Academic journal article Social Education

Debating War and Peace in Washington Square Park. (Reflections in a Time of Crisis)

Academic journal article Social Education

Debating War and Peace in Washington Square Park. (Reflections in a Time of Crisis)

Article excerpt

NEW YORKERS HAVE NEVER BEEN A SHY LOT. And during the days and weeks that followed the World Trade Center (WTC) disaster, their expressiveness was put on display in makeshift memorials and democracy walls in several of Manhattan's parks, most notably Union Square and Washington Square Park. Here, the relatives and friends of victims posted flyers with the names and photos of their missing loved ones as they hoped against hope that those missing would be found somewhere other than beneath the rabble of the Trade Center. Along with these heartbreaking flyers and candles lit in mourning were thousands of comments that anonymous New Yorkers penned on pieces of canvas, cardboard, paper, and even flags as they tried to make sense of what seemed a senseless act of terror.

As we in New York University's social studies program began to recover from our shock over this tragedy, we sought ways to document this crucial historical moment and to bring its discordant lessons and messages into our classrooms. We gathered and transcribed the comments that were left and posted adjacent to the arch at nearby Washington Square Park, an arch that has traditionally memorialized America's first president, but temporarily became a memorial to those killed on September 11. From this park in Greenwich Village, we used to be able to see the twin towers of the World Trade Center off in the distance to the south. Now, when looking southward from here, we see only smoke and a skyline sadly diminished.

Anger and sadness were the emotions most commonly aired in the handwritten messages at the arch, and these were expressed often through patriotic and religious symbols and phrases. American flags and biblical quotations abounded. At Washington Square, expressions of hatred and intolerance were few but still visible, as this crisis, like almost all war crises in American history, stirred ultra-nationalistic passions. Yet, strikingly, although the media have stressed that Americans spoke with one voice in responding to the attack on America, and although Congress seemed to echo this by granting President Bush a virtual blank check for war, the New Yorkers who wrote in Washington Square were not united in support of a military response to the crisis. Rather than unity, we found among the postings and murals debate after debate on the military option. Some opposed the use of force as a destructive act of vengeance that would yield a continuous and ever-bloody cycle of violence, whereas others argued that only a strong show of force would deter further terrorist attacks on American shores. These two sides argued silently and often politely on canvas and paper, with antiwar and prowar comments penned side by side, correcting and challenging one another.

At first glance, the frequency with which antiwar ideas were expressed at Washington Square seems surprising. After all, the national mood in the wake of the destruction of the WTC was, according to a CBS-New York Times poll, decidedly hawkish, with 92 percent of Americans favoring military retaliation. The strength of sentiment for peace at Washington Square is even more startling when we recall that this park is situated within eye- and earshot of ground zero--many who live nearby saw and heard the hijacked jets, the ambulances, and the fire trucks as they headed to the towers. Most inhaled the smoke (or wore masks to avoid it) and thus had already been living in a war zone (below 14th Street was in fact called a "frozen zone" in the aftermath of September 11, where civilian traffic was temporarily banned).

But one must also remember that the park is in Greenwich Village, a distinctively liberal and historically bohemian section of New York City. The park is surrounded by New York University, whose students, like those on other campuses, are by-and-large idealistic about preserving world peace and worry about being called to war. But it may be an oversimplification to suggest that all the peace sentiments on these posters were a unique product of Greenwich Village. …

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