On November 16, 2014, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation awarded its Distinguished Peace Leadership Award to Medea Benjamin. Her acceptance speech is below.
Thank you so much for the beautiful introduction, David, and thank you so much for this honor. I’ve been reading David Krieger’s writings for many years and have always a tremendous admirer of the work of the Foundation, so to be here tonight getting this award is almost surreal for me.
To hear you talk about the children who live their lives in a state of war, I think about the children right here in this country. They might not know it as directly as children in other countries, but especially people who were born after 9/11, they think that war is the norm because it has been with them since they were born. And so it is extremely sad to think that we, the older folks in this room, have tolerated a situation where war has become the norm. To think that we live in a warfare state.
Now, this predates 9/11 but it’s gotten way worse after 9/11. Let’s recognize that we’re a country that has over 800 military bases around the world; a country that spends more on the military than almost the rest of the world combined; a country that has been, along with Russia, the leader in this insane nuclear weapons race; a country that has refined the technology of drone warfare, where you can kill from the luxury of a US base, sitting in an air-conditioned room in an ergonomic chair and press a button and annihilate somebody thousands of miles away. And let’s just recognize that something like beheadings are absolutely disgusting. But when I travel around the world, people say to me, “What’s the difference between that and incinerating someone from the sky with a hellfire missile?” I was told that by a young man whose grandmother was working in the fields, a 68-year-old woman picking okra, when suddenly a drone came from the sky and incinerated her and all they could find of her was a couple of pieces of flesh laying in the field. And he said to me, “Is that any worse than beheadings? What did my grandmother ever do to anybody?”
We are also a country that glorifies war. I was getting onto the airplane last week on US Airways, and they said, “Whoever is in the military, please come forward, and you get preferential seating on the plane. We want to thank you for your service.” And I stood up and I said, “Are there any teachers in the room, we’d like to thank you for your service as well! Are there any health care workers in the room, we would also like to thank you for your service.” And let’s face it, if we really want to help the veterans, it’s not about getting on the plane sooner than other people. It’s about getting the proper treatment they deserve when they come home-both physical and mental- so we don’t have 22 veterans a day killing themselves. And most important, if you want to help, is to not send them off in wars of choice that we should not be in.
Not only are we dealing with warfare overseas, but we also have warfare here at home. Let’s recognize that in probably two days, there will be a verdict coming down from the grand jury in Ferguson. And the verdict will probably be not to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown. And imagine the message that will be sent to every young black man across this country, to people of color throughout this country who have been the victims of police abuse, of a system that has failed them. We have to be ready for what is to come. And not ready to condemn people who might throw a stone in a store, but to condemn a system that doesn’t hold police accountable, to condemn a system that has militarized our police forces, including right here in Santa Barbara, where you have an MRAP, where you have a tank in your own community, reflective of all the military materiel, the billions of dollars worth of materials that is being dumped in our communities because it benefits the military-industrial complex. It benefits the war-makers. It benefits people who make their profits by selling not only tanks, but selling grenade launchers, and selling M-16s to our police departments. We have to rise up as a community and say we don’t want the police to treat us like the enemy, we don’t want our police to be militarized, we want our police to serve and protect. Let’s get all that military hardware out of our communities.
At a hearing I attended just last Thursday, they started it out on this issue of all the military hardware in our communities, and they said, “But we’ve saved the police five billion dollars by giving them this.” Well, that’s our taxpayer money. No savings there. These very companies that are pushing this equipment here at home are continuing to profit from never-ending war overseas. So let me just take a moment to go through what has been the results of thirteen years of warfare, because we are getting right back into it now, and people are very confused about it.
Afghanistan. Thirteen years in Afghanistan. Yes, there are some more young girls going to school, but they drop out after about the second year because they are too poor. Still one of the poorest countries in the world; opium, the largest crop ever; the Taliban, waiting to come back in. Really, after thirteen years of being occupied by the United States, Afghanistan is now tied in last place with North Korea and Somalia for the most corrupt place in the world, according to Transparency International. Libya is a place we invaded because it was a humanitarian intervention to get rid of a dictator there, but people don’t really look at what has happened since then. Yes, Gaddafi is out of power, but people long for the days when he was in power, because now it is being ruled by a bunch of fiefdoms, and no central government is functioning at all. Yemen. It’s interesting that President Obama said, when he talked about starting the bombing in Syria and Iraq, that we were going to use the same kind of policy we used in Yemen as a positive example. Well, having just returned from Yemen, I have no idea what he’s talking about. Because in Yemen, when the US started the drone attacks, there were maybe 200 members of an extremist group called Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and now there are over 1,000 of them. Today, Yemen is an ungovernable place. So wherever the US has gone in with the military, things are worse off.
