The people who want to make peace met the people who wage war yesterday. The soldiers won.
An international group of peace activists, trying to turn the tables on the U.S. government, donned some official-looking badges, called themselves a team of international weapons inspectors and tried to "inspect" an Army facility near Baltimore.
The response was not exactly a snappy salute. Facing a driving rain, two counter-protesters who compared the activists to Saddam Hussein and grim-faced military policemen ordering them to cease and desist, the group was forced to turn around about 30 yards from the entrance to the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground.
"They've had their time. We've instructed them to cease. It's time for them to leave," a military official who would not give his name instructed base spokesman George Mercer after Mercer met briefly with the activists and politely told them that they lacked the proper credentials to visit the base. "Go back to your vehicles right now! Let's go!" the unnamed official then yelled at the activists. The group quickly complied.
The delegation of 13 legislators, scientists and academics, from countries including Britain, Italy, Canada and Denmark, insisted that their mission was neither stunt nor show. They said they had accomplished their goal: to protest a possible U.S. war with Iraq by highlighting what they consider the hypocrisy of U.S.-led efforts to force Iraq to relinquish weapons of mass destruction.
"The United States has the largest stockpile of weapons of mass destruction in the world," said Libby Davies, a member of Canada's Parliament. "They need to show that they are living up to the very process they are imposing on Iraq. We don't want a double standard."
She added that she and her colleagues had not really expected to enter the facility, which trains soldiers, tests weapons and researches such areas as protecting soldiers against chemical attacks. "They were trying to be polite, but at the same time, they made it clear they didn't want us to be here," she said. "This was not going to be a confrontation. This was not about civil disobedience. This was about demanding accountability."
Mercer said the military tried to respect the protesters' rights because "this is the United States. People are encouraged to speak their opinions." But he said that letting them on the base was never contemplated. "The security situation is such that nobody can get on unless they have appropriate ID," he said. "You have to have a job here, you have to live here, have a mission here."
The inspection tour was organized by Rooting Out Evil, a Canadian-based coalition of international peace groups. Members flew from Toronto to Washington on Saturday and spoke at First Congregational Church in the District Saturday night before driving to Maryland yesterday.
In a caravan of cars and minivans, they met at a Texaco station near the base before heading down a two-lane road leading to the facility. Two men along the road yelled at them through bullhorns and held up signs such as "Why aren't you in Iraq?" and "We gave peace a chance; we got 9/11."
The delegation barely had time to park a quarter-mile from the entrance and unfurl their white signs saying "Warning: This Site May Contain Weapons of Mass Destruction" when they were approached by Department of Defense Police Capt. Floyd Rose. "You realize we're going to have to turn you around there," he said, pointing to a concrete barrier near the first guard post. He also instructed news crews not to photograph the base entrance.
The group then walked to the barrier, where they spoke briefly with Mercer before being ordered to move back and stop blocking traffic. A brief news conference then ensued by the side of the road before the unnamed military official ordered the group to leave.
Alan Simpson, a British member of Parliament who is leading the antiwar faction of Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party, said he was satisfied with the day's events. Simpson, who said opposition to a war is nearly unanimous in Britain, pointed to the camera crews filming the group's news conference outside a Denny's restaurant.
"It has been effective in getting you guys to come out and cover the issue," he said.