Sowing the Seeds of Peace

How the U.S. government and its citizens, including those in the peace movement, handle the tsunami relief efforts and reconstruction has everything to do with future peace.

It’s at these times, when people are hit with unfathomable tragedy, when they are at their most vulnerable, when they are reduced to foraging for basic necessities, fighting for packets of rice, living day to day amidst a sea of corpses as far as the eye can see, when the peace movement should stand up, speak out, and act as resolutely and vociferously as if we were on the brink of another war. Because it’s at these moments of want and desperation and inequity that the seeds of violence are potentially planted.

With the unilateral invasion of Iraq that unnecessarily killed untold thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians and U.S. troops, the U.S. squandered the post-9.11 good will of the world and replaced it with fear and disgust of a bully nation on a self-absorbed “the ends justify the means” path of global domination. We are no longer the avuncular nation in the eyes of the world that we once were.

Many in Iraq, in the Middle East, and the world already believe the U.S. is on its own jihad, systematically working to eradicate Islam. Indonesia, the hardest hit area by the tsunami, is by and large a Muslim nation. As we consider any relief efforts coming out of the U.S., we would be foolish to ignore this backdrop.

Like the generation of children in Iraq who have grown up with life-altering war and years upon years of sanctions and a reality seemingly ignored by the U.S., the children of Daceh and Kalutara and Prakasam will remember how we, the richest nation on Earth, gobbling up a quarter of its resources, regarded them in their hour of need.

If in the tsunami aftermath, the U.S. again squanders the opportunity to act according to its declared altruistic ideals, if it reneges on promised aid as it has a history of doing, if it only offers as much money in relief funds as it spends on the occupation of Iraq every three days, it will, in the eyes of the children, and in the eyes of much of the world, signal that the U.S. will only take meaningful action when its interests are directly impacted. (Until the Bush administration was shamed into increasing aid, it initially only pledged as much as we spend in Iraq in three hours.) Our minimal action will be taken as more “proof” that the U.S. has nothing but thinly veiled ill will toward Islam. To many, the fact that some of the largest, wealthiest U.S. based Christian organizations are not asking their members to donate to relief efforts on their websites is a yet another manifestation of this assertion.

No doubt, the children will remember.

And as the surviving children of this tragedy grow, so, too will the seeds of future reaction to it. Years from now if anti-American sentiment and the resultant action is common place in the tsunami-torn areas, it may very well be explained away by future leaders with such absurdities as “they are jealous of our freedoms,” as it was after 9.11.

People aren’t jealous. They’re too hungry to be jealous. And sick. They’re sick of inequity, sick from dirty water, and sick from worry about how their children will survive. Sick of U.S. corporations exploiting their people and resources. They are sick of being ignored and feeling disrespected. Sick of being referred to as the “third world” as if the absence of Game Boys and fifty kinds of laundry detergent and technological gadgets makes them inherently inferior. By and large they are politically savvy, and their elders and their media that tell them more about the worldwide inequities of basic human necessities and opportunities than ours do. They know.

And their children will remember.

In our leaders’ divorce from this reality, in their dismissal of generations of inequity and injustice, is a disconnect from cause and effect that is not only preposterous, but unutterably dangerous. Being ignored, devalued and disrespected engenders feelings of hopelessness and anger and shame creating fertile soil for desperation, and seeing no other way to be heard, often violence; resounding, unable-to-be-ignored violence.

The seeds these children reap are of the most virulent strain because when people feel unheard and dehumanized, in essence their very existence becomes threatened. And so a potent survival mechanism kicks in. There is nothing on Earth more powerful and more mobilizing than the instinctual will to survive, no matter how distorted or ill-informed its threat may or may not be. There is no way to overstate this. And you can be sure that when one is in survival mode, one will shout loudly by whatever means necessary, be it nonviolent protest or box cutters or a bomb strapped to a desperate chest.

And in that desperate moment, one is transformed from victim to perpetrator ­ a tragic moment that breeds retaliation, which breeds retaliation, which breeds retaliation. This happens in microcosm and macrocosm – family members, neighbors, and countries often caught in a dance of devaluation, shame/hopelessness/desperation and its resulting violence, all taking dizzying turns playing the role of victim then perpetrator, perpetrator then victim.

You can dismiss this as a bunch of psychobabble. It certainly would be easier and require less analysis. But it wouldn’t make it one bit less real. It’s a phenomenon well known in the psychology world and is the stuff of terrorists, serial killers, abortion clinic bombers, domestic violence and gang violence, and of intractable presidents, charging off to war despite the facts, blinded by shame and the attempt to erase past years filled with one failure after another.

