Bloomington, Indiana will host the 5th Annual National Grassroots Organizing Conference on Iraq on Memorial Day weekend, May 28-31, in Ballantine Hall at Indiana University. This year’s theme is “From Humanitarian Disaster to Quagmire: The Failure of the ‘War on Terror.'” Speakers will include Bert Sacks, whose humanitarian efforts in Iraq have put him at odds with the U.S. government.
Sacks, a retired software engineer in Seattle, read a New York Times story in March 1991 that quoted a United Nations report on the situation in Iraq. “It used the phrase, ‘Iraq’s been bombed to near-apocalyptic state,'” Sacks said in a recent conversation. “The last paragraph says, “There will be famine and epidemic in Iraq unless massive life-supporting aid is given. Time is short.”
Although previously uninvolved in political protests, Sacks decided to act. Collaborating with organizations such as Voices in the Wilderness and Physicians for Social Responsibility, he led eight trips to Iraq.
A 1997 trip during which he delivered more than $40,000 worth of medicine ran him afoul of Executive Order 12,724, which prohibits U.S. citizens from traveling to Iraq.
Upon his return to the U.S., the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) notified Sacks that his conduct was illegal and fined him $10,000.
On principle, he refused to pay. “By what authority does the government say it has the right to tell me I cannot bring those people medicines?” he asks.
He says the aspirins, cough medicine and antibiotics he delivered “have no nefarious use at all.”
“In 1997, we took over $40,000 worth of donated medicines to people we knew would use them for the civilian population [of Iraq],” he said, adding, “All of that is a protected right under the Geneva convention.”
The U.S. government has other ideas. Sacks’ attorneys filed a Motion to Dismiss earlier this year. Government attorneys responded, “[T]he Geneva convention is only effective if Congress implements it through domestic legislation, which it has not.”
In other words, pay up.
Sacks has a problem with that. “According to the New York Times, in March 1991 – 3 weeks after the end of the [first Gulf] war – the U.S. position was, ‘By making life uncomfortable for the Iraqi people we will soon encourage them to remove Saddam Hussein from power.’
“The New York Times doesn’t say those things out of the blue. It’s pretty clear that in ’91 our strategy was, ‘We’re not going to send American troops into Baghdad to die to overthrow this guy. It’ll shatter the coalition and American troops will die. Instead we’re going to use famine and epidemic against the Iraqi people, making sure they have no safe water, no electricity, no sewage for 5 or 6 million people in Baghdad. Their life is going to be hell.'”
Sacks thinks the strategy has backfired. “After causing 12 years of devastation through the sanctions, we’re beginning to see that they’re not going to welcome us as liberators,” Sacks notes. “There’s a lot of resentment and anger because of what we did to them.”
By getting a firsthand look at a country ruined both by U.N. sanctions and by U.S. military actions, Sacks has seen a side of reality domestic media don’t report.
“In 1999, UNICEF reported that there were 500,000 children under age 5 in Iraq who would be alive if the improving infant mortality had continued from 1990. I don’t know how to emphasize enough the meaning of that – half a million children in a country of 20 million. Then you look at how that was covered here and I could find only two newspapers in the entire country that quoted that statistic. The Wall Street Journal covered that entire story in two sentences. There was no mention of the statistic and the second sentence says whatever happens is Saddam’s fault anyhow.”
“It’s my belief,” Sacks says, “and our presidents have said, that the people of Iraq are not our enemy, they are our brothers and sisters.”
Besides relying on international law and basic human compassion, Sacks points to U.S. history as justification for his work. “At one point the law in this country was that an escaped slave was the property of his owner. So if a runaway slave showed up at your door it was your legal obligation to return him to slavery,” he says.
“That begs the question, ‘Who do we respect, the people that abided by the law or the people that helped the Underground Railroad?'”
For Sacks such historical facts make it clear “that everybody in a free country has an obligation to weigh the rightness of a law before deciding to obey or disobey.”
The practice of compassionate listening now informs his activism.
“The way we are taught is that when we sit with somebody we disagree with we are just waiting for them to finish and tell them how wrong they are,” he says. “Well, what usually happens is you wind up in an argument. How often do you succeed in convincing anybody when you come at them from that attitude?”
He describes compassionate listening as a call for a much deeper way of relating to other people. “What you really want to try to do is to sit and quiet your mind and hold all of your arguments aside. You don’t forget them. But what you try to do is listen to the human being who’s sitting across from you and ask yourself, ‘How can I empathize? How can I understand this person for the suffering human being that he is?”
Sacks has since joined the Compassionate Listening Project, which seeks to establish connections with different factions in the Israeli/Palestinian dialogue, including Jewish settlers in the West Bank and members of Hamas. He feels that compassionate listening skills are important for the peace movement to learn.
“It’s crucial that we don’t demonize,” he says. “Demonizing distorts your view and populates your universe with evil people.” He adds, “If you listen to the rhetoric coming out of the White House since 1990 to prepare us to go to war, there is this view of evil people, and we’re the good people and we’re fighting evil.” Sacks says the questions “How can I understand the humans who are doing these things?” and “How can I understand how somebody becomes a terrorist or a suicide bomber?” are never asked, so we’ve never been able to understand the situation. “If we understand, then we’ll be in a position to be able to ask, “How can we stop this?” he says.
He maintains that in order to be effective, the peace movement doesn’t need to demonize George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, or anybody else. “What we need to do is to present the evidence, the information to oppose their policy but not to hate them, not to cultivate anger toward them but to see them as dangerous and confused, struggling humans, which I think they are.”
The task of the peace movement is to educate a large section of the population, Sacks says. “Many are so un- and misinformed, and out of their ignorance are inclined to side with the commander in chief because they think that’s the American thing to do.”
To counter the misinformation, Sacks and fellow Seattle-area peacemakers have created the Citizens Committee for Responsible Journalism. “The media are failing us,” Sacks says. “The media failed to ask critical questions about weapons of mass destruction, simply repeating what the government said without much investigation or without much critical questioning.”
He hopes to mobilize thousands of readers in Seattle to contact local print and broadcast media and say, “This is not acceptable to us. You are failing in your function in a democracy.”
He’s had modest success with at least one Seattle paper. The Post-Intelligencer sent a reporter along with Sacks on three of his trips. “They did a great eight-page special report in 1999 and won an award,” he says. “We had 15,000 reprints made and sent it to everybody in Congress.”
He’s focused on local media because groups like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and MoveOn are working on a national level. “I think we have the best impact if we can make a model that will work locally,” he says. “If this whole committee corresponds with the media, not just me, we’ll get what we want.”
THOMAS P. HEALY is a journalist in Indianapolis.