Thursday, November 20, 2014

Vengeance is Obsolete


Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks on the tragic occasion of the deaths of three Israeli teens at the hands of Palestinians reverberate further than he might think. Understanding their implications is even a key to what the late Jonathan Schell called “the fate of the earth.”

"’They sanctify death, we sanctify life,’ Netanyahu asserted, comparing the teens to those who killed them. ‘They sanctify cruelty, and we mercy and compassion. That is the secret of our strength.’ A short time later -- after the burials of Eyal Yifrach, 19; Gilad Shaar, 16; and Naftali Frankel, a 16-year-old dual U.S.-Israeli citizen, in Modiin—the Prime Minister spoke again about the three before a security cabinet meeting, saying, ‘May God avenge their blood.’” (CNN)

If only mercy and compassion truly were the secret of Israel’s, or any modern nation’s, strength. Instead, we see an unworkable policy of revenge at work. Presumably the Prime Minister was referencing Deuteronomy, where God reserves vengeance to Himself alone. Later in the Bible that commandment to leave things to God is complemented by references to the necessity for us to consciously put away wrath and cross over into forgiveness. But ending the cycle does not require forgiveness. It merely requires awareness that vengeance as policy is futile.

Mr. Netanyahu tries to separate “us” and “them” into distinct moral universes, as if Israelis and Palestinians were not equally human and fallible. Looking down upon adversaries from a moral high ground—just as they do him—contradicts the mercy and compassion he affirms as the presumed basis of Israeli superiority, rationalizing the continued game of tit for tat. Where is the mercy, or justice, in bulldozing the houses of the murder suspects?

Lest we elsewhere in the world think we are not subject to the corrupting spirit of vengeance, think again. It is the exceptional leader who, at a moment of violence like the ISIS beheadings of American citizens, summons the political courage to refuse to give in to revenge, and urges the rest of us to follow suit.

Since 9-11 vengefulness has corrupted our thinking about the “Muslim world,” a phrase corrupted already by the falseness of thinking of that world as a monolith. Long before the twin towers fell, vengeance was firmly in place as the implied modus operandi of a potentially omnicidal international system: nuclear deterrence. What else is deterrence if it is not a cold calculated version of passionate hot revenge, the logical opposite of the merciful and compassionate Golden Rule? If you plan on doing evil to us, think carefully, for we are ready to give back far worse—even if we risk destroying ourselves in the process.

Sensible ways out of this thicket of paradox can seem eccentric indeed. Remember when Ronald Reagan proposed to Mikhail Gorbachev that the U.S. share with the Soviets the technology of missile defense? So reasonable, yet so far-fetched, because it assumed Soviets cherished their grandchildren as much as Americans. Reagan understood the endlessness (until the world itself ends) of the revenge cycle.

No matter how profoundly antithetical it would be to the “never again” history of Israel to suggest that they rely on their Iron Dome missile defense system alone for protection and refuse to retaliate when attacked, in the long run lives would be saved on both sides if they did. This life-giving principle of defensive non-revenge applies as well to the search for viable international security norms by the United States and other nuclear nations—applies for that matter to any conflict anywhere. Abandon the policy that the best defense is a good offense. Categorically declare no first use. Aggressively advocate for treaties that further cut numbers of warheads.  Declare deterrence immoral and unworkable for all parties. Emphasize true defense, like Israel’s anti-missile system. Most of all replace the vicious cycle of vengeance with a virtuous cycle that begins when any one party has the maturity to affirm with Gandhi that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Giants on the Earth: A Review of Waging Peace by David Hartsough



There were giants on the earth in those days . . . (Genesis 6:4)

The fear that we citizens of the United States have been seduced into since 9/11 spreads across our benighted nation like a fog, inhibiting all policy alternatives not based in blind vengefulness. Special are those who have the spiritual clear-sightedness and persistence to make people-oriented global connections that pierce the fog of fear with the light of visionary possibility.

One such giant is David Hartsough, whose vivid, even hair-raising, memoir of a lifetime of peace activism, Waging Peace: Global Adventures of a Lifelong Activist, has just been published by PM press.  It ought to be required reading for every U.S. citizen befogged by the crude polarization between Islamic extremism and the equally violent, ineffective, but seemingly endless Western military reaction it has elicited.

It hardly seems possible that Hartsough has been able to crowd into one lifetime all his deeds of creative nonviolence. He was there with Martin Luther King in the late fifties in the South. He was there when a train loaded with bullets and bombs on their way to arm right-wing death squads in Central America severed the leg of his friend Brian Willson in California. His initiatives of support for nonviolent resistance movements span both decades and continents, from efforts to get medical supplies to the North Vietnamese, to reconciliation among Israelis and Palestinians, to support for Russian dissidents as the Soviet Union was breaking up, to the resistance to Marcos in the Philippines, and on and on. Hartsough’s book thus becomes a remarkably comprehensive alternative history to set against “the official story” of America’s—and many other nations’—often brutal and misguided reliance upon military intervention.

