A Change Gonna Come

Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.

-Arundhati Roy Porto Alegre, Brazil, World Social Forum, January 27, 2003

Pekin Federal Prison
Peoria, Illinois

“Kathleen Kelly, report to Admin.”

I was routinely cleaning toilets in my dorm at Pekin Federal Prison Camp when the loudspeaker summoned me to the Administration Building. “You’re going next door,” said the guard on duty. “Someone wants to talk with you.” During a five-minute ride to the adjacent medium-security men’s prison, I quickly organized some thoughts about civil disobedience and prison terms, expecting to meet a journalist. Instead, two well-dressed men stood to greet me and then flashed their FBI badges. They had driven to Pekin, Ill., from Chicago, where they work for the FBI’s National Security Service.

Both men were congenial. They assured me that their visit had nothing to do with Voices in the Wilderness violations of federal law in numerous trips to Iraq, where we regularly delivered medicines and medical relief supplies. Nor had they come to talk about why I’m currently imprisoned for protesting the US Army’s military combat training school in Fort Benning, Ga. What they proposed was “a conversation,” since they had information which they felt would help me and Voices teams in Iraq, both now and in the future. Likewise, I could help them, and perhaps improve national security, by answering some of their questions.

I said I’d prefer not to talk with them without a lawyer present. The more talkative agent quickly nodded and suggested a follow-up visit with a lawyer. He spoke further about his favorable impressions of Voices in the Wilderness and how useful it would be for our travelers to better understand some of the people whom the Iraqi government, under Saddam Hussein, had assigned to work with us as “minders” during our past trips. He said he had information about “bad things” they had done or had planned to do. Having this conversation would benefit Voices in its travel to other countries as well. (Voices has focused solely on Iraq, although some of us have visited other countries with other groups).

At that point, I decided not to talk with them at all. “I don’t want to accuse either of you of any wrongdoing,” I said, wanting to be polite, “but your organization has used methods that I don’t support, and sometimes your job requires you to lie.”

Still amiable and interested in some kind of conversation, albeit one-sided, they let me know that they had carefully read our website. “We saw the pictures of the children,” said the less talkative agent. The three of us were silent for a moment.

His partner mentioned that they’ve already met with numerous Iraqi Americans, none of whom had anything bad to say about Voices in the Wilderness.

“Do you have any questions for us?” they asked several times. “Is there anything you want to say?”

“Well, yes,” I said, finally. “I do want to say something. I don’t mean this disrespectfully, but I do encourage you to resign.” Smiling broadly, they told me they’d placed a bet about whether or not I’d talk to them, but hadn’t anticipated being asked to resign.

“Sorry, my wife wouldn’t like it,” said one. “I’ve got a pension to collect,” said the other.

Several times, they advised me not to publicize the visit. “You know the Arab mind,” one advised. “If you tell people we visited you in prison, they’ll never believe you didn’t talk with us, and you won’t be trusted when you go to other countries.” There’s no such thing as a monolithic Arab point of view, and what intelligence agencies have done to undermine trust in Iraq and the surrounding region is a chapter unto itself, but I bit my tongue.

I think these men came to see me because they were responding to inquiries from their colleagues in Iraq. Perhaps someone, whom I’ve known, in Iraq, is being “vetted” for a position within the U.S. occupation, or perhaps an Iraqi under investigation for wrongdoing named me as one who could vouch for his or her decency. I don’t see how I could tell anything about my personal experience that would have been harmful to another person, and maybe I could have been helpful in showing that someone I know was genuinely concerned for innocent civilians.

I’m ambivalent–maybe I should have talked with them. But mainly I feel sad, a bit weary, and somehow responsible because the most crucial “information” Voices in the Wilderness can and should offer seldom reaches the general public, much less officialdom. We tried hard to inform people that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children died as a direct result of economic sanctions. But it was as though we were part of a defective Jeopardy! quiz game. We had answers to questions that would never be asked.

The agents who visited me asked me about “bad apples” in Iraq. On Capitol Hill, panels of civilians and military leaders want to punish the few “bad apples” responsible for torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners. When we clamor for closure of the military combat training school in Fort Benning, Ga., a school whose graduates have massacred, tortured, assassinated and disappeared many thousands of people in Latin America, public relations spokespeople for the base say that we are overreacting to “a few bad apples.”

Suppose we set aside the bushels of “bad apples.” Military, prison, and intelligence-gathering structures routinely and inherently involve dehumanizing actions (my encounter was, I think, exceptionally benign). Instead of searching for blameworthy bad apples as though we are blind children trying to pin the tail on the donkey, why not carefully acknowledge our collective, passive responsibility for systems predicated on threat, force, and violence? When money, talent, and resources are poured into military systems and prison systems, while health, education, and welfare systems compete for inadequate budget allotments, we can expect constant warfare abroad and the quadrupling of prisoner populations which occurred in the US over the last 25 years.

