Asked to opine about what I think one or two of the biggest issues facing us in the coming decades might be, I find myself needing to quote Arundhati Roy, in her anti-nuclear polemic "The End of Imagination." Roy writes, "There’s nothing new or original left to be said about nuclear weapons. There can be nothing more humiliating for a writer of fiction to have to do than restate a case that has, over the years, already been made by other people in other parts of the world, and made passionately, eloquently, and knowledgeably."
She goes on to say, however, that she is "prepared to grovel. To humiliate myself abjectly, because in the circumstances, silence would be indefensible." Roy is talking about her need to speak out against the open embrace of nuclear weapons by the country of her birth, India.
When asked to comment about ‘big issues,’ and ‘issues related to war and peace’ – after all, I was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize so I should have ‘big thoughts’ about any number of such ‘big issues’ – as often as not I find myself reduced to feeling more like what Roy describes. What more can be said about a multitude of issues facing this increasing small and overwhelmed planet; issues as wide-ranging as global warming or the HIV crisis or unbridled globalization? People with much more intimate knowledge of these issues have spoken – often and with much wisdom. It feels like there is nothing left to be said.
Yet, I also find myself willing to try on some issues – issues on which I am not even approaching what would be called ‘an expert’ -- because I also feel that, under the circumstances, silence would be indefensible. Along with challenges facing us such as those noted above, one that causes me particular concern is the open embrace by the Bush administration of National Missile Defense (NMD), an issue flirted with – to greater and less degree and in various incarnations -- for approaching two decades now since launched under the Reagan administration and known in common parlance as ‘Star Wars.’
Like many others, I tend to revert to calling NMD the ‘Son of Star Wars’ -- yet I recognize that for many, the mere use of such terminology threatens to reduce the cold-blooded horror of this move to militarize space to something amazing and almost wonderful. ‘Son of Star Wars’ of course conjures up the fabulous high-tech wizardry of that imaginative series of movies; causes one to almost want to be able to believe that this NMD is little more than lasers and ‘good guys’ really just trying to defend us all from the ‘bad guys.’
I hesitate to single it out. After all, my ‘expertise’ is landmines. Don’t I risk minimizing the concern by my display of a lack of intimate knowledge? While I may not be an expert on National Missile Defense and its implications for the militarization of space, it doesn’t take an expert to see how this move fits into the arrogant isolationism of the new administration – and from my experience sometimes it is the least expert questions that are the most difficult to really answer.
We are now being asked to stunt our imagination and our own intelligence and accept that real ‘freedom’ means that we should be free from the arms control treaties that have formed a cornerstone of stability for decades. We are told that our friends and allies around the world just don’t understand this new concept of freedom and security. But not to worry, given enough time and a bit more backslapping, they will come around. And if they don’t, we’ll do it anyway.
It is also implied – this is not just the domain of this government – that if we do not accept this new wisdom, if we speak out passionately and maybe even eloquently and for some, maybe even with great knowledge about the issues at hand – we are somehow not patriotic. And, missile defense does seem so overwhelming that it is tempting to give in to being ‘patriotic’ and to letting the ‘experts’ advise us as to how best to protect ourselves from the rogue enemies who will be the ones to feel the wrath of these defensive missiles – after all, what can the ordinary individual possibly really understand about such difficult national defense issues.
I think the biggest challenge is for each and every ‘ordinary citizen’ to believe that their view on this – and any of the other ‘big issues’ facing us – is important. The biggest challenge is for ordinary citizens to fire up their imaginations and believe that they can make a difference on this and most any other issue if they take action.
My friend and fellow-laureate Betty Williams once said (and I shamelessly use her words whenever and wherever I can) that sometimes we try to get by just invoking our feelings of empathy for problems that face others – or us all, collectively. Somehow, just by ‘feeling the other person’s pain’ we are more righteous than those who cannot even do that. But as Betty says, emotions without action are irrelevant. If you do not get up and take action to make the world the place you want it to be, it really doesn’t matter what you feel.
So, I guess that I will have to now try to move beyond my words of horror about the NMD and the militarization of space and the arrogant isolationism of this country. I will have to fire up my own imagination and try to find ways to help convince us all that real security comes with meeting the needs of the individuals on this planet – through human security –and not through spending billions of tax dollars ‘freely,’ for new imaginative weapons that threaten us all.
I re-read this, of course, and find that I have not found new eloquence on this issue of NMD and the militarization of space. I re-read this and recognize that I’ve not found some new magic combination that will convince someone to stop this madness. At the same time, I recognize that the point isn’t necessarily to find new eloquence – it is to add my voice, and my actions, to bring about change that I believe is critical to making this a better place for us all. All that I have to do is use my imagination.
Jody Williams won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her leadership of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.