stood, a hundred more held in the hands of vigil-ers, including us. We were by far the largest crowd on the beach; other groups enjoying themselves at nearby blazing fire-pits kept to their business and we kept to ours. This was one of at least a dozen San Diego vigils, among some 1,500 across the country.
You can only sing “All we are saying/Is give peace a chance” a few times without wishing someone would think of another song to switch to. “Give peace a chance” works only if you aren’t holding candles so you can link arms and sway together. And Web sites are great, but with the sound of the surf bearing down, an old-fashioned bullhorn would have been nice! We seem a little rusty in anti-war protest.
But the vigil was clearly not a first time for many of those attending. Most of the protesters looked middle-aged. That could be because parents can easily identify with Cindy Sheehan. One sober-voiced man told the group that he lost his own son in the war, a remark that quickly reminded us all – or at least those who could hear him – of just how serious the occasion was. This gave me all the more reason to wince when the folks with the simple answers and the easy conspiracy theories began to speak up. I wish they would keep their crackpot ideas to themselves.
My children, ages 17 and 13, and I disagree about whether President Bush will ever speak to Mrs. Sheehan. They have no faith in Bush at all, no expectation that he will ever, by choice or by shame, do the right thing. But I think he might. And I imagine what he could say:
“Mrs. Sheehan, I am sorry for your terrible loss. All I can tell you is that Casey died in a good cause. We removed a tyrant from Iraq, someone who did not hesitate to use chemical weapons against his own people. We are helping Iraq establish a democracy. It’s a lot tougher to do than we realized and it is costing a lot in human life. If we had known that before the war, if we had also known there were no weapons of mass destruction, maybe we could have chosen another path, but we acted with the best information we had. I hope you can understand that a president’s vision is limited and his knowledge incomplete, and yet he still has to act. I truly hope you can understand that.
“Mrs. Sheehan, Abraham Lincoln wrote to Mrs. Bixby who lost five sons in the Civil War. He wrote that any words of his own to assuage her grief must be ‘weak and fruitless,’ but he still felt compelled to offer her ‘the thanks of the Republic’ that her sons ‘died to save.’
“I, likewise, offer you the thanks of your country. I owe you that, and I apologize for having kept you waiting these weeks.”
Why doesn’t he say that? To her, personally, out of the reach of cameras and microphones? Is the justification for the war so unmistakably threadbare that there is nothing left that he can say?
That’s the question in my mind. The President’s continued silence speaks tragic, misguided volumes.
Michael Schudson is a professor of communication at the University of California, San Diego and a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” award.