Thank you very much for inviting me to share some thoughts with you today, the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks of one year ago.
Last September 11 I was scheduled to facilitate a nonviolence training for activists in Orange County. It was a strange day, preparing for teaching peace to a group of people trying to make sense of what happened earlier in the day. I taught my morning nonviolence class in Ventura to high school students, and then continued as planned with the nonviolence workshop. It was healing and purposeful that a group of thirty people could gather together to focus on peaceful dialogue in the midst of such an extraordinarily disturbing day.
Today my thoughts are with my two very good friends, Ryan and Amber Amundson as they grieve over the loss of someone very special to them. Amber and Ryan are in their mid-twenties; Amber’s husband Craig, Ryan’s brother, was killed in the attack on the Pentagon last year. Last fall Amber told me of the creativity her two children inspired in her and of the support from her family to grieve in the most healthy way she could. She told me that it would be unconscionable for her to disrespect the memory of her husband by teaching her children that revenge and retribution suffice as acceptable responses for the terrorist attacks. Instead, she has chosen a peaceful path.
I received an email from Ryan yesterday replying to one I’d sent of prayers and thoughts during this difficult time. He and Amber participated in a Walk for Peace from Washington, DC to New York last November. They were pioneers of the phrase “Our Grief Is Not a Cry for War” just like other family members who lost loved ones on September 11, they did not want the memory of Craig to be used as justification for more war making.
In fact, they have been at the helm of a new organization, September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group whose main message is one of peacemaking and reconciliation. In late September, Kelly Campbell, another relative of Craig Amundson will be speaking here in Ventura County.
My thoughts are also with the families of the undocumented workers who lost their lives a year ago today and whose families are ineligible for reparations because their employers did not report them as employees.
Aftermath of September 11
In the year after the terrorist attacks, our country and indeed the world have seen many important changes some for the better, some for the worse. I think that there are some important questions to answer in looking at like who we are, how we see others, and how others see us.
The following points outline a bit about who we are post-September 11:
According to the American Psychological Association, reported post-traumatic stress disorder cases among young children have increased greatly, signifying that the attacks have left significant impressions.
Hate crimes against people of color, especially those appearing to be of Arab or Middle Eastern descent, have increased greatly as reported by the Council on American Islamic Relations.
The American Civil Liberties Union reports the attempts at eroding some of the freedoms and rights upheld in the US Constitution which have been met with resistance by courageous Judges throughout the country.
The United States unilaterally backed out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in June to the dismay of the international community, including the other partner to the treaty, Russia.
Our government did not ratify in July the International Criminal Court which would help to bring to justice human rights abusers under an International tribunal including those who perpetrated the crimes against humanity on September 11.
Attorney General John Ashcraft unilaterally restricted access to information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) last October.
Nuclear reactors continue to be left as sitting ducks to future terrorist attacks despite agencies within our own government who have repeatedly warned about their vulnerability. In recent attempts at verifying their security, the nuclear power plants have contracted individuals contracted to attempt to infiltrate them. They have been successful on most occasions and even have been able to toss uranium components over security fences using lacrosse sticks.
Finally, TIPS, a combined “America’s Most Wanted” and FBI scheme, has been birthed a plan to recruit 1 in 24 Americans as citizen spies giving leads to authorities on susptected terrorist activities inside the United States.
So, in addressing the first question, “Who are we?” it seems like we are a wounded, fearful nation still recovering from a significant blow to our confidence and to our hearts one year ago. American people are good people I see evidence for that in my classroom every day. I see it in the random acts of kindness that people have become more prone to doing in the last year.
However, I am afraid that our country is on a dangerous path of punitive, rather than restorative, justice in holding the architects of terror accountable. How can we deal with our enemies without emulating their tactics?
What Would King Do?
In the classes I teach on nonviolence and peacemaking, we study the lives and words of peacemakers throughout history to gain a new perspective on how we can deal with the various conflicts we encounter personally, locally and globally. In addressing the second question of how we view others, Martin Luther King, Jr. provides some timeless wisdom.
Dr. King wrote a Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam which still rings true today.
When he was writing, communism was the enemy. Today it is terrorism. I have replaced his word ‘communism’ with ‘terrorism’ in the following text to demonstrate the relevance of his words for us today:
“This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against terrorism. War is not the answer. Terrorism will never be defeated by the use of nuclear weapons. We must not engage in negative anti-terrorism, but rather in a positive trust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against terrorism is to take offensive action on behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seeds of terrorism grow and develop.”
Powerful words. We see the seeds of hate sown in poverty, insecurity, injustice and disparity of wealth. Generations of children in third world countries growing up in severe deprivation are potential terrorists if we take these words to heart. We must re-evaluate our priorities, our attitude toward corporate responsibility and our reliance on foreign oil if we are to prevent future terrorist attacks.