David Hartsough gave himself a head start by getting born into the right family. As a boy he heard his minister father preach the gospel of loving your enemies and almost immediately got a chance to try it out when bullies pelted him with icy snowballs. It worked, and Hartsough never looked back. Having determined to do integration in reverse by attending the predominantly black Howard University, he soon found himself sitting in with courageous African-American students at segregated restaurants in Virginia. A white man crazed with hate threatened him with a knife. Hartsough spoke to him so gently that the man was “disarmed” by the unexpected shock of a loving response and retreated open-mouthed and speechless.

Sixty years of innumerable protests, witnesses, and organizing efforts later, Hartsough is still at it as he helps to begin a new global movement to end war on the planet, called “World Beyond War.” While his book is a genuinely personal memoir that records moments of doubt, despair, fear of getting shot, and occasional triumph, even more it is a testament to the worldwide nonviolent movement that still flies completely under the radar of American media. Living in a bubble of propaganda, we do not realize how intrusive the bases of our far-flung empire are felt to be. We do not feel how many millions worldwide regard the U.S. as an occupying force with negative overall effects upon their own security. Even more importantly, we remain insufficiently aware how often nonviolence has been used around the world to bring about positive change where it appeared unlikely to occur without major bloodshed. The U.S. turns to military force reflexively to ”solve” problems, and so it has been difficult indeed, as we are seeing in our ham-handed response to ISIS and the chaos in Syria, for us to learn lessons that go all the way back to the moral disaster of Vietnam. We have not registered how sick of the madness of war the world really is. Now academic studies are starting to back up with hard statistical evidence the proposition that nonviolent tactics are more effective than militarism for overthrowing dictators and reconciling opposing ethnic or religious groups.

Coincidentally, the book I read just before Waging Peace was its perfect complement: a biography of Allen Dulles, first director of the CIA, and his brother John Foster Dulles, longtime Secretary of State. The Dulles book goes a long way toward explaining the hidden motives of the military-industrial-corporate behemoth which Hartsough has spent his life lovingly but persistently confronting—truly a moral giant named David against a Goliath of clandestine militarism that props up narrow business interests at the expense of the human rights of millions. Always this David has kept in his heart one overarching principle, that we are one human family and no one nation’s children are worth more than any other’s.

Hartsough’s tales of persistence in the face of hopeless odds remind us not to yield to despair, cynicism, fear mongering or enemy posing, all temptations when political blame is the currency of the day. Hartsough is a living exemplar of the one force that is more powerful than extremist hate, reactive fear, and weapons, including nuclear bombs—the human capacity to be harmless, helpful and kind even to supposed adversaries.

If—let us say optimistically when—peace goes mainstream and deluded pretentions to empire are no longer seen as the royal road to security, when we wake up to the hollowness of our selfishness and exceptionalism, when we begin to relate to other nations as opportunities to share good will and resources rather than to bomb, it will be largely because of the tireless efforts of insufficiently heralded giants like David Hartsough.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Killing for Peace


Since 9-11-01, the United States, by any objective assessment a globe-girdling military empire, has been sucked into an ongoing global civil war between brutal extremists (often fighting among themselves) and those, including us, they perceive as their mortal enemies.  We are rightfully outraged by cruel beheadings videotaped for Internet distribution. The beheaders and suicide bombers are equally outraged by our extensive military presence in their ancestral homelands and drone attacks upon weddings.

Meanwhile, though the government of our mighty empire can read our emails and tap our telephones, the worldwide nonviolent movement to bring about positive change somehow flies completely under its supposedly all-seeing radar screens. The peoples of the earth are overwhelmingly against war, and they want their fair share of the earth’s resources and the possibilities of democratic governance. Academic studies (e.g., Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict ) have proven that, overall, nonviolent movements are more effective for reaching such goals than violent military ones.

Our media narrows discourse and fans the flames by only allowing U.S. citizens to see through the narrow lens of exceptionalism, polarization and violence. Fear mongers, legion in our culture, insist that adherents of ISIS are hardly human. But we should keep their humanity in our hearts even as we abhor their acts, just as we ought to abhor our own descent into torture and extra-judicial killings. People do not do what those ISIS fighters do without having been rendered desperate and callous by some painful sense of injustice. As Auden wrote, “Those to whom evil is done/do evil in return.” The question for us is how we can best respond to evil without rationalizing our own evil behavior.

