During a recent discussion period at a Catholic Relief Services public forum in Baltimore I was asked, "If you had 10 minutes with George Bush, what would you say about the pending war with Iraq?"
The first thing that popped into my mind was, "Let's put a human face on it."
I suggested off the cuff that I would advise President Bush to form a delegation and travel to the Middle East. The delegation should be made up of three grandmothers and three children under the age of 10, accompanied by a priest or minister, a Muslim Imam, and a rabbi, all U.S. citizens. They should travel to Ramallah, Gaza in the Palestinian Territories, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in Israel, then onto Baghdad.
Their message would be simple:
"These are the faces of who we are. The divide between all of us must be bridged. Too many of our children have died. We know this from September 11, 2001: The welfare of our children is tied to the welfare of your children. Let violence end and coexistence begin. Help us help you."
Some will say the leader of the most powerful nation of the world must show resolve, that a visit of this kind would be a sign of weakness, that it is beneath a great leader.
I beg to disagree. The decision to start a war with Iraq, gut wrenching as it is for our leaders, will remain in large part the choice of sending mostly young people to fight on foreign soil and the launching of stealth bombers and cruise missiles from ships to rain on the towns of people thousands of miles away whom we have never met. There is a form of courage required to make that decision. But it requires little imagination.
Bruno Bettleheim once commented that violence is the choice of people who can imagine no other alternative.
It takes a different kind of courage to walk unarmed to the land of the enemy. It is the courage of the moral imagination. To put a human face on war is the courage of last resort, the step taken before humanity is lost in the anonymous abyss of violence.
This was the courage and imagination that marked the lives of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., of Anwaar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel, Aung Sang Suu Kyi of Burma, Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan of Pakistan. It is the simple courage of engagement and dialogue we hope to instill in our children at school when faced with a bully. It is the kind of courage I wish for in our leaders.
For Christmas, 2002 I wish for a gift given from our generation to our great-grandchildren, from the adults of this decade to the children of the end of this 21st century: Let this be the decade remembered as the time when the end of human warfare began.
Imagine what historians in the year 2100, looking back at the preceding century, could write:
"War became obsolete when global leaders committed themselves to the Universal Declaration of Human Preservation captured in two principles: 1) No country will ever use its weapons for offensive or pre-emptive purposes; and 2) the leaders of every nation commit to making a personal visit to the enemy country prior to declaring war and dropping bombs.
"This unexpected process started when a regional and potentially global nuclear war was averted in early 2003. Surprisingly, U.S. President George W. Bush went with a delegation of grandmothers and young children to visit the conflicted region of the Middle East, an event that so transformed the situation that the cycles of violence never escalated into war. Their courageous act put a human face on the conflict. It resulted in a world summit that led to the greatest era of disarmament known in human history, culminating in the complete elimination of weapons of mass destruction from the face of the earth. As we enter this new century, we are lucky to have been preceded by such leaders, for we are witnesses to the first decade in more than 150 years when our human community does not have a single nuclear weapon hanging as a cloud over our future."
A simple wish that only requires two things: A grain of imagination and a lot of courage. Let us find the courage to see each other face-to-face before we push the buttons.
John Paul Lederach is Professor of International Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame. He lives in Nederland, and he and his family are founding members of the Boulder Mennonite Church.
Copyright 2002, The Daily Camera and the E.W. Scripps Company