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The Mood in New York

Kate Monahan is a New Zealander living and working in New York.

On the streets and in our minds, the war in Iraq is affecting New Yorkers. Although statistics show that over 50% of Americans support the war, almost everyone I talk to is against it. Like New Zealanders, most people here hope that the war will end quickly and the loss of life will be minimal. Here, as overseas, hundreds-of-thousands have protested against the morality and legality of this war. This week there have been numerous anti-war sit-ins and protest marches in New York, as well as several rallies in support of the war and the allied troops fighting in Iraq.

The signs of conflict are not only in the differing views that have spilled out onto the streets of New York. The signs of conflict in Iraq are represented in the heightened level of security - cops on every corner, more fire drills at work, small but significant changes to our daily lives.

Riot police in bulletproof jackets with guns stand outside where I work at Rockefeller Center. They are supposed to make us feel more secure, but I only feel uneasy. The skies over Manhattan are now routinely patrolled by the growl of fighter jets - some of them scream overhead and I catch myself remembering that terrible September day a year and a half ago. We are all on edge, not knowing how the fallout of war will effect us. I try to walk to work when I can, in case there is a gas attack or bomb on the subway. Some of my coworkers wear sneakers just in case they have to walk hours home to Queens or Connecticut like we did on 9/11. Most of us have contingency plans, we know were our fire exits are and where we will meet up with friends and family if "anything happens." It might feel surreal anywhere else - even friends from LA can feel the increase in tension here - since 9/11, even loud thunder makes New York office workers edgy.

The fear that an act of terrorism could happen again in New York or anywhere in the world is supposedly the key motivation for the current war in Iraq. The Bush administration asserts that Saddam Hussein has biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, and may use them against us. I don't doubt that he has them, hidden somewhere, as he has used them before against the Kurds and his own people. As events in Bali show, not even Australians and New Zealanders, at the bottom of the world, are safe from the terrorist's deadly threat.

While New Yorkers would never want another 9/11, the city is divided about the legitimacy of this war on Iraq. Surely America's actions in Iraq today are fuel for tomorrow's youthful vengeance? Is Bush being brave, or foolish - safeguarding the world from future terrorism and nuclear holocaust at the hands of a madman, or is he creating the climate for future conflict? Is the agenda selfish to America's interests in oil in the region, or is it bold and just - bringing democracy and liberty to a terrorized people, and stability to the Middle East? These are the questions that we have been debating over office water-coolers, and in the streets of the city. There are too many questions and caveats - but the feeling here, as overseas, is that the Bush administration rushed into war too soon and the cost will be high - for the young soldiers, for the Iraqi civilians, and for future generations of Americans that will be the targets of renewed terrorist fanaticism.

Of course, we all know that Bush and his administration have been too gun-ho for many countries - the proverbial cowboy strapped atop of his missile - and that international feelings of good will towards the US after 9/11 has all but dissipated. Many here are shocked by their own government's arrogance and are angry that the war is being done in their name - most people I know are vehemently against it.

Protests that have rocked the streets and towns across the country clearly show a strong movement of Americans that oppose the war. National coalitions such as United for Peace and Justice, Win Without War, and International Answer have rallied people through e-mail lists, and organized massive protests in more than 2,400 cities across the country. On Saturday the 22nd March, over 200,000 people marched in an anti-war procession that covered almost 40 blocks, from Times Square, to Washington Square Park.

There is much compassion and outrage that innocent Iraqi civilians are being killed in bombings, and in the disease and poverty that may stem from the invasions. One protestor carried a doll, representing a dead Iraqi child with a sign around his neck "We Mourn Iraq's Children." There were many signs on this theme: "We mourn democracy" and other signs: "Not in my name" and "No blood for oil."

There is a small group that see anti-war protesters as anti-American and unpatriotic. Another sign read "Traitors. Have you forgotten 9/11? Support our troops." Democracy allows for the freedom of speech, and the freedom to protest is a right that some say the Iraqis do not have. In Iraq we would have our tongues cut out, or our uncles and fathers would be beaten and killed, or we would be boiled alive in acid, or raped, for disagreeing with the president and the government. Many believe that the troops in Iraq are fighting to give Iraqis those same democratic rights - to convene and debate and present dissenting views, without the fear of torture or execution - so there is irony evident in the anti-war protests for those that support the war.

Many of the young American and British soldiers are 19 or 20 years old - the same age as my brother, a Waikato University student. I think of him and imagine how strange and horrific it must be to be that young and to be involved in war, whatever side you are on. How would he feel, to be there amongst the sand dunes? New Zealand has the luxury of isolation and distance, and does not need to get involved in protecting the world from terrorism, since it is not a major target. We are lucky to be far away from all this in New Zealand - would our feelings towards the war in Iraq and Bush change if we were directly in the terrorist's line of vision? War is madness, and as the TV clearly shows, often pure hell. With recent news of troops taken prisoner, paraded on television, and executed, or blown up by civilian suicide bombers, the opposition to the war is growing.

Whether you are pro-peace, or pro-troops, everyone is beginning to be of the same mind - that this war needs to finish as soon as possible, with as few civilian casualties as possible, the troops need to come back home, and humanitarian aid needs to flow into Iraq. As the war progresses, it is becoming clear that the war and the death-count is going to be larger than anticipated.

Meanwhile, we will continue to protest and prepare our disaster kits, argue and feel angry and sad and confused. Unlike some of the protestors, I don't believe there is a clear good or bad, right or wrong, just a horrible gray area where hope and idealism meets fear and the bloodshed of war, as confusing and disorientating as a cloudy dust storm over Baghdad. Even when the storm is over, the fallout of the war in Iraq is going to continue for years and generations to come.