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The Irish Anti-War Movement is holding a demonstration this Saturday, December 6th, at which protesters will ‘blockade’ Shannon Airport, the civilian airport in the west of Ireland where approximately half the US troops en route to Iraq and Afghanistan have stopped to rest and refuel. (See www.irishantiwar.org) The following opinion piece was commissioned by The Irish Times for use this week, then rejected by an editor who said his initial “hasty acceptance” had failed to recognise that the paper should not be “associated with and assist in mobilising for a call to break the law a step too far!”
You want to know why the Irish Anti-War Movement (IAWM) insists on blocking “business as usual”, by non-violently blocking the road to Shannon Airport this Saturday?
Ask the Government. It’s Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen [Ireland’s prime minister and foreign minister] who have insisted it’s “business as usual” for an ostensibly neutral country to aid the shipment of soldiers and weapons en route to an illegal war, and to a brutal occupation.
It’s not just radical-fringe protesters who reckon that’s kind of odd. Mr Justice Kearns, in the High Court case taken by former Commandant Ed Horgan against the US military use of Shannon, wrote: “there is an identifiable rule of customary law in relation to the status of neutrality whereunder a neutral state may not permit the movement of large numbers of troops or munitions of one belligerent State through its territory en route to a theatre of war with another”. (Unfortunately, having proffered that mouthful, the judge ruled there was little he could do.)
Key Bush adviser Richard Perle admitted (boasted?) last month that the Iraq war was illegal. “International law,” Perle said, “would have required us to leave Saddam Hussein alone.”
Maybe it’s surprising to hear arguments about legality from people who are prepared, peacefully, to defy Garda strictures on Saturday. Our Government’s complicity in the invasion of a sovereign country and the slaughter, so far, of 10,000 Iraqi civilians is obviously for us much more than a legal matter; it’s a moral and political one.
But there is a tradition of non-violent civil disobedience that answers to a law higher than the one saying you can’t block traffic. “Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience,” the Nuremberg tribunal stated. “Therefore, [individual citizens] have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring.”
That’s “the duty”, mind you, not just the right.
As an American, I’m happy to stand in a tradition that pre-dates Nuremberg. My home town of Paterson, New Jersey, was a stop for fleeing slaves on the “Underground Railroad”, a freedom trail sustained by lawbreakers of conscience. Americans Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr continue to provide the theory and practice for non-violent resistance to injustice.
I joined this resistance in 1985, when my country’s government imposed a starvation embargo on Nicaragua–a nation that Reagan was already bleeding with his proxy contra army. I was arrested with several hundred others holding a “town meeting” past opening hours in the lobby of the Federal building in Boston. (We weren’t brought to trial.)
The history of Ireland, T.M. Healy said a century ago, is essentially the history of defiance of the law. While the “physical force” tradition hogs history’s headlines, recent acts at Shannon inherit a legacy of non-violence. Mary Kelly and the “Catholic Worker 5” still face the courts for their actions against a US navy plane; just last week, with precious little media fanfare, IAWM spokesman Dr Fintan Lane started a 60-day jail sentence under onerous conditions in Limerick prison. His crime? Participation in a mass trespass at the airport last year, and refusal to pay the –750 fine–an unacceptable price tag, he said, on his right to protest.
Whether it’s an act of individual conscience or a calculated tactic to attract public attention, or a bit of both, civil disobedience has an honoured place beside other means, including engaging in electoral campaigns and building mass movements to confront the powerful. February 15th did not stop the war, but with more than 10 million people marching globally, it was a landmark in the history of political struggle.
Make no mistake, 42 weeks later there’s still a struggle over the fate of Iraq, and that of the US corporate-military project. US promises of an early turnover of power in Iraq scarcely merit serious mention, except by those naïve enough to believe that the precise form of government there matters to US leaders. An Iraqi government circumscribed to protect the Western companies that are gobbling up its national assets, a government with no choice but to allow 100,000 foreign troops to stay in its territory for at least three more years–that’s broadly the sort of government Iraq will get while the US makes the rules, and it hardly resembles sovereignty or democracy, does it?
The UN, despised in Iraq after 12 years of sanctions and largely reduced (in journalist Alexander Cockburn’s words) to “after-sales service provider” for the US, offers scant hope for an alternative. The IAWM wants to see Iraqis achieve self-government by their own means and their own rules, without the dubious patronage of foreign troops or governors. Until then, we don’t want to see their military “pacification”–by bombing raids, helicopter attacks, house-to-house searches, trigger-happy checkpoints–facilitated at Shannon.
Ten thousand US soldiers were shipped through Shannon in September alone. Patriot missiles, we now know, have passed through Shannon en route to Israel. With the US developing new, real WMD, including a nuclear bunker-buster, can we expect those dreadful weapons also to spend a few hours in an Irish civilian airport?
How many men, women and weapons must pass through Ireland on their way to wreak destruction in Iraq before we say, collectively, “enough”? How many “transfer tubes”, the new euphemism for body-bags, must pass in the opposite direction?
Counterpuncher HARRY BROWNE is a lecturer in the School of Media at Dublin Institute of Technology and a member of the steering committee of the Irish Anti-War Movement. He can be reached at email@example.com