Setting aside the blurry distinction between the sadism of beheadings and the supposed good intentions of those who control the drones, our side and theirs share the conviction that the only solution to this great conflict is killing. If ISIS can kill enough of its enemies, a Caliphate can be established from Lebanon across to Afghanistan, obliterating the despised arbitrary borders created by the colonial powers after World War l. Conversely, if the West can only assassinate enough terrorist leaders in Afghanistan and Yemen and Syria, moderate elements will emerge from the slaughter to renounce the vain and presumptuous notion that Islam is destined to conquer a pluralistic world.

But the presumptions of both present American empire and possible Muslim empire are equally vain and closed-minded in their separate ways. Continued mass killing by either side will never resolve the underlying cultural disparities, and so unless we think in new ways, this planetary civil war will continue, multiplying recruits to terror faster than they can be exterminated—a perpetual motion meat-grinder of violence.

We can’t just leave the various extremist groups to fight it out among themselves. We have to lead, but why not lead in a new direction? Amid all the hand wringing about least bad options, there is a good option: change the game. Admit that the U.S. occupation of Iraq led to some unforeseen outcomes. Call an international conference that includes representatives from as many parties that are willing to consider how to contain and end the violence. Agree to embargo the arms pouring into the region.

The possibility that we are already fighting a third world war, having forgotten the lesson of how little anybody wanted or expected to get into the first one, suggests the need to call upon the spirit of figures like King and Dag Hammarskjold, that world ambassador for peace. As we look down the time stream, it becomes harder and harder to guarantee who will and who will not be able to possess nuclear weapons. Even now some disaffected Pakistani general might be transferring a warhead to some non-state actor with malign intentions. It is equally possible that someone in the U.S. military could go rogue with a nuke, initiating catastrophe.

Is a third world war leading to total destruction the intention of either the Christian God or the Muslim Allah? The opportunity is for all parties to accept this possibility and build agreements based in a common desire for human survival—listening at last to the pleas of millions around this small planet who desperately want the madness of endless war to cease.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Loca and Global


I attended the Special Town Meeting in the town of Bristol on October 1, 2014. The purpose of the meeting was to vote on a non-binding resolution that would allow a cable from experimental wind turbines off Monhegan to cross prime fishing grounds and come ashore in New Harbor. Apparently the cable cannot be buried on the sea bottom and would pass across uneven rocky ground, making it all too easy for fishermen to entangle their equipment. Even though the resolution was overwhelmingly defeated, the meeting was packed and the energy in the room was genial and inclusive. Whatever the outcome, it always feels good in these cynical times to experience passionate citizen involvement, where the tension between opposing interests can almost always lead to a constructive outcome with which all parties can live.

The late Edward Myers, my father, lived for more than half a century with the tension between his lobster business and changes in the ocean system bearing on lobster health. While he did much to enlarge the international market for Maine seafood, at the same time, year after year, he carefully noted changes in salinity, acidity, temperature and mean tidal levels in the Damariscotta river.  The changes he witnessed were alarming enough for him to put together a book before he died in 2002, called Turnaround, a gentle prophecy of what is coming unless we change course in our relations with the natural world. This tradition of scientific analysis of environmental changes continued with his granddaughter, who spent three years studying shell disease in lobsters at the New England Aquarium. It is becoming clear that factors such as water temperature and water quality may be increasing stress upon lobster immune systems.

The eloquent fisherman who spoke against the cable characterized it as a potential “environmental atrocity.”  But an environmental atrocity a trillion times larger than the proposed cable has already happened and continues to unfold as the oceans change in ways with which marine research can hardly keep pace. At the moment, lobsters in the Gulf of Maine seem to be plentiful, but south of Kittery the story looks more ominous. We ought to fear for the long-term health and livelihood of all fisheries off the coast, should we continue to deny locally what is looming over us globally. “The way life should be” becomes a meaningless slogan if it fails to take into account the way life actually is.

I volunteer for a non-profit called the Mid-coast Green Energy Cooperative. Our purpose is to help people, especially working people struggling with the rising costs of oil and gas, to insulate their houses and switch to energy-saving devices like solar panels and heat pumps—without spiraling into unsustainable debt.  A by-product of our work is the mitigation of human-caused global warming and climate instability.

We can debate where the best place might be for wind turbine experiments. But Initiatives like our Co-op and the University of Maine wind experiments, whether they are merely academic or eventually commercially viable, remain essential, given that local, national, and international political responses lag behind environmental warning signals that are affecting all of us and will overwhelm our children and grandchildren unless we become more proactive. Nations like Germany are years ahead of the U.S. in their commercially successful conversion to wind and solar

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Letter to my Senator

Dear Senator King,

I really do admire your ability to think for yourself and I have high hopes for what you can do, as an independent, to shift policy in sensible directions. But, having played the video of your ISIS remarks, I felt I was hearing the voice of the politician rather than the independent thinker—with the exception of when you asked at the end of your remarks, though without attempting an answer with the same conviction that you earlier went along with Obama's reactive "plans" to respond to ISIS militarily, for more examination of the root causes of extremism.

