Last night, in New York City, Ramsey Clark, former attorney general under the Johnson administration, was speaking to a group of peace advocates. In opening comments to a group of four hundred, the moderator of the event asserted that George Bush’s war on terrorism will spread to Somalia, Sudan and very likely Iraq. One man in the packed house started clapping – his clapping was not an awkward miscalculation. He was letting the crowd know he would applaud a war in Iraq. The crowd let him know they were opposed to an expanding war. He yelled out – “Four thousand dead Americans.” A woman in the audience retorted – “A million and a half Iraqis dead.” The man shot back, “Sounds good to me.” He was escorted out of the meeting but not out of the country.
The same mindset we are horrified by when it comes from an undisclosed location in a dimly lit room in Afghanistan was in the middle of a brightly lit room in a church in Manhattan. Ultimately all activism needs to be directed at the mindset itself. The belief that violence will solve the problem – the worship of the military – the fetish attachment to weapons because they are believed to be instruments of justice – the need to kill to resolve a conflict or promote an agenda – that thinking is the enemy. The parades after the Gulf War as seen in the Middle East must have appeared to be brutal jubilation. During the Gulf War there was the media adoration of the weapons and male correspondents reporting the war. “Scud studs” was an actual segment on a popular prime time quasi-news program. I wonder how that played to citizens of the Middle East. Did it seem a bit frivolous – callow – insensitive – unabashed - cruel?
The domestic coverage of the present war seems to say that Afghan civilian casualties don’t need to be seen. It seems to say that Afghan deaths are necessary and finally not all that important. It is not too unrealistic to assume that in some quarters the Afghan people are perceived as so much pesky protein on a landscape begging for a pipeline. Reports of casualties in Afghanistan may sound good to that man who applauded an expanding war and who was a clear minority only in that church in New York City.
I remember the 1970’s documentary “Hearts and Minds” in which a young soldier just returning from Vietnam visited the Catholic school that he attended as a child. He was there to answer questions from young students. One boy asked, “What does Vietnam look like?” The soldier responded, “It would be very beautiful – if it weren’t for the people.”
Nothing excuses characterizing human beings in that way. Minimizing the essential value of a human being is a pre-requisite for an aggressive and destructive agenda. It was a pre-requisite for September 11th and it is a pre-requisite for all wars that are allegedly fought for peace. Groups who use violence to further a political agenda all speak the same language. Bin Laden was caught on tape using that language. But do any of us wonder what is said behind the corseted presentations and reports of the war’s success and enemy deaths? Do we imagine that someone in charge could be saying, “Sounds good to me?”
Ramsey Clark quoted Martin Luther King, a great American pacifist, who said, “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.” He didn’t say my country, which is something deeper and nobler and more diverse– he said my government – government as business – government as military industrial complex. Military and industry were the targets on September 11th. The citizens and workers in those targets were perceived as the enemy. As voters and taxpayers they were considered legitimate targets. However it was rationalized the sacredness of their humanity was not considered. The full destiny of their existence was ignored. That impulse – the ability to corrupt our divine contract with all variations of human life – that is the enemy within and without.
Beyond the legalistic specifics and horror movie hype about “the smoking gun”, (which was released the same day as the Enron hearings) the most chilling thing bin Laden said in reference to the September 11th attacks was, “Those young men said in deeds in New York and Washington, speeches that overshadowed all other speeches made everywhere in the world.” In other words proponents of violence – all proponents of all violence do not believe that the pen is mightier than the sword - they do not believe that peace grows out of justice lived. They believe that bombs and terror trump a complete sentence or a dialogue. We know what happens when a leader says, “There is no negotiation.” Or “There is nothing to negotiate.” Or when we hear “Negotiations have broken down.” Or when they draw a line in the sand. We know what follows when listening stops. We know the primal sanctity of human life then becomes a secondary consideration. The death of a human being becomes an unfortunate necessity or an actual objective. And that – if we redeem our ears – can never sound good.