I saw the tree again last night, the massive one overlooking Washington Square Park, near the tall marble arch. The tree is wide and sprawled out, elegant and graceful. Then abruptly all of its limbs reach sideways and upward. If nature had corners all the tree’s limbs would be at right angles. Corners pointing skyward. The wide tangled tree has watched over the park for decades. Listened to voices, recording sounds on its bark.
During the Vietnam war and the peace marches and anti-war demonstrations and be-ins and love-ins, the tree stood over an ocean of protesting people, unmoved, month after angry month. Its branches reached over hippies in tie die and sandals, flowers and incense, and thousands of men who looked like Jesus. It stood over chess players and homeless. The drummers and dancers. Children, innocent by the fountain. It reached over guitars, and words of Bob Dylan, how many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn't see, …and how many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry… and how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died…
On Sunday evening on March 16th at 7:15 pm I walked again to the arch in Washington Square Park, a few years older, both myself and the tree, to be a symbolic representative number in a global candle light vigil for peace in the world. One last chance to stop a war machine.
There were no roaming hawkers, no one selling tee shirts or peace signs. No one was selling candles. The crowd Sunday night was innocent and home made. Two or three hundred people held candles protected inside whatever empty coffee container they’d had from whatever deli they’d left along the way. Flames flickered inside familiar blue and white Greek paper cups, or Starbucks. Cardboard I Love New York cups. The same candles inside glass containers from grocery stores and delis. Wax dripping on jackets and cloth bags. No one cared then and no one cared now.
Women held babies with one hand and candles with the other. Couples held hands. Nuns held tall white church candles, protecting them only with the palm of their hand and their flames weren’t extinguished by wind.
A crowd of three or four hundred stood in small-unorganized groups. A guitar player in the center of some. Sounds of The Girl from Ipanima crossed with the sounds of We Shall Not Be Moved and Imagine. Someone near by silently relighted flames extinguished by wind. And during that hour the history of half a century unraveled itself before me beneath the tall wide tree in Washington Square Park, beneath an almost full moon slipping in and out of moving clouds. The look of fear on the face of some people, and the worry, identical four decades ago. The shared candles, songs of protest repeated now, the look in people’s eyes repeated. The hope for calm. The same tiny lights in the same ocean of darkness. The sixties, Vietnam. The new century, Iraq. The same mutilation. The same devastation. The same murdered children. In 1991, over 59,000 tons of bombs were dropped monthly, on Iraq. 34,000 were dropped monthly, on Vietnam. Vietnam doesn’t need a date anymore to define it. Vietnam was simply the sixties. Iraq was the nineties. And is now the next century. Everything else fell in between.
Eric Hoskins, a Canadian physician, and part of a Harvard Study Team, surveyed Iraq two years after the war. Depleted Uranium, weapons made from radioactive waste, were used extensively in Iraq, more than 940,000 rounds were fired. The United States used it for the first time during the Gulf War. The United States, today, is in possession of almost 3/4 of a million metric tons of depleted uranium, despite the fact that a 1996 UN Subcommittee defined weaponry containing depleted uranium, as a weapon of mass destruction.
Hoskin’s team estimated that 50,000 children died in the first eight months of 1991, many from the effects of radioactive artillery shells. Last month, on Jan 30, Dr. Hoskins returned to Canada after another assessment mission to Iraq. His team found that 500,000 Iraqi children are malnourished and the country has only three months of medicine remaining. ´´While it is impossible to predict both the nature of any war and the number of expected deaths and injuries, casualties among children will be in the thousands, probably in the tens of thousands and possibly in the hundreds of thousands, ´´ he reported.
When I started to write this piece I though what can I write that hasn’t be written before. And I remembered the tree. The large stoic unmoving tree by the Washington Square Arch and I remembered the feelings I had in the sixties, when I stood in that same park, with the protestors, the chanters, the frightened with candles and signs, holding hands in the darkness, and the rage and the hope. The frustration and fear. The innocence we had then. And I remembered the words, repeated over and over and over, and tonight, when I was sure no one was looking, when I was sure no one could tell, while people held candles in darkness repeated the words sung for decades, I stood alone for a moment and silently cried. How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn't see, …and how many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry… how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died….
Magie Dominic is author of The Queen of Peace Room, a personal exploration of violence in the second half of the twentieth century.