So let’s go back to Iraq for a minute – a place the US should never have invaded in the first place, where George Bush dragged us into war based on lies. I have a friend who works in Iraq. She’s Iraqi. Her father was Sunni, her mother was Shia. I said, “What has been the result of the US invasion?” And she said, “I never knew my parents were Sunni and Shia. We lived in a mixed neighborhood. What the US invasion did was teach us to hate each other.” This unleashed a wave of sectarian violence that has opened the way for ISIS to come in. And ordinary Sunnis who were disenfranchised after we took out Saddam Hussein and put in the sectarian Shia government are looking to ISIS and saying, “This is better than the Shia-dominated government that the United States put in place.”
So this is the result of the US invasion. The US spent over ten years training the Iraqi army. Thirty-six billion dollars of our tax money was spent to train the Iraqi army. When they went in to try and fight ISIS in Mosul, what happened? The Iraqi army put down their weapons and ran away. And now we are supposed to believe that we can go in and train the Iraqi army and things will be different? The US military involvement in Iraq and Syria is counterproductive and yes, we have to find ways to counter ISIS, and yes it is a brutal group, but we already see that since the US got involved militarily, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported 6,000 more recruits to ISIS. The US is also strengthening the dictatorship of Assad and strengthening other Arab monarchies like the Saudis. If you want to count one country that is responsible for the ideology of Al Qaeda and ISIS, it is our great ally Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia teaches the Wahhabi ideology. Saudis have been funding not only the hijackers that attacked us on 9/11, but Saudi Arabia has also been funding Al Qaeda and ISIS.
So, military intervention is not the answer. But people say to us, “Oh, you are so naïve if you think there can be a political solution to this.” But I say, “Look what we have done for thirteen years. It is insane to think that there is a military solution to what is now very powerful sectarian violence not only between Sunni and Shia, but also with Kurds.”
There are political solutions. Those political solutions are things like going back to Geneva talks between the Assad regime and the rebels. I was there for the beginning of those talks, and you know those weren’t real talks. Do you know why? There was no peacemaker allowed at the table. It was only the guys with the guns. I was there with forty women representing civil society who said, “We risk our lives every day in Syria nonviolently! We know that solutions put us at the peace table.” They were not allowed to be there. So we have to go back to the peace table, but with peacemakers there, with civil society represented, with women represented. And then, maybe then, we will get some truces, we will get some results.
In Iraq, we have to say we will withhold support for the Iraqi government until the Iraqi government proves that it is not a sectarian government, but a government that represents the Shia, the Sunni, and the Kurds. We have to support the civil society efforts in Iraq, as well. And with the winter coming on and millions of refugees, and the World Food Program where I used to work saying they don’t have nearly the funds they need, we could take the money that we are using to put even more weapons into an over-weaponized area, and use that to help the poor, suffering refugees. Lastly, we need to take two countries that we have been demonizing – Russia and Iran – and incorporate them into the process of trying to find solutions, because it is absolutely necessary that we have their perspective in the mix. But what we have now is Obama not only bombing Syria and Iraq, but while he is promising us that there won’t be troops on the ground, he is sending troops on the ground! First 1,500, then another 1,600, and we’re up to 3,200. There has been no vote in Congress over this and Congress is supposed to be the entity that declares war. And we are indeed on a slippery slope when the generals tell us that 3,200 troops will not be enough. So here we start all over again, and I look back at the young people who are here and say, “We do not want you to live in a state of perpetual war.” And what this means is that we have to rebuild a peace movement. We had a peace movement under the Bush years. We were able to get hundreds of thousands of people out into the streets, and as soon as Obama came in, the peace movement just…dissolved. We had people who said, “I put my hopes in Obama, he’s going to do it for us.” We had people who said, “I’m exhausted from eight years of fighting the Bush administration, I need to take a break.” We had people who said, “There’s an economic crisis right now, I have to figure out how to hold onto my home, how to help my family, how to replace a job that I just lost.” Students saying, “I have to figure out how to afford college.” People who focused, and rightly so, on the devastation of the economic crisis in their communities. And then people who said, “I am not going to second guess a Democratic president.” And you saw that a lot of the movement was about partisan issues because, if it had been George Bush who was going around with drones, killing thousands of people in places where we are not at war, like Yemen and Pakistan and Somalia, playing the role of prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner, and lying to the American people that innocent people were not being killed, there would have been a huge uprising. But there wasn’t, because it was a Democratic administration. So we have to rebuild a movement.
I want to give a couple of positive examples in which it is happening, and one of them is the drones. Despite the fact that we didn’t get the support of the Progressive caucus in Congress, or that of the Democratic party, we have been building a movement that has organized and protested at every single Air Force base in the country where drones are being operated, had weekly vigils, outside the CIA and the Pentagon and the White House. We have gone into the faith-based communities and have gotten resolutions passed against the usage of drone warfare; we’ve reached out to the countries where they’re using the drones and helped form an association of drone victims and places like Yemen and Pakistan. We’ve gone to Europe and said, “Don’t allow your countries to start buying these weaponized drones,” and we’ve gone to the United Nations to say, “Help, we need some regulations about how this technology is being used.” We are changing the minds of the American people, who just two years ago said – 83% of them – that it is okay to use drones to kill terrorist suspects, who are just people who were never convicted of anything – and that included Democrats, Republicans, and Independents – to today where approval has dropped by 25 percentage points. We almost have a majority on our side, so we have done a lot of work to change the landscape on the use of drone warfare.