For those who want peace in our world, disrupting this cycle is more important than a protest or a rally ever could be, as vital as they are and will continue to be. Right now, as events unfold in the post-tsunami world when lives and hearts and psyches are raw is when seeds, positive or negative, start to take root. And so we find ourselves in a critical window of time when our actions are most important and will have the greatest long-term effect.

We in the peace movement must be willing to put our energies into pro-active actions, not only reactive ones. In addition to our planned actions for next week or next month, we must let ourselves fathom cause and effect in concrete, as-it-is-happening terms and take preventative, consequential action.

We must let the world see we know that peace is not just the absence of guns and bombs and oppressive leaders. Peace is born of knowing you have the means to support your family. Peace means realistic hope for a viable future for your children and their children. To keep the peace, we must communicate in word and action that we value people of other nations (as we must do in our communities here at home), rather than convey pity or condescension, or foster dependence. To keep the peace, conditions must be created so we can all live our days with a modicum of self-respect. There is no greater work for the anti-war movement, and there is no greater opportunity than now.

To do this, we must be vigilant in the days and weeks and months to come. Like the war profiteering in Iraq under the legitimizing cloak of “reconstruction,” if there is “disaster profiteering” by U.S. companies in future reconstruction efforts in tsunami-torn communities, it will engender the same unemployment, frustration, and anger as it has in Iraq where they are importing cheap foreign labor as extremely skilled and capable Iraqi workers are desperate for jobs. Tragically, the seeds of future violence in Iraq have been spread far and wide.

Taking the locus of economy away from local communities and putting it in the hands of U.S. corporations was happening before the tsunami hit, to be sure, as it is happening in every part of the globe. But now, with horrifying devastation on such a monumental scale and with massive reconstruction needed, the time is ripe for profiteering, which will be all the more odious if it happens under the guise of altruistic assistance. Again, ask Iraqis. This phenomenon furthers hopelessness because it helps create the conditions of untenable and unlivable lives now and in the future. It is no less destructive than dropping bomb, and is yet another seed of violence.

As we prepare to stand up and protest a U.S. presidential inauguration that portends never-ending war and corporate globalization, we must also do everything in our power to plant new seeds – the seeds of respect, not condescension, self-sufficiency, not dependence, hope, not hopeless desperation.

We can start by directly supporting the efforts of the fisherfolk and shore dwellers, some of those who were hardest hit by the tsunami. We can help them as they create their own relief and reconstruction efforts. This helps foster self-governance and gives those who are able concrete action to take on their own behalf. A sense of self-efficacy is a powerful antidote to hopelessness and all-consuming despair and depression. It gives those who are not yet able to take action hope. The old adage about giving folks the means to fish, rather than giving them fish is literally what needs to happen.

We can speak out and work in whatever way we can to prevent current and future injustices spawned from the disaster as they occur. Right now, orphaned children taken by people posing as relief workers are being sold into the slave trade. The child slave trade is not new to the area, but in this context it adds sickening tragedy to sickening tragedy.

We can educate our friends and family about the inequity/despair/desperation/violence cycle. We can contact our Congress members, demanding they take prophylactic, meaningful steps to ensure that the relief/reconstruction efforts maintain local autonomy and control as much as is possible. And if we get little or no response, we can take to the streets, we can vigil, we can camp out at the doorsteps of our elected officials.

We can donate wisely and in resonance with our values of peace and justice, giving money to organizations that are working to help local folks maintain their independence and dignity amidst the relief efforts. Check out organizations like Via Campesina, a global alliance of poor, family farmer, farm worker, indigenous and landless peoples, currently working to empower tsunami-affected communities. ( Also check out Sarvodaya, a Ghandian-inspired Sri Lankan organization with the largest community network in the country. It’s doing massive relief mobilizing, and 100% of the money they collect is going toward these efforts. ( Do research and discover other organizations that speak to you.

Amidst this mind-boggling tragedy, we in the peace movement have an opportunity, if not a responsibility, to help break a potential cycle of injustice and violence. If we do this even partly right it will go a long way in engendering some of the long term results we all want. We will have created a new, bountiful harvest for future generations by sowing the seeds of peace today.

CAROL NORRIS is a psychotherapist, freelance writer, and organizer with CODEPINK: Women for Peace. She can be reached at:


Carol Norris is a psychotherapist, freelance writer, and longtime political activist.