Dr. King continues on to say in the essay against participation in the Vietnam War in perhaps his harshest criticism of US foreign policy: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” This admonition means that when we decrease funding for education, for social services, welfare and children, we are sowing seeds of hate in our own country as well. One-fourth of children in the United States live in poverty while our military budget soars out of control topping out at nearly $437 billion dollars.
Dr. King has some gentler advice as well, though. In the essay entitled Loving Your Enemies, Dr. King outlines the reasons why we should pursue peacemaking rather than war making. He wrote,” Hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Hate scars the soul and distorts the personality. Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity.”
So where has our war on terror led us? We have not caught Osama bin Laden, we have pursued an unrelenting military campaign against the people of Afghanistan, stranding millions of people throughout last winter in desperate conditions, and even having the audacity in July to mistakenly bomb a wedding party, killing dozens. We euphemize our lingo about the tools of war making to desensitize ourselves from the true effects of weapons.
These are not endearing actions that the US has undertaken.
We have called our war on terror perhaps the worst misnomer: a pursuit of justice. We are not talking about true justice, though. We are talking about a vengeful, hateful justice seeking retribution rather than reconciliation. Lanzo del Vasto, peacemaker extraordinaire, writes about how true justice lapses into false when we believe we have the right to render evil for evil and call the evil rendered good and just.
Again, powerful words. We must carefully examine what our actions purvey about our values.
In our war on terror, we have failed to recognize that the United States sponsors a terrorist training camp on our soil. November is a hallowed month for something called the School of the Americas, a military training school located at Ft. Benning, GA. In the wake of September 11, British journalist George Monbiot wrote a scalding report about the incongruence of our policies, stating candidly that terrorist training takes place here in the United States.
The School of the Americas moved from Central America to Georgia in the early 1980’s. At this school, Latin American soldiers are trained in paramilitary combat, in counterinsurgency in being the military arm of the multinational corporations who enforce poverty and the structural adjustment programs laid down by the World Bank and the IMF. One November, some Jesuit priests in Central America, their housekeeper and her daughter were slaughtered by soldiers trained at the SOA. Two of the assassins who killed Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador were trained at the school as well.
George Monbiot said poignantly that in the United States, the war on terror must start at home by closing the School of the Americas. Ventura County has a special role to play in this effort. Congressman Elton Gallegly has never voted to close the SOA. Every year as the vote is taken in Congress, the margin by which the bill fails gets smaller and smaller we are nearing the goal. We must work with Gallegly to convince him to vote on HR 1810 to close the SOA.
How do others see us?
I believe that we can answer the third question of “How do others see us” by examining our lust for war against Iraq.
There are a few policy points on Iraq which I would like to address with here because the rhetoric has evolved so speedily in the war on terror.
Let me begin by saying that Saddam Hussein is a brute and a bully and has ruled Iraq for more than 20 years, holding hostage a population of 23 million Iraqis who did not elect him. He has used chemical warfare against his own people. And he has demonstrated aggression in the Middle East in recent years.
These facts, however, should not obscure other relevant components of why we should not unilaterally depose the infamous leader of the Ba’ath Party in a US-led war on Iraq.
First and foremost, there is no link between Iraq and al Qaeda or any of the people associated with the egregious crimes of September 11.
There is unquestionable hesitation and outright disapproval from the international community with respect to any new war with Iraq.
And on that point, I’d like to say that the first Gulf War never ended. Just this past Thursday, the largest air assault in four years took place over southern Iraq, with US and British forces using more than 100 aircraft to mount an attack. Iraq has been getting bombed nearly every week since the 42-day Gulf War was declared over.
And the economic sanctions are a form of warfare as well, killing more than 5,000 children under the age of 5 every month. One in eight children in Iraq never reach their first birthday. Prior to the Gulf War, the UN deemed Iraq an emerging first-world nation. It had eradicated all childhood diseases, provided free healthcare to the entire population and education up through university studies was completely free.
So back to lack of international support. Europe does not support war on Iraq. Every Arab nation has made statements condemning an escalation of war against Iraq, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Few Middle Eastern countries want us to use their land, water or air space to fight this proposed war. And every Middle Eastern country sees an eminent intensification of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict should the United States decide to preemptively attack Iraq.
Tomorrow, President Bush will make his case before the United Nations General Assembly. He has yet to offer credible evidence that Iraq is developing weapons of mass destruction capable of harming the US. The International Atomic Energy Agency has reported that Iraq has not accessed any nuclear material to use in making weapons of mass destruction.
Many people wonder about the weapons inspections. The most credible source on this issue is Scott Ritter, former UNSCOM weapons inspector for eight years. He was in charge of making certain that Iraq was in compliance with the UN disarmament resolution. He has stated time and time again that UNSCOM was extraordinarily effective in destroying all of Iraq’s weapons capabilities.
