When I tell people I am working on a citizen-based campaign in support of legislation currently in the House of Representatives to create a U.S. Department of Peace, the reactions vary. Some people instantly get it, and will typically say things like, "it's just crazy that we don't already have something like this!" When questioned about his support of the legislation recently, Ralph Nader mentioned that we should have had a Department of Peace years ago. For many progressive minded people, it just seems logical that we would have such a broad scale program in place to deal with the increasingly unmanageable problem of violence, in all the ugly forms that it takes. Many are elated that there is actually pending legislation that could make peace much more of a reality.
For others however, when they first hear about it, eyes start rolling almost instantly. They don't even have to speak a word for me to know what they are thinking, "another silly peacenik idea that will never happen." Comments sometimes include things like, "people have always been violent," or "There has been war since the beginning of mankind, peace will never happen."
Some people mentally write off the possibility of a Department of Peace before even hearing about what the Department would do. It is actually a very practical and potentially a hugely impactful piece of legislation that is receiving increasing support and national attention. In part it has received so much attention because it was introduced into the House of Representatives by Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who is a candidate for president. But a year after its introduction, the bill is already garnering support in Congress with 48 co-sponsors.
The Dept. of Peace would establish nonviolence as an organizing principle of American society, providing the U.S. President with an array of peace-building policy options for domestic and international use. The Department would focus on nonmilitary peaceful conflict resolutions, prevent violence and promote justice and democratic principles to expand human rights. Domestically, the Department would be responsible for developing policies which address issues such as domestic violence, child abuse, mistreatment of the elderly, school and gang violence and other issues of cultural violence. Internationally, the Department would gather research, analyze foreign policy and make recommendations to the President on how to address the underlying causes of war and intervene before violence begins. The Department of Peace would systematically root out the underlying causes of violence by creating new and innovative programs, as well as vastly increasing support of the many existing programs around our nation and the world that are already having a positive impact.
A Department of Peace is no new idea. George Washington was one of the first people to declare how important a more strategic effort for peace should be. More specifically, he felt our government should establish a Peace Academy, much like the military services academy. A Peace Academy is one of the core components to the DoP legislation. It would train students to become conflict specialists, to go to communities around our nation and the world to help ameliorate violence before it gets out of control.
We spend over $400 billion dollars on defense in the United States. It is estimated that we currently have over 2 million people in prison. We deal with incredible amounts of violence in our homes, in our schools and in our communities. One of the leading causes of police injury and death while on duty is dealing with, of all things, domestic violence disputes. The cultural and emotional costs of violence are clear. The financial costs are becoming more and more clear to Americans as we continually see important programs cut because of money that is going to fund things like our current war with Iraq and terrorism. For those concerned with the costs of a new federal department, imagine how much less we would need to spend on defense, prisons, etc., if we were able to more thoroughly dissolve violence before it starts.
Violence is a cultural disease that is becoming an increasingly unmanageable problem. We must take a more systemic and psychologically sophisticated approach to decreasing its grip. The recent discovery of prisoner abuse in Iraq is just one example of the severe limitations our military faces in wartime. A Department of Peace would train peacekeepers to deal with the aftermath should war be necessary, creating teams on the ground to help rebuild an emotional and psychological foundation to create a stable system in the war torn region. No military technology can provide for a stable emotional climate.
Though some peoples eyes may roll at the mention of a Dept. of Peace, is it really so far fetched to think we cannot have a much more peaceful world in our lifetimes? With great genius and energy, we have done so many amazing things in our history. What if we were to take as serious of an approach in cultivating alternatives to creating peace as we do for, say, our military? Even spending just 2% of the current defense budget (which is what the legislation calls for) could be billions of dollars towards building something we want- peace, not just continually trying to defend against things that we do not want.
This past fall, while still in the midst of our war with Iraq, we held a Democracy conference in Washington DC. The conference was in part to support the Department of Peace. In the same hotel, right in the next conference room over, was a military contractors conference with many service members attending. During the weekend, one of my co-workers stepped into an elevator, there were three Marines who were in the elevator with her. One of them asked what kind of conference she was attending. When she told them a little about the Department of Peace, they said, "please hurry up, we need this kind of support soon." All three nodded in agreement. Of course there are many who see this initiative as directly in conflict with the idea of defense, but those of us in this work know that it is actually a nice compliment to defense. In this world right now, we need to be able to defend ourselves, possibly at times militarily, but what if we lived in a world where we didn't need to so much? That's what we are talking about.
Rest assured, there is not a huge group of corporate lobbyists working in D.C. to push for new legislation geared towards creating something like a Department of Peace, only the desires and the will of we the people. For every American citizen, the question at hand is, "what kind of world do we want, and what are we willing to do to make it happen?" When it comes to ending violence, we finally have a powerful alternative that can make a real difference.
Matthew Albracht, is a concerned citizen and the Managing Director of the North American Peace Alliance, a non-profit citizen action group heading up the national campaign to create a U.S. Department of Peace. There will be a public forum discussing the Department of Peace legislation and how citizens can take action to make it a reality on May 19th, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of San Francisco. Speakers include author and psychiatrist Jean Shinoda Bolen, author John Robbins, and Professor Michael Nagler of U.C. Berkeley. Visit www.DoPcampaign.org to learn more.