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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Extinguish torch before someone gets burned

April 9, 2008

San Francisco Chronicle
Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Planned torch route. Chronicle Graphic Jiang Xiaoyu, left, executive
vice president of the Beiji... Workers set up barriers at the
Embarcadero Plaza, where O... Workers set up the stage at the
Embarcadero Plaza, where ...

Let's face it, the reaction to the Olympic torch relay for the Beijing
Olympic Games is getting worse, not better. So far there have been riots
in Paris and police clashes in London. On Wednesday, the Olympic torch
will be in San Francisco, and the entire city is anticipating the worst.
Is there anyone who isn't dreading the possibility of something awful
happening?

It seems there is no way out. But there is.

Cancel the torch tour.

Not just the San Francisco portion, all of it. The tipping point came on
Monday when Tove Paule, the head of the Norwegian Olympic Committee,
called for the tour to be stopped.

"Should violent demonstrations occur in all the places the torch relay
is visiting," she said, "it is not a positive thing. It's a shame,
because the athletic achievements we will see will disappear in the
politics."

She's right.

Understand, there is no bigger fan of the Olympic Games than me. I've
been to eight of them and get a lump in my throat at every Opening and
Closing Ceremony. I would be totally against canceling the Beijing
Games, or a boycott by the United States. I don't even think the
Americans should boycott the Opening Ceremony.

But this torch run is nothing more than a PR stunt invented to build
interest in the Games. And this year it has gone wrong. Why stubbornly
cling to the idea of carrying a flaming stick through the streets, when
it only serves to ignite confrontation?

Protesters hope to pressure China into addressing its human rights
record. But is anyone in China paying attention?

Paule was in Beijing during the London protests and said that as soon as
they began, Chinese television cut the signal and the televisions went
black.

And it isn't likely that things will get better after the torch leaves
here. There are reports of problems in India, where Tibetan protesters
have already attacked the Chinese Embassy and Indian authorities have
shortened the planned route.

And just wait until the torch makes it way to Tibet. Think there might
be a problem or two there?

Look, Monday's protest on the Golden Gate Bridge was about as effective
and safe as you are going to see. On a sun-splashed San Francisco day,
three climbers scaled cables on the Golden Gate Bridge, unfurled two
banners with the precision of an America's Cup crew, then came down
peacefully to turn themselves over to authorities.

Given the scenic backdrop of one of the most famous bridges in the
world, the San Francisco protesters knew that their "Free Tibet" banner
was going to be broadcast on every news show in the country.

"The idea is to get the message out, but make sure it is clear that this
is not an extreme or violent action," said Lhadon Tethong, a native
Tibetan who lives in New York and traveled to San Francisco to
coordinate media coverage for Team Tibet. "Our intention was not to
massively tie up traffic."

And that's great. But as the determined zealots have shown in Paris -
and a day earlier in London - if you are going to have someone trot down
the middle of the road with a burning torch, it is almost impossible to
stop disruptions. Tethong says she was in London in the days leading up
to the Sunday run and personally met many of those planning to protest.

"But when I saw the protesters on TV," she said, "I didn't recognize any
of them."

It is the unmistakable sign of an event that has taken on a life of its
own. Despite all the organization and planning, it is entirely possible
that splinter groups may take over the San Francisco torch run with the
same kind of extreme tactics seen in London and Paris.

" 'Don't touch the runners,' " Tethong says Team Tibet told its
supporters. "It is not about the runners. But whatever else happens is
not in our control."

Of course, you've heard city officials say that San Francisco is ready
for the protests. But officials in London and Paris also were confident.

And frankly, Monday's protest on the bridge didn't do much to build
anyone's confidence about security. Surely there was enough time, as
three people laid out their gear, attached to the cables and hopped up
on the safety railing, for someone to notice that something was amiss.

Luckily, this group was committed to keeping things as calm and peaceful
as possible. Traffic on the bridge was slowed, but not stopped, and
there were no conflicts between the climbers and police.

"When you're not blowing things up," Tethong said, "every once in a
while you have to take your message to the sky."

That's a lofty goal, and one to be applauded. Unfortunately, this
protest has taken on a life of its own. It started as an Olympic flame
but it is turning into a firestorm. Put it out before something
unforgivable happens.

C.W. Nevius' column appears on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. E-mail him
at cwnevius@sfchronicle.com.
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