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To war, or not to war?

As millions around the world march for peace, SLO County activists square off for their own debate

STORY BY NATALIE CONNELLY

As the nation prepares for war, local activists for and against an invasion of Iraq have been poised for their own battle.

At issue: whether or not the United States should wage a devastating unilateral, preemptive strike against Iraq.

And, although it’s unlikely George W. Bush will base any of his decisions to go to war on recommendations from the citizens of San Luis Obispo County, the community nonetheless wants to be heard.

In the biggest turnout yet, more than 1,700 anti-war demonstrators marched through the streets of San Luis Obispo last Saturday in solidarity with millions of anti-war protesters around the world. Peaceful protests in cities like Rome and London turned out the largest demonstrations ever recorded.

Overall estimates were placed at 8 million, with 2 million from Rome alone.

The San Luis demonstrators, meanwhile, lined 16 blocks, waving picket signs and chanting peace slogans. Joining them in the march were five supporters of Bush’s call for war.

The protest would have disintegrated into its own form of local conflict had it not been for the willingness of more level heads on both sides to avoid nasty confrontation.

Until the SLO City Council passed an anti-war resolution 4-1 on Jan. 7, Ken Schwartz dissenting, the community had barely heard a whisper from supporters of a preemptive strike. Six, at most, voiced support for Bush’s push for war in the public forum, a stark contrast to the thousands who then were turning out for protests opposing an attack on Iraq without U.N. backing.

But within a month of city council’s approval of the resolution, preemptive supporters calling themselves the "Freedom Is Not Free Team" (FINFT) had bulked up to 2,000-strong. They placed a two-page ad on Thursday, Feb. 13 in the Tribune, arguing for preemptive strike as a viable option in the war against terrorism.

Tensions reached new levels when Korean War Veteran Bill Rosensteel sent an e-mail last week to friends, containing inflammatory rhetoric and calling the anti-war protesters the "Trash America bunch," and accusing them of aiding and abetting the enemy and of participating in the "art of hate."

County Assessor Tom Bordonaro, who was on Rosensteel’s list, forwarded the e-mail to more than a hundred people on Tuesday, Feb. 11. The e-mail also urged preemptive supporters to show up at the anti-war rally at Mitchell Park on Sunday, Jan. 16, arguing: "Do not leave the field to the enemy; show up and support President Bush."

The e-mail fell into the hands of David Broadwater of Passion for Peace, which was organizing the rally. Broadwater sounded the alarm, warning protesters of a potential confrontation at the rally.

It would appear that the community was headed for its own battle.

The names of Bordonaro, local businessman and Cuesta College board member Sam Blakeslee, and Los Osos Community Services District member Stan Gustafson were attached to the e-mail, suggesting that they agreed with its content.

Bordonaro, however, said he hadn’t read the e-mail before forwarding it to members of FINFT. Blakeslee said he never authorized that his name be attached to the e-mail, and would never support that kind of language.

"It’s unfair," he said. "I’ve been in this community my whole life and I respect the right of people to have a range of opinions on the subject. How I became a poster boy for this is a complete mystery."

On Friday, Jan. 14, Blakeslee e-mailed a letter to some recipients of Rosensteel’s e-mail, dissociating himself from its polarizing rhetoric. He and Bordonaro sent an e-mail discouraging preemptive supporters from showing up at the anti-war rally and urging them to "take the high road" in the debate over war.

Both talked about how much they appreciate freedom of expression. And although they don’t go to protests or marches, they appreciate the people who participate, regardless of their opinion.

"When you walk downtown at Farmer’s Market, you’ve got the Republican and Democrat booths, Green Party, Christians, secular, all walks of life, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold," Bordonaro said.

While he loves to see these open displays of freedom, sometimes Bordonaro is uncomfortable with how they can divide a community. Bordonaro and Matt Kokkonen, an assemblyman hopeful, both wish our country would appear more united against Saddam Hussein. They say America’s divisiveness weakens its fight against him on local, national, and international levels.

"We’ve put ourselves in a Catch-22," said Bordonaro. "If Saddam sees we’re divided on an issue, he’s not going to take us seriously and that will divide us more."

When Blakeslee sent his response condemning Rosensteel’s e-mail, anti-war protesters were much relieved. And they appreciated Bordonaro’s note discouraging physical confrontation at the rally.

"I’m disappointed but not surprised that behavior like this is being exhibited, because people engage in these actions when tensions are high," said Broadwater.

Rosensteel, meanwhile, refused to back down from his claim that protesters were playing into the hands of anti-American forces.

"In the anti-war group there are some dedicated people who are pacifists, but most have been duped by leftist, atheist, communist anarchists who hate Bush and hate America," Rosensteel said.

