The crowds keep swelling, as though awareness, determination – humanity itself – were rising up from the earth. Einstein observed that we can never solve problems at the same level of thinking that created them. I hear the resonance of a new moral intelligence asserting itself, on the streets of the Middle East, in the United States and around the world.
“You can kill a man,” said Medgar Evers, “but you can’t kill an idea.”
But oh, they try, they try. Hundreds were killed and wounded across the Middle East in recent weeks. “In the southern city of Aden,” AP reports, “Yemeni security forces opened fire on thousands of demonstrators after Friday’s Muslim prayers, wounding at least 19 people.”
Our whole approach to security is built around the assumption that you can kill an idea. Guns, brutality, coercion: This is the common wisdom. It’s sustained by a moral numbness that permeates mainstream culture and is carried along by the corporate media, which perpetuate a facile misunderstanding of the world with the throwaway certitudes embedded in their reportage.
Consider, for instance, this stunning little say-nothing sentence that I plucked from an AFP dispatch about NATO’s possible killing of 65 civilians (including 40 children) during a recent strike in Kunar province, Afghanistan:
“The accidental deaths of civilians in international military operations is a highly sensitive subject in Afghanistan — particularly in Kunar — which experts and officials say can fuel support for the Taliban-led insurgency.”
A reader can glide so smoothly past such military-industrial truisms, hardly noticing that the subject under discussion is flesh and blood, the lives of people who have the bad luck to be living in a war zone. These people, alas, keep getting in our way as we set about the grim task of killing “insurgents,” that is to say, believers in a particular idea.
There’s no grief in such language, no horror, no sense of wonderment that we’re operating out of a 12th-century “kill them all, let God sort them out” mindset, constrained only by the tedious sensitivity they have over there about dead children. Rolling Stone recently broke a mini-scandal about the Army’s use of “psy-ops” propaganda on visiting U.S. congresspersons in order to cajole more funding for its Afghan operations, but as far as I’m concerned, much of the media colludes in psy-ops reporting aimed at keeping the whole country hoodwinked and stupid.
I’ve despaired for years that the voices calling for a world beyond war and the corporate agenda have been effectively marginalized, with no more than a symbolic place in our sophisticated pseudo-democracy – and certainly no leverage to exert on actual policy.
But this is what is suddenly changing. The “street” and the “masses” have actually found – maybe rediscovered is the right word – the power of nonviolent collective action. And the cradle of this new approach to civilization is not in the comfortably snoozing West but in the impoverished and long-brutalized Middle East, where every despot has either tumbled or is shaking in his boots – and where violence has suddenly been stripped of its righteousness and been exposed as weakness, no matter how much mayhem it produces.
Thus in Iraq, even though Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki responded with brutal impotence to huge protests throughout the war-ravaged country over the weekend – calling not for his ouster but merely for electricity and an end to corruption – he failed to quell the rising tide of change. The Washington Post reported that 29 protesters were killed throughout the country in clashes with government forces, and 300 intellectuals and journalists (the heroic, non-collusive kind) were arrested, with many of them tortured. But the “day of rage” was still a triumph.
Filmmaker Raad Mushatat, in a gathering of colleagues after their release, told a Post reporter: “The government is scared. But they do not scare me anymore.”
This is change.
And it’s the kind of change that crosses borders, that defies every attempt at coercion. “You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.” Maybe what we’re witnessing is the end of passive citizenship, at least as something the military-industrial status quo can count on. And maybe, in this country, the defense of public-sector union jobs is just the beginning, to be followed by demands for a defunding of our wars, which radiate suffering in all directions, and a redirection of spending into education, health care, infrastructure and other programs that serve the common good.
“We will not . . . end this slaughter of innocents, unless we are willing to rise up as have state workers in Wisconsin and citizens on the streets of Arab capitals,” Chris Hedges wrote this week. “Repeated and sustained acts of civil disobedience are the only weapons that remain to us.”
Suddenly protest is not “symbolic” anymore, but a way to work the levers of change: a recovery, you might say, of the right to vote.