Military and prisoner structures don’t train recruits to view “the enemy” or “the inmate” as precious and valuable humans deserving forgiveness, mercy, and respect if they have trespassed against us. These systems don’t foster the notion that we ourselves could be mistaken, that we might seek forgiveness, or that we might, together with presumed outcasts, create a better world. Look to Scriptures for such views–they’re there–but don’t expect love of enemy and the Golden Rule to guide military, prison, or intelligence systems anywhere in the world.

U.S. history abounds with remarkable achievements and noble endeavors–the movements to abolish slavery, attain women’s suffrage, build unions, and establish civil rights, to name but a few. But no country can ever achieve political maturity without willingly looking into the mirror and acknowledging all of its history. The US must come to grips with having been, since World War II (when, under the shadow of the mushroom cloud, we ushered the world into the nuclear age), a nation constantly at war: Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada, Panama, the first Gulf War, Kosovo, Columbia, Afghanistan, the ongoing war in Iraq. We’ve waged hot war after hot war, and undergirding all these wars is the continuing war of Western culture against the biodiversity of our planet. To preserve our pleasures and privileges, we become the most dangerous warlike culture in human history.

A few bad apples? Not a chance.

As more pictures of beleaguered Iraqi prisoners emerge, prolonging and swelling a horrid scandal, I can’t help but wonder why the pictures of suffering Iraqi children never raised equivalent concern or indignation in the US or elsewhere in the world.

I won’t forget that one of the FBI agents mentioned seeing pictures of Iraqi children on the VitW website. I’m grateful to him for remembering them. I feel haunted by the infants, the toddlers, the young teens, and their heartbroken mothers and fathers whom we met at bedside after bedside in Iraqi hospitals. Walking on the oval track, here in prison, I whisper the names and recall the sweet faces of the little ones I grew to know, fleetingly. All of them were condemned to death. None of them were bad apples. They were fine fruits of loving families. Hundreds of thousands died–some after many days of writhing pain on bloodstained mats, without pain relievers. Some died quickly, wasted by waterborne diseases; as the juices ran out of their bodies, they looked like withered, spoiled fruits. But no, they weren’t bad apples. They could have lived, certainly should have lived–and laughed and danced, and run and played–but somehow–honestly, I don’t understand it–somehow they were sacrificed, brutally punished to death.

Their pictures, each of their stories, had something to say to us. If Americans had seen their images, day after day, the economic sanctions would never have lasted long enough to claim the lives of as many as half a million children under age five. These Iraqi children who couldn’t survive abysmally failed foreign policies still have something to say to us.

“Please call me by true name,” wrote Thich Nhat Hanh, a monk and poet who led the Buddhist non-aligned movement during the Vietnam War. He wants us to fully understand who we are.

We have an extraordinary challenge, now, as the American people clearly don’t want to be aligned with or represented by disgraceful and bullying behavior. We must resist being misled by finger-pointing at “a few bad apples.” We should acknowledge that all of us are called upon to be change agents, by changing our over-consumptive and wasteful lifestyles. We must look for every sign of a “climate change” that will help us overcome our unfortunate addiction to war-making.

This may be a pivotal time. Consider the early stages of the Civil Rights movement. Participants must have wondered how many beatings, how many lynchings, how many Jim Crow indignities would be heaped on communities before opponents of civil rights would say they were tired of being the bully. In that movement, a pivotal point was reached when Bull Connor ordered police to train fire hoses on peaceful protesters, including children. Frustrated onlookers around the world were horrified. And increasing numbers of Americans no longer wanted to be identified with Bull Connor and all that he represented.

“Injustice must be exposed to the light of human conscience,” said the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, “and to the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

I feel sure that numerous members of the armed services, the intelligence agencies, and various other federal government bureaus, including the bureau of prison employees, understand very; well why we need radical change in the US. I feel sure that an era of reform and a climate conducive to progressive humanitarian measures will recycle into our history.

But all of us need to take advantage of our own opportunities to be agents of change. For some it may mean walking away from cruel, wrongful, or dishonest work. For others it may mean becoming whistle-blowers. Still others can announce the truth as they see it in spite of risks to their pensions or job security. When we’re willing to call ourselves by all of our names, change can happen.

Change is coming. Light as the breath of excruciatingly beautiful Iraqi children nearing their deaths, demanding as the imploring eyes of their mothers who asked us why, you can feel it coming.

KATHY KELLY is a co-coordinator of Voices in the Wilderness. To learn more about how to become part of efforts to close the SOA, visit www.soaw.org Kathy will also spend time in prison for crossing the line at Project ELF, a US Navy nuclear weapon facility in northern WI which helped fast-track Tomahawk Cruise missiles that attacked Iraq during the Shock and Awe campaign. To learn more about the campaign to shut down Project ELF, visit www.nukewatch.com. She can be reached at: Kathy@vitw.org.

Kathy Kelly (kathy@worldbeyondwar.org), Board President of World BEYOND War, co-coordinates the November 2023 Merchants of Death War Crimes Tribunal. She is the author of Other Lands Have Dreams, published by CounterPunch/AK Press.