Former CIA Analyst
New Mexico is holding a two-day peace conference on May 16-17. Sounds nice. Entitled “Building a Culture of Peace,” it will feature two Nobel Peace laureates — Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala and anti-landmine activist Jody Williams — as well as Gandhi’s grandson Arun Gandhi and a videotaped address by the Dalai Lama. Five “peace councils” will allow attendees to say whatever they like in such areas as violence among youth, relating to other peoples and cultures, the spiritual elements of peace work, the politics of peacemaking, and finally — the only concrete forum, established as a sop to those many activists in New Mexico who vigorously oppose the state’s huge role in the military-industrial-nuclear complex — demilitarization and building “an economy based on peace.”
What could be wrong with this lovely picture, this mom-and-apple-pie scenario? Who could oppose raising “a new generation of youth who are conscious and committed peacebuilders,” to quote from the conference literature? Who could oppose moving “from a separation mindset to one of interdependence and unity,” or discovering how to “awaken the seed of peace that lies within us all,” or investigating how we “shift our understanding of power from domination . . . to partnership, equality, and co-creation”? Why would the antiwar-peace-antinuclear community in New Mexico, dubbing the conference a “fake peace conference,” decide to stay away in droves?
Consider this background: Two years ago, a well meaning state legislator, deciding it would be nice for New Mexico to sponsor a “peace conference” in order to put the state on the map, persuaded the legislature to appropriate $450,000 for such a conference. For reasons fathomable only to those not actually interested in opposing war and militarism, the event was put under the jurisdiction of the Department of Tourism. That’s right — the Department of Tourism.
Without a real mission beyond a vague assignment from the legislature to advance peace (and an implicit assignment to advance tourism, as well as the presidential fortunes of Gov. Bill Richardson), and ultimately unable to reconcile the dissonance involved in holding a peace-promoting event in a state at the heart of the nation’s war-making machine without discussing that machine, conference organizers gave up in 2006 after wasting almost half the appropriated monies and decided to reschedule the conference for 2007. For this year’s version of the conference, the Department of Tourism hired a self-described “professional peacebuilder” and mediator who has organized a newly imagined conference centered on the five peace councils mentioned.
It is worth keeping in mind that, although New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the nation — ranking 48th in per capita income and near the bottom on all other indices of prosperity and well being — it is the birthplace of the atom bomb, home to two giant nuclear weapons development laboratories in Los Alamos and Albuquerque, and storage location for one of the largest concentrations of nuclear weapons in the world, at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque. New Mexico is a critical cog in the U.S. machine of war and empire — supported by its politicians, Democratic as well as Republican — and most of the state’s antiwar and antinuclear activists concluded that participation in a conference that does not take serious account of that grim reality would be meaningless and ineffectual at best, and at worst would lend legitimacy to an expensive effort that would actually reinforce the war industry.
Working personally on our inner selves as the conference proposes, working to tame society’s impulse to violence, coming to a recognition that “responsibility for peace on earth starts with self, not with the ‘bad guys’ out there,” getting together to talk about the elements of a peace economy and how to make peace work “financially viable for those who undertake it,” are all laudable consciousness-raising goals, but this peace conference as designed in fact merely distracts from what should be serious work toward dismantling New Mexico’s war industry. It wastes scarce energy and resources that should be directed urgently at stopping war and New Mexico’s war-making potential. It seriously undermines real justice and peace work. Real justice and peace work recognizes and actively opposes war and war industries, rather than merely putting forth sweetness and light about the virtues of peace.
Anyone willing to pay the $65 conference fee may, under the conference’s loose, so-called “open-space technology” format, propose to lead a discussion in any of the peace councils. This means that anyone may propose to discuss New Mexico’s place in the U.S. war machine, and a few peace activists intend to do just that. But it is clear, from the very format of the conference and the guidelines for the particular “demilitarization and peace economy” council, that these activists will simply be talking to themselves.
Guidelines suggest that discussion should center on the vague, inward-looking concept of “transform[ing] our lives so that we are supporting and supported by peace rather than war and violence.” Discussing the specifics — educating the citizenry on what the U.S. drive for perpetual war and global domination mean for peace in the world, informing politicians of our outrage at their support for the imperial agenda — is not part of the program. How, for instance, to oppose the planned production at Los Alamos of a new generation of plutonium warhead cores or “pits”; or how to combat the increased privatization and profiteering of federal nuclear agencies and of the U.S. war machine in general; or how to eliminate the nuclear weapons depot, just 60 miles south of the conference location, that stores 2,500 warheads right in or near Albuquerque; or how to uncover, and neutralize, any ties that foreign nations such as Israel and India may have with New Mexico’s nuclear labs; or how to stop the increasingly potent rightwing, Christian fundamentalist campaign to demonize and make war on Muslims everywhere; or how to address the abdication of the nation’s churches from the fight against war and empire; or how to stop the torture that the U.S. government and its ally Israel sanction; or how to get the U.S. out of Iraq, out of Afghanistan, out of Palestine, out of the 700+ U.S. military bases around the world.
No victims of the decades of U.S. warfare — whether survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or innocents maimed by Agent Orange in Vietnam, or civilians bombed and starved in Iraq, or torture victims at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo — will be introduced to the assembled gathering at this peace conference. Protest against war has its place, the conference organizer acknowledges, but she clearly implies that positive movement is more important. The former, she writes, “calls attention to the evils of war, oppression, and injustice and says ‘NO!’ while the other calls attention to the new and better ways of living together on this planet that would make those systems obsolete, and says ‘YES!'”
Yet those who feel some urgency about precisely the need to say “NO!” to war, oppression, and injustice — particularly today when these horrors are escalating and particularly in New Mexico where war-facilitating is a way of life and the engine of the state’s economy — cannot wait. Promoting peace as an aspect of tourism is busy work, a feel-good way to attract revenue to the state while making a cost-free statement about a meaningless goal — all the while ignoring the vicious wars the U.S. wages throughout the world, ignoring the nuclear weapons labs and depots, the military bases, the weapons test ranges scattered throughout the state, ignoring the support that Bill Richardson is giving to U.S. foreign adventurism as he campaigns for president.
Spending scarce time and energy and money on working to reform ourselves, not the war machine, is merely a way to keep the powerless busy while the powerful continue on with their agenda. The poor of New Mexico could have made far better use of the nearly half million dollars being expended on this conference.
KATHLEEN CHRISTISON is a former CIA political analyst and has worked on Middle East issues for 30 years. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession. She can be reached at email@example.com.