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By Frank Thomas Croisdale

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

As the war drums continue to beat ever loudly for an American assault on Iraq, actions in two cities -- half a world apart -- illustrate the promise of democracy and the dangers of a system void of checks and balances for those in power.

Guilderland, N.Y. is an affluent suburb of the state capital, Albany. I worked in Guilderland for three years in the late '80s and found the town to be a wonderful blend of Big Apple chic and old-world charm. At that time, the Crossgates Mall had recently been built and quickly became the main gathering place for local denizens.

On March 3, Stephen and Roger Downs were approached by Crossgates Mall security guards and asked to remove their T-shirts or leave the mall immediately.

Stephen refused and the guards called the police.

Downs was arrested and charged with trespassing.

No big deal, right?

Happens all the time.

The two Downs boys were probably belligerent teen-agers, wearing obscenity-spewing T-shirts, who were disturbing the serenity of the mall.

If only it were that simple.

Stephen Downs is 61 years old.

His son Roger is 31.

Stephen Downs is a lawyer with the state Commission on Judicial Conduct. He is also a Peace Corps alum. His background as an enlistee in the branch of government service that Jack built probably goes a long way in explaining why Stephen Downs was wearing his T-shirt in the Crossgates Mall on March 3.

The shirt read "Give Peace a Chance" on one side and "Peace on Earth" on the other. That's it. Really.

According to a number of sources, the Downses were not being disruptive in any way. They simply walked through the mall wearing their T-shirts.

By the way, they had just purchased the T-shirts from a store in the mall, where they had them custom printed.

The mall's owner, Pyramid Mall Management, stated that the mall is private property and that they reserve the right to remove anybody without having to justify their reasoning.

What has America come to when peace slogans can't be displayed publicly?

It would be unfair to paint Downs' actions as unsupportive of the president or the federal government.

Many who listened to President Bush's press conference last Thursday agreed with his resolve to remove Saddam Hussein from office, while still praying for peace to prevail before bombs are launched and lives extinguished.

Locally, who could watch the tearful goodbyes between members of the 914th Airlift Wing and their families and not wish that Iraq had disarmed long before it all came to this?

Should some or all of these brave men and women come home in body bags, who among us wants to look into the eyes of their children -- many too young to comprehend the horror of war -- and tell them that there was no merit in the sentiment to "give peace a chance"?

On March 6, Robert Congel, CEO for Pyramid Mall Management, announced that the charges against Stephen Downs had been dropped.

No explanation was given and no further details were divulged.

Congel's lack of speech was not met with silence, however. The drums of war rose steadily to fill the void.

A half a world away, the people of Kuwait City await the impending war with much fear and uncertainty.

Currently, over 100,000 U.S. and British soldiers are stationed in the northern part of Kuwait. Each member of the military has been outfitted with equipment, such as gas masks and respirators, designed to protect against chemical and biological attacks. Most of the citizens of Kuwait have no such equipment.

Ian Day, a chemical and biological weapons specialist, was quoted as saying, "They (Kuwaitis) don't seem to understand the hazard that is facing them at the present time. They don't understand that this type of hazard -- biological, especially -- will travel down this wind line and affect the people in (Kuwait City)."

Day estimates that, should Saddam Hussein unleash anthrax on Kuwait City, 100,000 people could be killed in less than 24 hours.

"Without a respirator, your chance for survival in the release area is not very good," Day said.

Kuwait has 2.2 million citizens and only 200,000 respirators.

Abdullah Essa is a Kuwaiti official who balances his desire to see Hussein deposed with his inherent need to protect his children.

"All the Kuwaitis want to change the (Iraqi) regime. We've had enough of the last 12 years," Essa told the Rocky Mountain News.

Essa said that his son's English school has been nearly shut down because the British instructors have all been advised to vacate the war zone.

"He keeps asking me, 'Papa, when are we going to finish Saddam?'" said Essa. "Six or seven nights ago, he woke me up at midnight. The (children) have an idea something is going to happen."

While the children of Kuwait City lie awake at night in fear of the coming war, the adults have set siege on the city's banking institutions. During Desert Storm, the banks of Kuwait closed without warning and many were left without adequate funds to feed and house themselves. Many now are desperately trying to convert their money into American dollars or the Euro. Most are afraid that the value of the Kuwaiti currency will collapse when war breaks out in the region.

There can be no doubt that the citizens of Kuwait have tired of living in fear of Saddam Hussein.

While most are happy to see America once again rise to their aid, they do ask an immediate favor of us.

What the people of Kuwait City want more than anything is to have the uncertainty of what's going to happen next lifted from them.

"Nobody wants war. How come war?" asks Syrian immigrant Ahmad Ayoub. "But I want to know which way it will go. If war, OK, tell me. If no war, OK, tell me."

His plea is no more unreasonable than was that of Stephen Downs when he asked, why not give peace a chance?

One of the truest lessons of war is that it unites people of common thread and need just as surely as it divides those of opposing thoughts and desires.

As the drums of war beat steadily louder, peace is the quiet refrain in a tale of two cities.

Frank Thomas Croisdale is a Contributing Editor at the Niagara Falls Reporter. You can write him at NFReporter@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 11 2003