Thousands turned out to protest the war in Iraq on its fourth anniversary, not only in Washington but also in cities scattered across the country. Yet their impact was decidedly low-key. When half a million angry demonstrators filled the Mall on Nov. 15, 1969, to demand an end to the war in Vietnam, the nation could not help but take notice. A whiff of something momentous was in the air. Anti-war Americans today seem no less angry, but their protests don't get much traction. It's a different country now.
There's no draft, of course, and this may go a long way toward explaining why the turnouts have not been more momentous. Plenty of people make this argument; it's cynical, but probably has some truth to it.
Many of the protesters, naturally, blame the press for not making more of what they do. There might be something to that, too - there certainly was in the early going. But when collective Washington simply shrugs off the demonstrations, that's saying something, and the press picks up on it. Richard Nixon acted as though he believed his presidency was threatened by the outpouring of anger on the streets; President Bush gives no sign of even noticing that anyone's upset. That makes it a much less dramatic confrontation, and indeed less consequential.
The press isn't what it once was, either. Americans couldn't tune out Vietnam. They didn't have YouTube or Xbox or the Food Channel or the iPod. The news mattered, and politics mattered. Does anybody still have the time or energy for that?
The Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, the pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Bolton Hill and a participant in a Christian anti-war service last week at the National Cathedral, argues that times like these demand leadership, which has been noticeably lacking in Congress, in the church and in society at large.
There is no shortage of prominent critics of the war, but no one has quite articulated the feelings of bafflement and disgust of the two-thirds of Americans who now wish the war had never happened. No one has taken charge in that somewhat mysterious and unpremeditated way by which genuine leaders are made.
It's no mystery, though, that most Americans want out. It's what put the Democrats in power on Capitol Hill. Maybe the protests aren't making bigger waves because the point they're trying to make is so obvious. Maybe too many people believe that Congress already knows what to do.
Or perhaps some people remember that as momentous as November 1969 felt at the time, American participation in Vietnam had four long years still to go. Are public protests exercises in futility? Is hiring a lobbyist the only way to redress a grievance in the 21st century? That's disturbing if it's true, and it would be just one more example of the way this country has gone so badly off track.