Shannon Burke really wants me to think his "Rally for America" is about patriotism. "It's not pro-war," he says repeatedly the day before the rally. "It has nothing to do with war."
But I'm skeptical. I've heard Burke's radio talk show -- 5:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. on 540-AM WFLA -- often enough to know that he's an unabashed supporter of President Bush, and the use of military force to depose Saddam Hussein. I also know that he announced the Rally for America Feb. 17, two days after 6 million peace protestors marched in cities all across the world. Is this a counter protest?
No, Burke replies: "I have a great respect for people who have the balls to go out and protest," he says. "This is not a protest. It's a rally." (Similar rallies are planned for this weekend in San Antonio, Cleveland.)
This isn't my typical Saturday afternoon fare. A left-of-center journalist for a left-of-center newspaper, I'm not among Burke's target audience. I'm neither old, nor rich, nor Republican. I don't play golf or wear ties. I don't think Bush won the presidency legitimately. I'm not convinced that war is necessary. I suspect the president's motives are more political and self-serving than humanitarian.
But neither am I your cookie-cutter peacenik. I don't wear Birkenstocks. I rarely eat granola. I shower at least three times a week. I think wars can be just; I'm just not sure this one is. I wonder why we talk of "regime change" and "pre-emptive strikes" instead of a police action to bring Saddam before the Hague for crimes against humanity. I find it insulting that Bush is tying Iraq into our "war on terror" without proof that Saddam was connected to Sept. 11.
I'm also terrified at how easily the right is winning the public-relations war by appealing to base emotions of God, family and country. Dissent has suddenly become un-American, even treasonous. Blind, unquestioning allegiance is a patriotic duty. Burke and people like him claim to support protestors' First Amendment rights, but lately the claim feels more like lip service.
As my colleagues -- Orlando Weekly copy editor Deb Berry and art director J. J. Marley -- and I approach the rally, we are awestruck by the sheer numbers gathered at the Walt Disney Amphitheater at Lake Eola Park. It's an ocean of red, white and blue clothing on white skin; more than 2,000 God-fearing, Bush-loving Americans. By contrast, a Ralph Nader rally in Tampa last year with lefty heavy-hitters like Patti Smith, Jello Biafra and Michael Moore drew 6,000 after weeks of intense promotion. The Rally for America came together in a week with no high-profile speakers. These are the people Burke calls "the silent majority" and "mainstream America." The Rally for America, I realize, is not something to be dismissed.
Pacifists are pussies
We settle into position on the south side of the amphitheater just as Burke takes to the podium. He starts by reiterating what he told me the day before: This rally is pro-America, not pro-war.
"Does anyone want war?" he asks.
"No!" the crowd roars.
That's not the message I'm getting by reading the homemade signs people have brought along. The nuggets of wisdom include: "Pacifists are pussies," "I'd rather be dead than a red or a rag head," "Screw France," "Use your emergency duct tape to gag Jacques Chirac" and "America: Love it or leave it." Dozens more signs praise Bush or exhort him to abandon the United Nations.
At first, the three of us consider raising hell. But we decide against it. Quite frankly, we're scared. The rhetoric, the sign-waiving and the dirty looks when we make comments serve notice that dissent is not appreciated, and if we make a scene, security will probably escort us away. Or worse.
"I truly respect the rights of the anti-war protestors," Burke tells the throngs. "But I've noticed a common thread among some of these protests. It's not so much anti-war as it is anti-American. There's only so much negative rhetoric about our country I can stomach before I need to make my voice heard!"
The crowd chants "U-S-A! U-S-A!" and waves their flags high.
A Republican America
Pete Barr Sr. is the first guest speaker of the afternoon. By now, nearly a half dozen credible people have come forward separately accusing him of using racial and sexist slurs. That doesn't make him any less popular with this crowd.
Burke -- a Barr supporter -- notes happily that he invited both candidates, but only Barr showed up. As he walks to the podium, the crowd gives him a standing ovation.
Not terribly surprising given the makeup of the audience. Of the 2,000-plus here, I count 20 blacks, including a singer, a speaker on stage and two janitorial staffers. (The black speaker, Gulf War vet Barbara Birch, starts her talk by saying: "I'm one of Shannon Burke's seven black listeners.") I saw no Asians or Arabs, and few Hispanics. About half of the crowd is elderly or military veterans; the rest are mostly suburbanites with flag-waving children in tow.
Any mention of the Almighty is met with a chorus of "Praise God!" and "Amen!" Indeed, the afternoon's religious overtones are hard to ignore.
Michael Curran, a suit-and-tie wearing retired army-intelligence officer who served in Gulf War I, expounds on the God-and-country theme. "I was born an American child. I remember waking up in a secure bed, and eating breakfast with my family. I remember walking to school with my friends and my brother, starting the day with the Pledge of Allegiance. I said Ã?Under God!'" The crowd goes wild. "Words meant so many different things back then," he continues. "Race was what we did on the way to the playground, and it was all-inclusive. Color was how we picked our bicycles, not our friends. Religion was what we practiced with our family and community, it was never a defendant in a lawsuit. The hyphen was a form of punctuation, not identification ... We have the dream team of foreign policy in Washington right now. They are doing what is right, while a small contingent tries to make it look wrong."
That's when it hits me: Being an American means being a Republican.