On another front, the Cal Poly Republican Club set up a booth at Farmer’s Market and helped Blakeslee, Bordonaro, Rosensteel, and Gustafson collect more than a thousand signatures for the ad in the Tribune.

"My goal was to provide an alternative view on the city council resolution," Blakeslee said. "I think I accomplished that with the ad in the Tribune, and I’m proud of the effort."

Although passage of the city council resolution took two months, only one man, Art Murphy, showed up to protest–and the council’s deliberations on the subject were hardly kept a secret, with newspaper coverage and paid ads published in the Tribune.

Nobody else showed up because they were busy with the holiday season or they didn’t know about it, according to Blakeslee and Bordonaro.

Because nobody showed, Blakeslee and Gustafson spearheaded a mini-movement to inform the rest of the community that they were disappointed with passage of the resolution.

Blakeslee had only intended to place an ad to publicize his viewpoint, but FINFT was created because so many people phoned in their support. Blakeslee was unsure if the team would continue to exist after the ad had been published. He is planning a meeting this week to determine the group’s future.

Some anti-war demonstrators weren’t upset with the ad in the newspaper. In fact, leaders of the local protest effort applauded their counterparts.

"I thank the people who signed the ad because they were peaceful and respectful," said Dick Krejsa, founder of Passions For Peace and a veteran of the Korean War.

Points of disagreement between the two camps include the amount of evidence needed for a preemptive attack, the threat of retaliation from terrorists, and the precedent set by such an attack.

Pro-war supporters hope the U.N. will endorse an invasion on Iraq. Ultimately, however, they believe the United States has a responsibility as a superpower to protect itself and the world from Hussein. They compare our current situation with Iraq to that of the Nazis during World War II.

"In the 1930s, the world knew about the German threat and they didn’t do anything about it," Blakeslee said.

Right now, say Bordonaro and Kokkonen, the United States has enough evidence to invade Iraq because Hussein has been in violation of U.N. sanctions for a decade.

Broadwater and Krejsa, however, don’t believe the United States has sufficient information to attack Iraq. They agree that Hussein’s nose-thumbing at the U.N. is disturbing, but feel that weapons inspections are the best way to keep him in check. They said that Iraq does not pose a serious threat to national security as long as the weapons inspections are taking place.

Tom Hutchings, a Vietnam veteran who set the anti-war resolution on the table, sees Hussein as a threat to his neighbors more than he is to the United States. But, if the United States wages an attack, Hutchings is concerned that Hussein or some other terrorist will definitely try to bomb and terrorize Americans and their allies.

Others argue that our level of safety can’t get much worse, even if the United States does attack Iraq.

"It’s better to make an attack [on Iraq] than to bury our heads in the sand in hopes that everyone will join hands, singing ‘Kumbaya,’" Bordonaro said.

Anti-war protesters, meanwhile, are concerned that if the United States conducts a preemptive attack on Iraq it will set a dangerous precedent for democratic countries. The United States has never before made a preemptive strike.

"I believe there’s a reason for defending a country from an overt attack," Hutchings said. "I do not believe invading another country does any good. History shows it exploits human and land resources."

Hutchings also believes that if the United States bases a preemptive strike on threats to its security, North Korea could launch its own attack on the United States using the same logic. They could say that they were acting in self-defense; that they felt threatened by the United States’ having weapons of mass destruction.

Bordonaro disagrees. He argues that Kim Jong Il is crazy enough to do whatever he wants, that he doesn’t need any excuses to drop bombs. Bordonaro believes the future of democracy is safe and sound, despite the potential repercussions of a preemptive attack. In fact, he thinks it might be necessary to make a preemptive strike to strengthen the U.N. because it’s starting to look like a bureaucracy that only talks.

"Saddam only understands force, that’s just who he is," Bordonaro said. "Other countries could try to use us as an example to make a preemptive attack, but you have to look at how we got here. Saddam agreed to disarm, and he’s slowly eroded away all U.N. resolutions. It was a long chain of events."

Despite the differences between the people who support an attack and those who don’t, the peace rally that took place on Sunday went smoothly.

Only five demonstrators showed to oppose the anti-war protesters, presumably because of Blakeslee’s request to take the high road in the current debate over war. And of those five, at least two were engaging in respectful conversation with the "other side," because when it comes down to it, they believe in the same fundamental issue of freedom of speech.

"We all believe in the First Amendment," Bordonaro wrote in an e-mail. "Even when it is being used by people to state views with which we strongly disagree." Æ

Staff writer Natalie Connelly can be reached at nconnelly@newtimesslo.com.




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