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A Pacifist Critique of Obama’s Nobel Lecture

In any circumstances President Obama’s speech would have been disturbing, but given in acceptance for the Nobel Peace prize it was deplorable. Full of internal inconsistencies, the speech was little more than a jingoistic defense of the institution of warfare.

We do face a War on Terror, but terrorism is not a country or an ideology, nor are human beings anywhere in this world born subject to it. Terrorism is the delusion that no one in the world is innocent, and it is trained by the injustice of a world that recognizes innocence only in its rhetoric.

President Obama is not an unintelligent man. Much of his rhetoric was thoughtful and reasoned, and demonstrates the failure of reason alone to address the crises our nation faces. Intellectualization is not enough to overcome the deep prejudices, lain down as ice across our hearts, by the tragedy of American triumphalism.

Obama correctly identified the obstacles to peace that are caused by violence when he said that “security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine and shelter they need to survive. It does not exist where children can’t aspire to a decent education or a job that supports a family. The absence of hope can rot a society from within.”

But Obama did not take the next step, could not draw the connection, would not allow himself to feel the same distress as when American violence creates this very same destitution.

The President went on to state that “force can be justified on humanitarian grounds,” and that “[t]here will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”

There are many decent women and men within the U.S. government and military. But that does not change the fact that American violence in Afghanistan and Iraq has both directly and indirectly denied human beings access to food, clean water, medicine, shelter, education, and jobs – as well as causing or contributing to deaths of hundreds-of-thousands of people in those countries. Does that make the Afghan or Iraqi insurgencies “morally justified?”

Through its military blockade, Israel is affirmatively denying Palestinians in Gaza access to food, clean water, medicine, shelter, and jobs. It’s been a year since the Cast Lead massacres – where 13 Israelis and over 1,400 Palestinians were killed – and thousands in Gaza are still forced to live in rubble. Does this make Palestinian armed resistance “morally justified?”

The unspoken answer is – of course not. They are not like us. Afghans, Iraqis, and Palestinians are the other.

This is a failure most clearly articulated when Obama further argued that “[w]hatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.”

Barack Obama is personally humble and self-effacing – a refreshing change from the vanities of Bill Clinton and George Bush, Jr. But President Obama is a frighteningly arrogant nationalist, who cannot seem to even entertain the possibility that America’s violence is as immoral as any other. The dead do not concern themselves over the ideology used to slay them.

Obama said that he believes war is justified “if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.”

Casual platitudes about so-called ‘collateral damage’ are as infuriating coming from Presidents as they are coming from terrorists. We cannot bear the loss of even one more person. We must not bear it.

A majority of the victims of war are non-combatants: innocent men, women, and children brutalized and destroyed. Civilians are not collateral to modern warfare – they are its primary targets. This is a fact that Obama himself acknowledged in his speech, even while remaining emotionally detached from its consequences.

Obama rejected the possibility of an American non-violence, stating that “as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by [Gandhi and King’s] examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world.”

Were the men who murdered Emmett Till any less ‘evil’ than those who killed Daniel Pearl? What, exactly, does Obama believe Reginald Dyer can teach Osama bin Laden about morality?

The fact is, there are few genuinely ‘evil’ people in the world; very few actual sociopaths who both know that their actions are evil and don’t care. More often, we are only dimly conscious of the consequences of our actions (and that ignorance is quite willful – we don’t want to know). And, like President Obama, regardless of how intellectually aware we are of our violence, we actively find justifications and excuses for it so that we may remain emotionally disconnected from its effects. From pithy clichés about omelettes and eggs, to supposedly reasoned arguments about dominos, weapons of mass destruction, and waging war for peace.

War and oppression are social forces. This means that peace and liberty can only be nurtured and sustained communally. Peace and liberty are expressions of our relationships with one another, and as a consequence they cannot be created by anything other than the connections within and between human communities. They cannot be birthed through war. War does not construct community – it only destroys it.

War is catastrophe. It is terrorism on a truly, massive scale. It is the physical, political and spiritual devastation of entire peoples. War is the imposition of such massive, deadly violence so as to try and force the political solutions of one group upon another. As such, war is the antithesis of democracy and freedom. War’s underlying and insuperable difficulty is that as a means of politics it is the most bloody, undemocratic, and violently repressive of all human institutions.

Violence in Afghanistan and Iraq has destabilized vast populations of human beings who were already living inside of what were already unacceptable catastrophes. Violence has built walls between those peoples and ours, enflamed prejudices and injustice, enabled persecutions and corruptions, and created fears leading to hatred and depression and despair. This is the legacy of our wars. The anger we Americans feel over our innocent dead is reflected a hundred-fold across the world through all the ‘other’ innocent dead we leave in our wake.

President Obama does not seem to understand this, or care to understand it. He candidly and openly disregards the most fundamental, God-given right of all human beings: the right to live.

President Obama is painfully, wretchedly mistaken. All of the causes in this world combined do not equal the worth of a single human life. Further and increased violence is not the solution to our problems.

Peace is not only a goal, but must be the means toward that goal. If our goal is peace, then every action taken toward that goal must be rooted in peace, must in itself create space for peace rather than for violence, must nurture community and not destroy it.

Peace is not a noun. Peace is action, living actions. Pacifism does not entail ‘standing idle in the face of threats.’ We live in unmerciful times, and so we must inculcate and awaken love. This is the practice of nonviolence: the practice of redemptive love, the practice of beloved community.

It is worth reading Obama’s Nobel speech side-by-side with Martin Luther King’s ‘A Time to Break Silence’ speech, delivered at Riverside Church on April 4th, 1967. The disparity is both startling and heart-breaking.

By necessity, life is the struggle of human beings trying to solve human problems through human means. In Oslo, Obama spoke as an American president, advocating and trying to justify American violence as a solution to problems we have ourselves helped create. In contrast, Reverend King spoke as child of our common God, and as a true moral leader for all peoples:

“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent. …As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission — a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for “the brotherhood of man.” This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances … [for] we are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”

RAMZI KYSIA is an Arab-American essayist and an organizer with the Free Gaza Movement. If you would like to support these efforts, please visit www.FreeGaza.org, or email donations[at]freegaza.org. If you would like to volunteer with Free Gaza, please send an email to volunteer[at]freegaza.org

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