What We Can Control


In the past year, several groups have asked me to facilitate retreats for people who want to further explore nonviolence. At the retreats, I ask volunteers to role-play situations likely to generate discussion about challenges people face when involved in peace activism. One of the most reliably difficult scenarios stages a spouse raising with his or her partner a decision to become a war tax refuser and stop paying federal income tax.

In one such scene, an anguished husband implored his wife to understand his reasons for stopping payment of federal income tax. "How could you do this to our children?" she asked. "And why didn’t you think of this before you became a father?" The husband responded, "Honey, I just want to do something for peace," to which the wife blurted out, "At Christmas?!" The room filled with laughter. Cut! Point well taken.

Last night, after spending Thanksgiving Day with family, my mother and I groaned over TV news clips that anticipated today’s shopping binge. Many progressives refuse to participate in the orgy of shopping that accompanies the Christmas season. But what about the appropriations for weaponry that are so hard to eliminate from our personal budgets?

I return in memory to a real life scene that happened not far from the birthplace of Jesus. In April of 2002, Jeff Guntzel and I were part of a small team that had entered the Jenin Camp, in Palestine, during the Israeli Defense Force’s "Operation Enduring Storm". We were appalled at the conditions afflicting civilians whose homes had been destroyed. One hundred three-story apartment buildings had been reduced to rubble. We had helped pull a grandmother out of a partially destroyed home and, while IDF snipers were still shooting, we’d managed to get a stretcher from a nearby hospital and then carried her to the emergency room, shouting at the soldiers to put their guns down and let us pass.

Later we approached the ruins of a home with two young college-aged Palestinian women. One of the women spotted some fabric and realized it was her jacket. She began clawing through the debris, loosening the fabric from the mound of wreckage, and became increasingly hysterical. Pulling out the jacket in one piece, she went through the pockets, convulsed with nervous laughter over the absurdity. Her sister spotted the edge of a book. Together they dug frantically, as though racing against time, until they unearthed the older sister’s nursing textbook and then managed to free another book, a history of Islamic faith. Looking at Jeff and me, the younger woman screamed, "Under here, four televisions, two computers!" They were people, just like us.

The next day, picking our way over more ruined homes, while very brave Palestinian men and boys, wearing flimsy surgical masks, retrieved corpses from the rubble, we were approached by three furious mothers who saw us scribbling notes in our spiral pads. "Put this in your notebook," shouted one enraged woman. "It is your country that we hold responsible!" She jabbed my notebook. "Write this! Your country!" Taken aback, I blurted out, "I don’t pay my taxes." I was desperate not to be responsible.

Who then is responsible? Of course I’m responsible. I live well in the country that, during the 37-year armed Israeli occupation of Palestine, has given over $100 billion dollars to Israel, mostly for its military. US lawmakers have directed the productivity of US people into a $524 billion budget for US military and security in 2005. When I return to the US after spending a few weeks or months in a war-torn, shattered area of the world, how long does it take for me to adjust to electricity, clean water, phones, computers, plenty of food and easy transport? About eight seconds.

There’s no way to run or hide from the truth of the US people’s responsibility for reckless warfare, military and economic, in numerous parts of the world. Nor can we hide from the truth about who pays to prepare for future wars. In next year’s defense budget, $177 billion is earmarked for weapon systems that won’t be available until two generations from now. President Bush and his advisors ask that we saddle ourselves, our children and our grandchildren with the bills for this wild spending so that his profiteering friends can become wealthy peddling weapons and war.

Over and over, President Bush told Senator Kerry, "You can run, but you can’t hide." It’s a harsh line, a hurtful taunt, but in these harsh and hurtful times, the progressive community faces a moral imperative that won’t allow us to run or hide. We can’t control the US government. Millions of US people tried mightily during the past election season to assert an antiwar agenda. But antiwar progressives can’t dodge the fact that more than half of the US democrats voted for Kerry over Dean. More than half the democrats voted for a man who said he would be tougher than Bush on Iraq, but that he’d pursue the warmaking more efficiently. He’d have sent more troops than Bush is sending.

Then more than half of the American people voted for Bush over Kerry.

Politically, progressives were defeated by a majority of Democrat voters even before the majority of American voters ratified imperialism. We’re having limited results from time-honored ways of influencing our government ­ getting out and protesting, the signs, the candles, the education and legislative work that is still crucially important.

Bush promised that he would spend money for the amount of troops that he needs to recruit for ongoing wars. Most of us are not targeted by the recruiters. We’re not listened to by our government, nor, in sufficient numbers, the American people. From most of us, what is required is not our bodies and not our consent ­ it’s our money. This is what we have power over.

We can appropriate money away from militarism to health care, housing and other needs by our resistance, by our nonpayment of taxes for war. As civilian and military casualties mount, as US foreign policy creates terrorists faster than we can kill them, progressives opposed to warmaking simply can’t deny a moral imperative: don’t turn your productivity over to the warmakers.

Our refusal here in the US can be undertaken at no great risk. We’re not talking Germany 1939. More relevantly, we’re not talking El Salvador 1980-present. By any measure that takes in the lives of our war-victims and the risks they face, it is no great risk.

Karl Meyer, a pacifist guide for numerous war tax refusers, a man who hasn’t paid his taxes since 1960, takes a harder line than I do, but without his perspective I never would have been drawn into allowing the IRS to become my spiritual director. Here are Karl’s words: "If progressives fail to resist militarism or refuse participation in it through the one form of participation that is demanded, that is to pay taxes, they should give up their pretensions to being in opposition."

How readily we criticize Bush for being in denial about the reality of US warmaking against Iraq. Yet we’re all vulnerable to layers of denial about our own complicity.

In that roleplaying scenario, both characters’ pleas, both of the mother concerned for her kids and the father concerned for other people’s children, were the pleas that persist through the devastation afflicting Iraq, Afghanistan, the West Bank, impoverished US neighborhoods ("the refugee camps of the class wars," said Dorothy Day), and other war zones. Yearn for peace. Try very hard not topay for war. And, most of all, think of the children.

KATHY KELLY is a co-coordinator of Voices in the Wilderness. She has refused to pay all forms of federal income tax since 1980. See www.nwtrcc.org for more information about war tax refusal. She can be reached at: kathy@vitw.org.

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