Unfortunately, in 1998, the United Nations withdrew their weapons inspection team in anticipation of the December bombing which the US and UK led. They were not kicked out by Iraq, as is often reported.
So what do we do about Iraq?
The first thing that we do is acknowledge the face of human suffering in Iraq. Iraq is a country. Iraq is not Saddam Hussein. More than 23 million people live there, each with a story about how they have been affected by the sanctions and the Gulf War.
We cannot ignore the real pain that has been virtually unreported for the past twelve years in Iraq. The sanctions, administered by the United Nations, essentially mean that Iraq has no tangible revenue. All of their oil sales go through the Sanctions Committee 661 they sell their oil through the UN and must petition for items to import. Many items are routinely denied: blood bags, x-ray film, and even a shipment of 1 million pencils were denied because they contain graphite which could be used in making weapons of mass destruction.
People in America are suffering as well especially today as we remember the tragedy which happened a year ago. But we will not lessen our pain by inflicting pain on others we will only create more hurt, more loss, more sadness.
There are a few things that surprised me about visiting Iraq nearly every person I met there believes in the good of the American people. They know that if we only knew of their pain, that we would do more to help them. But if we believe, as is reported in the mass media, that “they all hate us” then it makes it okay for us to hate them too, and even kill them first. But the catch is that they don’t all hate us.
Arabs are magnanimous, beautiful, generous people. The hospitality I was granted there was beyond any I could have ever imagined.
But still recognizing the human face of Iraqis is not enough. We must realize that an entire people cannot be deemed evil. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote that “the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.” If we seek to eradicate evil, we are in essence killing a bit of ourselves. Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, says that the value of human dignity is that we are worth more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. These are powerful statements about humanity and forgiveness which are crucial to remember in times of inexplicable grief.
They are powerful statements because they demonstrate faith in nonviolence.
Many people wonder about what to do about Saddam Hussein, though.
Iraq needs regime change, but that change must not happen through war. In a movement of sustained democratization, the Iraqi people should decide for themselves free from international pressure, who they want governing them. And the weapons inspectors must resume their important job and be allowed to thoroughly, efficiently and respectfully carry out their tasks.
And this can be done nonviolently.
Embracing nonviolence does not mean that you are a doormat. It does not mean that you are weak.
Authors Jack DuVall and Peter Ackerman, who wrote “A Force More Powerful” which became a six-part documentary on nonviolent change, believe that Saddam Hussein can be toppled through nonviolent measures, as were Pinochet and Milosevic. They write in this month’s issue of Sojourner Magazine, “Strategic nonviolent action is not about being nice to your oppressor, much less having to rely on his niceness. It’s about dissolving the foundations of his power and forcing him out. It is possible in Iraq.”
Why do we not see nonviolent change as legitimate, though? Why is it not considered a viable option? Perhaps because history is presented and written by the winners, and because war making is so profitable. Alfie Kohn wrote “while it is indisputable that wars have been fought, the fact that they seem to dominate our history may say more about how history is presented that about what actually happened.”
This leads me into my final point. The most proactive thing we can do as a country to combat hatred and intolerance is to teach peace. Every class should be a peace class. It should be a blend of nonviolent processes and content information. I teach a class in three high schools here called “Solutions to Violence” and it attempts to give students tangible tools for resolving conflicts as well as cluing them in to the fact that community service is expected of them, and it is rewarding. They must ask the difficult questions of how they can best use their talents to serve the world, their neighbors, their brothers and sisters in humanity.
It is not a difficult class to teach. We read the literature of peace and discuss it. We examine our own hearts, minds and actions. We see how our actions affect others and how everything in life is interconnected; nothing exists in a void.
Peace education is essential in an age of terrorism. We must learn to resolve our conflicts through nonviolent means. The purpose of education is to produce critically thinking, empathetic and other-serving individuals. We will keep encountering the same problems time and time again until we re-examine how history is presented, how education is carried out until we reinsert the nonviolent figures in our textbooks who have been systematically written out.
We must teach our students to act based on their conscience. They must have the faith of children in all of humanity, seeing that we are all brothers and sisters. They must see the necessity of caring for nature as she supports all life on earth.
Peace education makes room for healing and for compassion, so needed in our time.
The nonviolence class here at Moorpark College must continue! It is crucial that we not let peace education be a casualty of the war on terrorism.
I am reminded of the June Jordan quote: “We are the people we’ve been waiting for.” We must not delegate individual moral responsibility to another; our conscience is the most precious quality unique to human beings.
Not only today on September 11, but every day it is up to us to be a voice for the voiceless, to show compassion and to go the extra mile and stretch our hearts to love just a little bit more.
*Leah C. Wells serves as the Peace Education Coordinator for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in Santa Barbara, CA.