War Talk Stirs Many Moods, and Fears

Times Staff Writer

With the United States poised to invade Iraq, the mood of Americans in towns and cities across the land varied from moral outrage to patriotic resolve, from nervous anticipation to ho-hum nonchalance.

In the backdrop of this civic kaleidoscope lurked a more subtle unease -- an emotion born on Sept. 11 and transformed into a new vigilance. Among the concerns voiced by citizens: What unseen terror will arise from this war? What tower will fall next? Which American citizen will be kidnapped or ambushed abroad?

The majority of Americans seem to support President Bush, with reservations. A CNN/USA Today Gallup poll taken immediately after his speech Monday night found 66% of Americans approved of the president's decision to go to war, but only a slight majority -- 53% -- believed the war would lead to a safer America.

"We put this ball in motion 10 years ago" during the Persian Gulf War, said Paula Dylan, 32, a stay-at-home mother in the small Navy town of Bremerton, 15 miles west of Seattle. "If we had finished it then, maybe a lot of people who've died ... would still be alive. I don't think we should wait any longer."

Dylan's sentiments echoed those of many in Bremerton and the nearby Ft. Lewis, but the farther you traveled from military communities, into Seattle and other major cities across the country, the opinions became more varied, more ambiguous, and in some instances, more hostile toward the government.

"There's no question in my mind Iraq is in terrible shape, that there've been injustices against the Iraqi people," said Mitchell Fox, a 44-year-old executive for a Seattle foundation. "But military might is not a permanent solution. It usually begets something worse. How this war shakes out in the end is anybody's guess."

Fox alluded to the possibility that an American victory could foment an uprising of the Islamic world, specifically the far-flung radical groups that could strike anywhere.

Victory over Baghdad, he implied, could lead to years of terrorist acts globally.

From the gray drizzle of the Puget Sound to the overcast skies of Kirkwood, Mo., near St. Louis, Marti Wurst, 47, a retired teacher and mother of three, said war was necessary so that Americans could "stop living in terror."

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein "has been given enough time to destroy his missiles, his weapons, his gases," Wurst said. "We have to clean this up now. I don't want my sons to have to clean it up in 10 years."

Joshua Matthews, 21, was gathering shopping carts outside a Lowe's home-improvement store. He has no recollection of the Persian Gulf War, and like many, feels torn.

He's "fed up" with Hussein and thinks it's time to act, yet he dreads the pain war would bring.

"You hear about all these awful things" in wartime, Matthews said, "and all of a sudden you're going to be living through one. It's a scary thing."

A short distance away in the Lowe's parking lot, John Decker, 23, was setting up a display of strawberry plants, as blithely detached from the affairs of the world as one can be.

News, he said, stressed him so he avoided it. As for the war, he said, "I don't pay much attention." Decker said that if some major attack were to happen in Kirkwood, one couldn't prepare for that sort of thing anyway, so why worry?

Great numbers of Americans, like Decker, see no connection to the war with their own lives, a result, many commentators have said, of living in a prosperous country buffered by two immense oceans and protected by a powerful military.

At the Kodak Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, the talk was about the upcoming Academy Awards. Tourists sipped lattes and lounged on tables, hoping to glimpse a celebrity.

Tamela Coffman, a student from Phoenix on her way to Disneyland, said she hadn't given much thought to the war, but said she had confidence American leaders were making "the right decision" and the military would "protect us."

Coffman's companion, Rob Richards, said he refused to let a possible war "alter" his life.

From the nonchalant to the militant, Robert Luna of Anaheim staged a one-man protest in downtown Santa Ana. In his right hand, he held a poster depicting what he called the "purveyors of paranoia": Bush and his Cabinet. In his left, he grasped a picture of a wounded dove.

"I'm not against the president," Luna said. "I'm against the war. I'm against the fact that a lot of young people on both sides are going to die."

David Smedley of Brea was equally adamant, saying that he believed Bush is lying to the American people: "One minute we're going after [Osama] bin Laden, now we're going after Saddam."

Across the Southwest, in the heart of Oklahoma City, rain splashed on the glass bases of the 168 chairs memorializing those killed in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building.

Tony McMillan, 27, a lifelong resident, was tending bar at the nearby Westin Hotel when the bomb went off. He remembered the way it rumbled through his chest. Since then, for many Oklahomans, terrorism stopped being a mere abstraction.

To McMillan, the threat comes from inside the country -- as proved by home-grown Timothy J. McVeigh, who was convicted and executed for the bombing -- as well as outside, from Islamic radicals who will want to avenge an American takeover of Iraq.

"The hatred for us will grow," McMillan said. "I don't think there's any question terrorism will increase in this country."

Perhaps no place is that sentiment felt more deeply and manifested more vigilantly than in New York City.

Blocks from the vacant space where the World Trade Center once stood, officials this week unveiled Operation Atlas, a citywide security plan that, in part, means more police officers patrolling the streets. They're seen wearing their helmets and black vests in high-profile places.

During a lunch hour Tuesday, Jacqueline McKinney and Greta Steward, friends and co-workers at a consulting firm, strolled in Times Square under a bright afternoon sun. News of the impending war trailed across one of the many Jumbotrons in the square.

The two said they were going to pick up emergency supplies after work.

"It really hit us," said McKinney. "I said, 'We really should go out and get some canned food, let's get some bottled water, let's have some cash on hand.' "

Steward's mind was on an exit strategy in case the worst happened, such as another attack on New York City: "I'm mapping out my quickest route to the Canadian border and hope they don't keep Americans out."

A short distance away, outside the Rockefeller Center, Alvin and Lenore Weseley, retired physicians from Manhattan's Upper East Side, alternately enjoyed the sun and decried the war.

"People are going to die for what reason?" Alvin Weseley asked. "Because we've got an idiot in Iraq? C'mon! That's no reason!"

Lenore Weseley said she's opposed to a "preemptive war" but said she would feel a lot better if America had the support of the rest of the world. There is no consensus because it's clear that diplomatic options are still available, she said. Bush and his people are saying war is the last resort, but "at this point," she said, "I don't think it is."

The great mass of the "unconvinced" are dispersed throughout the country, gathering in peace demonstrations, opining over beers and sometimes yelling at the television.

Accountant Dennis Johnson, across the continent from the Weseleys, in his office north of Seattle, said he is "disgusted" by the thought of war, but that he, like tens of millions of Americans, will be glued to the television. It will be, like the Gulf War, a TV production, with titles and music scores.

"I'm not nervous at all," he said. "We live in a cocoon. Who would target us?"

Johnson said he's just going to lean back in his favorite chair, click the remote control to MSNBC, and simply watch the show unfold.


Times staff writers Scott Gold, Errin Haines, Thomas S. Mulligan, Stephanie Simon, Joy L. Woodson, and researcher Lynn Marshall contributed to this report.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday March 20, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction War talk -- In a Section A article Wednesday about the mood of the country, Greta Stewart's name was incorrectly spelled Greta Steward. A caption for a picture that ran with the story incorrectly spelled Breo Vazquez's first name as Preo.
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