Breaking Ranks

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  4/06/2003

She grew up the daughter of well-off conservatives, aspiring to be president.

He, the son of a lifelong Democrat from a working-class family, dreamed of becoming a rap star.

Both from New York and bright enough to study at MIT, the two have thoroughly rejected their roots, staking out such opposing positions that the shades of their opinions come only in black or white.

To Aimee Smith, 31, who recently completed a doctorate in material sciences and founded the group Social Justice Cooperative, the United States is the world's chief purveyor of terrorism. She has become one of the city's leading organizers and loudest opponents of the war.

To Presley Cannady, a 23-year-old electrical engineering major who rebuilt the campus's defunct Republican club, the Bush administration has set a righteous course to spread freedom and defeat unrepentant enemies. That's the point he makes as a regular counterprotester at antiwar rallies.

In a time when doubts plague so many people on the nation's latest conflict, Smith and Cannady occupy a lonely, unforgiving ground, where certainty prevails over mixed emotions.

"I'm not someone who doubts what they come to believe," Cannady says. "It's about what the president calls moral clarity. Unlike liberals, who take pride in wrestling with ideas, I would say conservatives like me set a course and find less value in second-guessing ourselves."

No matter how liberal her views, however, Smith doesn't see any ambiguities about the war in Iraq. Without the slightest vacillation, she believes her convictions reflect the truth.

"The US government is responsible for murder and undemocratic regimes around the world," she says, arguing the attacks on Sept. 11 are an understandable case of the "chicken coming home to roost. . . . How can a country responsible for mass graves in Panama and supporting the killings of thousands of Kurds in Turkey be taken seriously when it says it's using force to bring democracy to Iraq?"

Smith and Cannady know each other well, and have sparred frequently, hurling invective everywhere from e-mail and the campus newspaper to public debates and antiwar rallies.

"She says I'm heartless; I say she's crazy," Cannady says. "You could say we have a sort-of friendly disagreement, but it can get heated."

This is how Smith describes their rapport: "I have deep concerns about almost everything he says. I would argue he promotes racism, religious intolerance, sexism, and the might-is-right philosophy."

The two may be fierce ideological opponents, but in many ways, they're opposite sides of the same proverbial coin: both believers rebelling against their parents, both radical activists eager to broadcast their views, both so sure of themselves that compromise could risk injuring their identity.

Raised in the suburbs of Buffalo and Baltimore, her dad a well-paid manager at Bethlehem Steel, Smith got involved in politics at a young age. From her father, a member of New York's Conservative Party, she learned to revere Ronald Reagan. She campaigned against Mario Cuomo, the state's liberal governor, and pored through conservative publications around her home, such as the National Review and The Washington Times.

A one-time homecoming princess and the president of her class, she opposed abortion, supported the death penalty, and promoted tax cuts and trickle-down economics. During the 1988 presidential campaign, her family, strong supporters of George Bush, had their own videotape of the infamous Willie Horton commercial "Justice on Furlough." "I bought into the thousands points of light," she says.

Things began to change for Smith when she chose to attend the California Institute of Technology instead of the Air Force Academy. The engineering school's male-dominated environment opened her eyes, she says, to many of the isms - sexism, racism, ethnocentrism. She began reading Ms. magazine and listening to Pacifica Radio.

Then came Noam Chomsky. After she heard the linguist speak at MIT she began reading his withering books and essays on US foreign policy. "It was the most complete blow to my illusions," she says. "I went from believing in the system to feeling totally disaffected by it to being overwhelmed by its hypocrisy."

For Cannady, a descendant of slaves, the transformation wasn't as dramatic. His dad, who fixes telephones for a living, would sometimes talk politics.

When he was young, the family lived in Queens and read The New York Times, which Cannady now views as an organ of liberalism. Still, like most kids, he preferred sports and music to politics.

Cannady's family moved to upstate New York and he attended a mostly white high school. Though he says he experienced his share of racism, he never saw it as an overwhelming problem.

He began studying martial arts and spent much of his free time listening to hip-hop music. A lot of the music was laced with political and left-leaning messages, but he says he ignored them.

As a sophomore, when he read Toni Morrison's "Beloved," he says, "I found it pretentious and long-winded."

Cannady's political views began to gel his freshman year when he took a political science class at MIT. The United States had started intervening in Kosovo while he was reading "On War," a set of essays on the uses of military force by Carl von Clausewitz.

Watching the war unfold, Cannady says, "I kept asking myself: `What is it about liberals, with their brainy president, that they care more about international institutions than the United States?' The war just wasn't in our national interests."

The Kosovo conflict also prodded Smith to take her already strident views to the next level - street protests. Ironically, though for very different reasons, she arrived at the same position as Cannady.

"I thought it was horrible we were bombing the Serbs," she says. "The level of hypocrisy was too much."

Soon after the mass protests against globalization in Seattle, she founded the Social Justice Cooperative and organized conferences against bio-engineered food in Boston, marches against the World Bank in Washington, and even the smashing of a giant phallic symbol at MIT to protest sexism.

While Smith moved farther to the left, Cannady lurched toward neo-conservatism. For him, abortion equaled murder, the death penalty deterred crime, and Americans shouldn't be inhibited from owning guns.

It was during the 2000 presidential campaign - Smith was a diehard member of the Green Party - that Cannady started organizing Republicans on campus.

He brought in speakers, including the conservative commentator David Horowitz and the Republican Senate candidate Jack E. Robinson and held rallies promoting George W. Bush.

Smith and Cannady, however, didn't really collide until shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. Smith, raised a Catholic, began wearing a hijab, an Islamic headdress, in solidarity with Muslims. After the US bombing began in Afghanistan, she organized antiwar rallies and posted statements on the Web calling it a "criminal war."

Cannady says he knew eight people who died in the World Trade Center and questioned the patriotism of Smith and other protesters of the attacks on Afghanistan.

"This is a war that they started, and we are finishing," he says. "I don't think Aimee is a loyal American. Patriotism isn't only about exercising our rights and freedoms; it's also about defending our values, in words and actions."

Their debate has only intensified since the bombs began falling on Iraq last month.

Cannady, now a senior, has helped organize demonstrations at the French consulate and in support of the troops. Smith, detained for "unauthorized political solicitation" after protesting recently in front of the JFK Federal Building, continues to wear her hijab and has attended nearly all the major antiwar rallies.

Dug into their positions, the two don't see eye-to-eye on anything - except, perhaps, "the bias" of the mainstream media (Smith sees the media as flunkies of right-wing companies; Cannady views it as a perch dominated by elite liberals).

They last saw each other at a recent campus protest. Screaming into a microphone, Smith denounced the war before a crowd of hundreds of MIT students and faculty members. When a fellow activist told the crowd, "I love humanity," Cannady screamed back, "You also love Saddam!" and he and other war supporters held up signs saying "Free Iraq."

Each has attracted about 15 hard-core members to their groups, and both have built networks they say include hundreds of like-minded activists.

Yet, as much as they argue, as much as they try opening the other's mind, neither will concede the other may have a point.

Smith: "I'll never think Presley is right. This is a war of conquest for resources, aiding people supportive of the administration. It's about domination, control, and money."

Cannady: "I respectfully disagree. This is a war to protect the American people and a war of liberation for the Iraqi people."

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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