Conflict of feelings in Takoma Park

Test: The terrorism of Sept. 11 has left many residents of the liberal little city struggling with pacifist philosophies.

October 09, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

TAKOMA PARK - American flags fly alongside homemade signs promoting nonviolence in this quirky, liberal suburb struggling to square its enlightened image with deep-seated hostility toward those who directed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Long a hotbed for peace activism, Takoma Park would have seemed a perfect place to find mass objections to the retaliatory airstrikes unleashed by the United States during the past two days against targets inside Afghanistan. Dozens of residents attended a demonstration last month in Washington in which marchers called for a peaceful response to the terrorism in New York and at the Pentagon.

But anger over the suicide hijackings - a Takoma Park woman was among those killed at the Pentagon - is testing some pacifist philosophies.

In City Council meetings and at a candlelight vigil, local officials have been searching for a response to the Sept. 11 acts befitting the community's status as an artists' enclave with a reputation for progressive, tolerant governance.

It's hard to be rational, though, when one of your own dies at the hands of terrorists. A flowered wreath for Patricia Statz, 41, a former actress who worked at the Pentagon as an Army civilian employee, was laid downtown.

"It's a tough time to be a pacifist and/or a Takoma Parkian," says resident Bob Hirshon, 43, project director at a scientists' trade association in nearby Washington.

"It's pretty hard to `turn the other cheek' when you actually get smacked," Hirshon says. "It reminds me of the TV series Kung Fu, in which David Carradine would preach peace and understanding and then, when push came to shove, start kicking serious butt. Many of us are Kung Fu pacifists."

Like many residents here who describe themselves - as Hirshon does - as having "pacifist tendencies," he says he is withholding judgment on the U.S. bombings until damage assessments determine whether any civilians lost their lives.

Statz was honored by a few hundred residents at a candlelight vigil on the steps of the municipal building Sept. 19. A guitar-led trio played "America the Beautiful" and several other selections - including one, "Song of all Nations," that seemed to perfectly voice the community's humanitarian bent.

Takoma Park has long enjoy- ed a reputation for going its own way. Next to a downtown plaque chronicling the city's history stands a dark metal bust of a now-deceased rooster honored by a citizens' group for being "free-spirited" and bringing "joy to our urban lives."

Nicknamed "The People's Republic of Takoma Park," the city allows residents who are not U.S. citizens to vote in local elections. It deems itself a "Nuclear-Free Zone," prohibiting city contracts with nuclear weapons producers.

"There's a feeling that Takoma Park belongs to the world, not just to Montgomery County," says Jay Levy, 58, who chairs the 18-year-old Nuclear Free Takoma Park Committee. The vanity license plate on his Chrysler Sebring reads, "NOMOWAR."

In August, Levy, a college writing instructor, helped sponsor a photographic display at the municipal building depicting effects of the atomic bomb attacks on Japan during World War II. He was among the Takoma Park residents who attended the Sept. 30 peace demonstration in Washington.

After the terrorist attacks, it was not immediately clear whether Takoma Park would respond, as many other communities have, by flying scores of American flags.

It turned out that the city displayed enough red, white and blue on its tree-lined streets to rival any town its size (about 17,000 residents). But there was some public trepidation about the meaning of the flags.

"When I woke up and saw Takoma Park had put up all of the American flags, I felt happy about that," resident Kathy Fletcher, who works for a fair housing group, said at a recent City Council meeting. "But I also feel that this rising sense of patriotism is potentially dangerous."

Fletcher suggested there is a risk of patriotism turning into xenophobia. She said she hoped residents would not only support the United States in combating terrorists, but adopt "a global view," perhaps by displaying flags symbolizing international peace and cooperation.

Her sentiments seemed welcome on the six-member council. One member, Larry Rubin, said the United States could use the attacks to bond with other nations victimized by terrorism. "If we gain a greater sense of empathy with people who have lived with destruction and war their whole lives, [then] maybe in our quest to bring to justice to the horrible criminals that did this, we will avoid causing more war and destruction," Rubin said.

But other residents, including some involved with liberal causes, have seemed impatient with those suggesting the United States should re-examine its own foreign policies.

"Sometimes in the liberal community, there is an assumption that America is always wrong," says freelance writer Jim Buie, 46.

Buie calls himself "an active Democrat" with many liberal allies.

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