As “teachable moments” go, Baghdad and Basra a month before George Bush ordered those cities bombed was indeed memorable.
I saw the resilient human spirit alive and well after two decades of privation, war and repression. I experienced only warmth and graciousness, when my nationality might have elicited only hatred. I relearned the simple truth of universal humanity. Introduced to a budding, radical offshoot of the peace movement, I had a vision of how this, combined with the dawning democracy movement, might allow our species to finally leave behind the mire of war.
People have demanded peace for as long as their governments have waged warfare. The popular cry for peace, often stifled and typically left out of history books, echoes down the generations. For 30 years I’ve added my own voice for peace, with little hope we could do more than delay the next war. But last month in Iraq I saw something new and singularly hopeful.
While there, I met some 50 people associated with the Christian Peacemaker Teams and the Iraq Peace Team. These uncommon global citizens taught me much, including their attempt to revive a strategy dormant since the untimely death of Gandhi.
In Colombia they accompany farmers going to market to help protect them from paramilitary thugs bent on extortion and murder. In the occupied territories of the West Bank these retired ministers and nuns, church deacons and young activists place themselves literally in the path of Israeli bulldozers preparing to level Arab homes. Indeed, while I was in Iraq, Rachel Corrie, a U.S. activist from a similar organization, was run over and killed by an Israeli-driven, American-made bulldozer. They respond to Arab suicide bombings on Israeli buses not just with statements, but by riding the buses. In Iraq they live alongside ordinary citizens and learn about their lives, thereby putting a human face on Ahmed the shoeshine boy, Mohammed the engineer, Fatima the clerk and thousands more about to become faceless statistics.
By way of lending encouragement to this brave band I reflected aloud that a hundred years on, people will look back on their efforts and remark, “So that was how humanity finally learned to abolish war!” I expressed confidence that this new direction of the peace movement will be favorably compared with early attempts to abolish slavery and win women’s rights.
But considering the staggering odds they face, what will prevent their heroic work from becoming just another noble footnote? Consider these examples:
The safe energy movement of the 1970’s, for all its expertise and actual success at curtailing the nuclear power industry, was never able to usher in a sensible, sustainable energy policy, let alone establish citizen authority over the utility industry. After a century of struggle by the our labor movement, the U.S. still has some of the weakest unions in the industrialized world–unions that in the present crisis urge their members to write Congress instead of laying down their tools or shutting down munitions transport. Despite the legions of dedicated activists striving for universal health care, we are stuck trying to make a disease-care system a little less bad.
In these and many other cases, dedication, hard work and being right were not enough to counter the massive private power that consistently marshals our own government against us.
Will this promising, qualitatively different branch of the peace movement fare any better than the above efforts? When this war against Iraq finally ends, what will the peacemakers do? Make the occupation of Iraq a little more humane? Watch the heads of oil companies march the nation to Gulf War III and then take to the streets again? Or can we graft this new branch of the peace movement to the sapling democracy movement, thereby forging the political power we need to create the life we want?
As a Spanish activist told a packed news conference in Baghdad: “This isn’t only about peace, it’s about democracy. Our governments are going to war against the will of their own people!”
POCLAD and others seek to strike at the root of why we keep organizing against one chemical, one plant closing, and one war at a time. It defines the missing thread running through citizen movements of the last century thusly: we labored mightily to lessen a corporate harm, achieve fewer parts per million or shorten a war, but we have not addressed the fundamental powers and privileges that allow corporate directors to write policy, define our values or plunge us into another round of butchery to increase their power and wealth.
We are saying, for one thing, that we must get corporations out of our Constitution. To the extent that legal fictions enjoy the rights of persons such as free speech, due process and equal protection, real flesh-and-blood persons are denied these rights and cannot have a democracy. Property rights of the few will always trump human rights of the many. The vast decency, wisdom and compassion of the American people will never be able to govern. And we are fated to suffer the consequences of plutocracy and growing fascism.
But what if…what if the peace movement, broadened by an influx of citizens outraged at this war and deepened by nonviolent activists interposing themselves in defense of endangered civilians, combined with the democracy movement to strike at the very roots of war? What if together we created new strategies and tactics not only to stop this war, but also to strip corporations of the privileges they have usurped from us; dismantle their power to govern; end forever their ability to direct our hard-earned wealth into armaments and empire? What if in so doing we also found the key to building an actual culture of democracy, a sense of real community to fill the void in our souls that can never be filled by the Shopping Channel or Blue Light Specials?
This is truly a dream worth pursuing. Reaching it is worth rethinking the way we organize. We may yet set a course that 100 years from now will finally achieve democracy and abolish war.
MIKE FERNER spent the month of February in Baghdad and Basrah, with the Iraq Peace Team. He is Communications Coordinator for the Program on Corporations, Law & Democracy and a member of Veterans for Peace.
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