Follow the leader
I'm amazed at how orderly the rally runs. No one is unruly. Everyone is quiet and respectful during speeches, and all cheer loudly when cued to do so. In fact they sing on cue, they pledge allegiance on cue and they praise the Lord on cue.
It feels like Orwellian groupthink. Which isn't to say they're brainwashed. Rather, these people share a very cohesive worldview rooted in religious principles and black-and-white notions of right and wrong, good and evil.
The left, of course, is more fragmented. There is no single, unifying idea or concept. We ask questions that can't be answered, and distrust our government leaders. We're still struggling to find a voice in the war debate. We don't trust Bush, and we don't like war as a rule, but we can't agree if war is OK under U.N. auspices, or OK if Saddam refuses to comply with U.N. inspectors, or never OK. And some lefties talk about Bush in the sort of conspiratorial tones that serve primarily to rally the right.
The right has successfully injected a moral element into the war debate: Peace protestors aren't just wrong; they're immoral and godless too. And they support terrorists. As one sign put it: "You're either with us or you're a terrorist."
Seminole Community College student Johnathon Cardenas, a born-again conservative who saw the light after Sept. 11, takes the stage near the end of the rally, accusing peace protestors of crossing the line from "honest dissent" into something more sinister. The crowd jumps to its feet and waves the flag. Cardenas wonders whether liberals are forcing the president to divulge information on Iraq that should remain classified. In other words, Americans should stop asking so many damn questions.
Another observation: Staking out a conservative stance on the war is easy; simply trust your leaders to do the right thing. The administration gets the CIA briefings and deals with the diplomats and the Pentagon, so they know better than us laypersons how to handle a rogue nation. Seeking peace, on the other hand, requires asking tough questions -- many of which don't come with easy answers.
It's pretty easy to get caught up in the emotion and camaraderie of the Rally for America. In the middle of one speech, a woman behind us erupts in a bout of patriotic fury: "Send my son!" she screams. "Send my son over there!"
As the rally breaks up, we decide it's time to ask rally-goers a few questions. We approach a burly, scruffy man clad in an anti-U.N. T-shirt and jeans. At first the conversation is cordial: "Do you support the war?" Deb Berry asks.
"You definitely support the war?"
"We support our country."
"So you're pro-war?"
"How do you feel about Iraqi children being bombed and killed?"
Herein things get ugly. An elderly man passing by interjects: "That's a bad business."
"That would be unfortunate," adds the anti-U.N. man.
"So how do you feel about that?" Berry asks. "It would be unfortunate, but ..."
She's cut off by scowling, surly man who rushes our conversation, points his finger in Berry's face, yelling, "I live with guilt about it every day of my life!"
The man invades Berry's space in a physically threatening manner. She warns him, "You need to get your finger..."
The man moves even closer, then Berry calls to nearby O.P.D., "Officer!"
The man backs off, throwing his hands in the air. "I didn't touch you, ma'am."
"Get away from me right now," Berry says. "I'm not talking to you."
Anti-U.N. man continues. "There's collateral damage in any war."
Berry: "So you would consider `dead Iraqi children` collateral damage then?"
"There's always collateral damage in any war."
Berry: "Do you feel this war is absolutely necessary? Is there any other way we can handle Saddam Hussein?"
Anti-U.N. man: "Get us out the of the U.N."
Berry: "How would you feel about a multilateral police action to remove Saddam Hussein from power and try him for crimes against humanity?
The old man pipes in: "I don't believe in the United Nations. It's a warmaking power, it's a totalitarian government. It's staffed, all the way to the lowest person in it, by the communist internationale, and why our government supports it is a big question."
Our next conversation is with a Vietnam vet. "Do you believe this war is necessary?" I ask.
"I believe that inhumane acts of terrorists and people who support them need to be" -- he pauses reflectively for several seconds, searching for the right word -- "disarmed."
Asked about civilian deaths, he responds, "They die in every war."
Next we buttonhole a soccer mom.
"We are here today because we love America and we want to show it," she says. "We think that we need to protect ourselves, defend ourselves, defend our freedom, defend America forever! And we need to start now!"
And what of civilian casualties, we ask her.
"Well, you know what? America `is` the free-est country in the world, and `has` the best military in the world. We take so much responsibility and so much care about bombing what we need to bomb and no one else."
"So you think there will be no collateral damage then?"
"I seriously doubt it."
Drag the people along
We walk to a nearby pub to ponder the afternoon's events. Dark storm clouds move toward downtown. Maybe it's an omen, Berry says.
I wonder aloud how Burke's listeners will respond to this story -- despite their professed open-mindedness, I wonder how many would take offense to a critical examination of their "pro-America" rally.
I don't even have to wait until we publish to get my answer.
On Feb. 24 I get the following e-mail from attendee Claudia Henneberry: "Who was the wacko you sent out to OUR RALLY FOR AMERICA on Saturday, Feb. 22? I am an 8th-generation American. My father was an officer in the Navy during WWII. How dare ANYONE who lives in this country right now and benefits from the freedom that so many people have died to sustain since 1775 bash the goodness this country stands for!"
Her e-mail reminds me of a quote from Hermann Goering I recently saw as a sign-off on a colleague's e-mail. Goering served as Adolph Hitler's second-in-command in World War II Germany and founded the Gestapo.
Months before his death, during a break from the Nuremberg trials, he said something to a German-speaking psychologist that rings true today: Of course the people don't want war ... But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship ...Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger. It works the same way in any country.