The courage to vote

Posted: Jan 29, 2005 12:00 AM

"No arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women." - Ronald Reagan

Like most Americans, I've never had to be brave to vote. I just show up at the polls, negotiate the ballot, grab an "I voted" sticker and drive home satisfied that the world will continue to turn on its axis in the usual way.

Piece of cake, democracy.

Then again, not really. As I was pondering the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq - and wondering whether I'd have the courage to vote under such circumstances - I was reminded that not so long ago one group of Americans had to be that brave.

It was just 40 years ago in the United States that many African-Americans were prevented from voting and some killed for trying, as were whites who tried to help them. It was only after numerous acts of violence and, yes, terrorism against blacks that the 1965 Voting Rights Act passed.

Imagine that.

In Iraq, terrorists and insurgents loyal to the former Baathist regime try to terrorize men and women who wish only to exercise their right to control their own destiny. In the South of the 1960s, terrorists loyal to segregation and Jim Crow hid behind white sheets while they burned crosses and terrorized blacks who wanted only to control their own destinies. They behead; we lynched.

Imagine that.

It's interesting that when suicide bombers blow up a building and kill innocents in Iraq, we know to call it terrorism. When bombers detonated their evil in a Birmingham, Ala., church, killing four little girls, that, too, was terrorism. It was also terrorism when members of the Ku Klux Klan kidnapped and murdered three voting-rights activists in Philadelphia, Miss.

There is at this historic juncture a certain poetic symmetry as events unfold. On the eve of free elections in Iraq, our own history is circling back on itself. Just a couple of weeks ago, former KKK leader Edgar Ray Killen, 80, the man accused of orchestrating the 1964 murders of civil-rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, was indicted and faces trial March 28.

Forty years. Justice is not always swift, nor is the march to freedom easy. Democracy, as we seem to relearn each election season, is hard, messy work. So that witnessing the birth of democracy in Iraq, counting the painful contractions from afar, is both breathtaking and awesome.

I imagine that Iraqis walking to the polls Sunday - anticipating the possibility of violence, a car bomb or a stray bullet - must feel what American marchers, black and white, felt on March 7, 1965, as they started across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., toward the state capitol in Montgomery.

Like today's Iraqis, all they wanted was to vote. They, too, must have felt their stomachs knot, knowing that armed state troopers at any moment might rain violence on their unprotected heads. Which, of course, they did. Insurgents in Iraq; state-sanctioned terror in America. We have seen this before.

We've come a long way.

 And so have Iraqis. In less than two years, they've been invaded, liberated, occupied and now face their first election with some 7,000 candidates and 111 political parties. Americans can follow the election through the a team of Iraqi bloggers, who will be reporting real-time from the ground, thanks to Jim Hake and his Spirit of America, a nonprofit, nonpolitical charity that donates money and resources to advance democracy.

Working with Friends of Democracy in Iraq, Hake has recruited some 15 Iraqis - including journalists, a naval officer, students and a psychiatrist - who will be blogging from different cities and provinces at the Friends of Democracy site ( I, for one, will be riveted.

Whether or not one agrees with the war that brought Iraq to this point, no American can watch these proceedings without wonder and respect. We've been there. We've had our own revolutions and our own demons to pursue. More than anyone else on the planet, we should be cheering them on.

I don't know how those Iraqi men and women, some of whom reportedly have sworn a last will and testament in preparation to vote, will make the trek from their homes to the polls. Just as I don't know how those marchers in Selma made it across the bridge with their heads split and their shirts bloody.

But they did.

Here's hoping Iraqis will, too.