Another example is Iran. In the case of Iran, we had very hawkish, Republicans, but some Democrats as well; we had the Israeli government that was pushing for a military option to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities; we had the strongest lobby group in the United States around foreign policy issues, AIPAC, saying we want a military solution. And because there was a strong grassroots base in the United States, we have been able to support President Obama in the good example of using diplomacy instead of war. On November 24th, coming up very soon, these negotiations are supposed to come to a conclusion. There are a lot of people in this country who don’t want to see that going through, and it is important that we put pressure on our senators – including Boxer and Feinstein – to say “diplomacy, diplomacy, diplomacy; let the negotiations go through.” Let’s show the world that we can use diplomacy instead of war in disagreements with our adversaries.
Another example I want to give is something that happened a year and a half ago. Do you remember when President Obama said that he was going to take us to war with Syria, this time to overthrow Assad? We had a spontaneous uprising in the United States like I had never seen before. I live in Washington, D.C. right now, and when I heard that I said, “We are going to demand that there be a vote in Congress about this.” Now, I don’t have a lot of faith in Congress because they usually vote for any war that any president wants to do. But this time we said, “Let’s slow down the process by calling for a vote in Congress,” and people were able to do that, and stopped it in Britain, which was a great inspiration for us. So living in Washington, D.C. we decided to camp out in front of Congress, and we were there 24/7 calling a peace insurrection. Every day we had a big whiteboard where we wrote every undecided vote in Congress, and we called on people to come, and we would send them to the Congress people to lobby them. It was fascinating because at the time there was a big Tea Party convention. And we said, “Who knows, let’s go over to the Tea Party and see if we can convince some of those people.” So we went over to the Tea Party, and I’m very used to getting up on the stage when I’m not invited and taking the mic, and I did that. I said, “Did you know that President Obama wants to drag us into another war in the Middle East?” And because it was President Obama who wanted to drag us in the war, they said “Boo!” I said, “We are outside of Congress, come join us, and lobby Congress to stop this war.” Well, hundreds of them started flooding out of the convention. Now, who knows their motivation; it may have been more anti-Obama than it was anti-war, but they came out and they said, “We really do not like Code Pink [which is my organization], and we really do not like anything you stand for, but could you please tell us what congressional offices we should go to, because we want to stop this war.” It is an example of how we can reach out and find some strange bedfellows at this moment in history, but we have to do that. What’s more important, really, is building an anti-war movement that’s tied to people we agree with on lots of issues. One of those is the environmental movement.
When there was the big march in New York, we organized a very large anti-war contingent under the banner “War is Not Green,” saying the biggest polluter in the world is the US military, saying that most of the wars going on around the world are wars for resources like oil and more and more for resources like water, and we were extremely well received by the people in the environmental movement who understand those connections. Another connection is people working around money and politics, because one of the reasons we have this perpetual state of war is that there are such strong lobby groups for the weapons manufacturers and the contractors that make so much money from the perpetual state of war. If we can join with people who want to overturn Citizens United and get big money out of politics, we have to make those connections to the war machine. In California, you have one of your state representatives here tonight who has been working on the issue of mass incarceration and how we have to do something to stop the tremendous levels of incarceration of our youth, which we have to tie into the military machine as well. We really need to have a youth component to the antiwar movement that has mostly been people who grew up during the Vietnam war years, like myself. We will never have a dynamic, effective peace movement unless it brings young people in who understand that they are the ones who will be paying for these wars for decades to come. They are the ones who are already paying for them. Young people have to become leaders in this movement, to say, “We, the youth, will not tolerate living in a state of perpetual war.”
So now is the time to think boldly about how to seize this moment to roll back the militarization of our communities, of our nation, of our planet; to explore on a much larger scale the nonviolent alternatives, like people-to-people diplomacy, international peace teams, weapons embargos, people’s tribunals, global boycotts, cross-border caravans, and flotillas to help people who are the victims of these wars. It’s time to stop glorifying the warriors and the wars; it’s time to stop funding murder and free up the vast resources that we need to address the really critical issues that are affecting our planet, like the possibility of nuclear annihilation, and get rid of the world’s nuclear weapons. It’s time to start working together to address our common critical issues like poverty, like finding cures to diseases like Ebola, and to address the issue that really could end life on this planet, in addition to nuclear weapons, which is the global climate crisis. So I feel inspired by this award that you’ve given me tonight. I feel inspired by the people who are in this room that I’ve met who do such wonderful work on so many issues. I feel inspired by seeing young people in this room who care about these issues and wanted to come here tonight, and I take this award as a tremendous inspiration for the hard work ahead. I want to quote a wonderful songwriter who you might know, especially the younger people, Michael Franti, who says, “You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can’t bomb the world to peace. What we need is power to the peaceful.” Thank you so much.