I spent the afternoon that the war in Iraq started in a mosque in Paris. When the news of the invasion broke, my group, taking tea in the café within the compound, fled. We had already tried to shed our American accents—tensions had been running high for the previous months, as a Metro bioterror scare and Colin Powell’s menacing presentation before the UN unfolded, and US plans for war in Iraq took on a dreadful, material heft.
As an exchange student in one of the nations that most strenuously opposed the war, I was often called upon to explain America’s determination to take out Saddam Hussein. I never did a very good job, in part because my questioners were frequently unbending, and in part because I didn’t think America was serious. The whole gambit stank to high heaven. I literally didn’t know anyone who supported the war, and so, with a “c'est rien," I assumed that sanity would prevail—even at the last minute.
I was wrong. When, in the days before the offensive began, it became clear that war was imminent, I attended a number of protests around the city—as if that might somehow stop the war machine. It did not—but the public rally at the Bastille brought out tens of thousands of French peaceniks, young and old, of all colors and stations in life. It was angry, but orderly. The images I saw of other rallies across Europe presented a similar diversity and unity of opposition to the war. How sad, I thought, chanting “Non à la Busherie!” that unengaged Americans simply didn’t get the romance of revolution. We would never assemble that kind of crowd for anything other than a sporting event.
I was wrong there, too. The remarkable thing about this campaign season was seeing millions of supposedly apolitical Americans venture out of their homes and ideologies, into the civic space reserved by our founders for open dissent. In crowds that packed basements and arenas and flooded streets around the country, we chose a new path—and we changed our minds about a lot of old American myths in the process. And while the nation is currently in an enormous mess, mainly of our own creation, we are eager to unmask our own eyes, and we have a new president who is committed to transparency and the free circulation of ideas. I admire his predilection for town hall meetings where he takes questions from unscreened audiences. If we’d had a similar leader this time in 2002, not only would the 4,258 lives lost in Iraq remain whole, I might have been able to sit, that day, and drink my tea in peace.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.