Other authoritative governmental voices have asserted that in fact ISIS does not pose a direct threat to the U.S., so I am confused when my senator argues so vehemently that they do. Who to believe?

But setting the threat level aside, what I really want from those who represent me is some moral imagination and creativity in this fiendishly complex situation, and I know you especially have the capacity for that. For the politician, perhaps moral imagination begins with some stringent interior reflection that begins to separate the political from a comprehensive sense of cause and effect. Our political culture going back decades is awash with insights that simply could not be uttered because it would be political suicide to do so. Such as articulating honestly what "our" (the colonial and neo-colonial powers from WW1 forward) role has been in what has unfolded—surely germane to the present fanaticism of ISIS and what we might do about it. I am not a "blame America firster." I just believe our culture has vastly oversimplified the karmic complexity of history into America-good/Islam-bad dichotomies.

What I deplore is how my country, especially since 9-11, has been speaking and acting before it understands. I simply do not believe it is possible for you, or even the military, to understand what the allegiances are of the parties on the ground in the region. It has become too Hobbesian, too atomized, too insane and contradictory to allow us to constructively ally ourselves with anyone. And therefore bombing, no matter who we try to bomb, can only add to the chaos. Perhaps we might be able to do some humanitarian military-policing to save certain groups of civilians, but that is different from our Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader mouthing bloodthirsty and empty cliches. Vengefulness is a stupid place from which to make rational policy. I believe we were suckered by those beheadings.

As you yourself said, whatever we do is going to be a least bad option. That being so, why not stand up for a least bad option that doesn't simply add to the destruction, such as a comprehensive arms embargo for the region. Yes, there would be holes in it, and yes the place is already awash in arms (many of them apparently American). But pursuing a policy that is based in the correct context (that context being that killing does not resolve and can never resolve political or religious conflict) would at least not motivate extremists to recruit more of themselves than we can kill.

The U.S. is about to spend 355 billion dollars over the next decade to renew our nuclear arsenal. When I think of the lack of moral imagination that such a policy represents it just dumbfounds me. All nations know that if a tiny percentage of such weapons are used, a global nuclear winter is possible. All nations know that nuclear weapons do not have the slightest effect upon what is unfolding in Syria and environs. But 355 billion dollars spent on a Middle East Marshall Plan to build hospitals and desalinization plants and solar electric generating stations—why is the nuclear arsenal "realistic" and the idea of a Marshall Plan "pie in the sky"? Only because fear constricts everyone, constricts the discourse of the media and politics to a narrow, familiar rut of tit-for-tat violence. But you are in a unique position to speak out, to propose policies that go beyond fear, outlining a positive vision for what our country might do to really help that torn-apart region, as one answer to the question you so rightly asked about the roots of fanaticism. . .

Respectfully,

Winslow

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Combating Plagues


I wrote my Senator, Angus King, to register my judgment that further military American intervention in the Middle East was a catastrophic mistake.  His response was measured and thoughtful. Principles which will guide his future votes on policy include: “there must be a vital national interest to justify any intervention; specific goals must be established; any action we take should be as one component of a coalition strategy whereby other nations, particularly those in the region, are actively involved and supportive; no commitment of ground combat forces; and the establishment of an open and inclusive government in Iraq that unites the country's diverse ethnic and religious communities.”

It’s what Senator King doesn’t include in his response that troubles me, and what even the liberal media isn’t asking in talk shows on NPR and elsewhere: what are the creative alternatives to militarism and arms sales that won’t merely create more extremists? Instead, there is this extraordinary rush to consensus that bombs and bullets are the only way open to us.

This consensus stands in schizophrenic contrast to the vital religious infrastructure of our country, where church members contribute money and volunteer time to feed the hungry from food pantries, deliver meals on wheels to the elderly, and build housing for the indigent. But this benevolent model doesn’t seem to translate into our foreign policy initiatives—except, just now, in Africa. At this moment the U.S. military is setting up staging areas in Liberia to rapidly train medical personnel to limit and reverse the runaway Ebola epidemic. No doubt there is an element of self-interest in our generosity—we want to ensure that Ebola does not come to our own shores.

Ultimately what ails members of ISIS young and old is also a plague, a plague of hatred and ignorance, infecting people who like all humans including us began life as innocent children.  Our national conversation about what motivates and intensifies this hatred has been superficial and inexcusably incompetent (Senator King, to his credit, has urged that we look more deeply into the root causes of Islamic extremism)—with the not unexpected result that one symptom of the plague, vengefulness, has snuck across our borders like the 9-11 conspirators and infected our own minds. As one of our American heroes said, “darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

In spite of our outrage at videotaped beheadings, what if we thought of ISIS more on the model of a typhoon, or earthquake, or plague—like Ebola? Our soldiers in Africa are not there to kill those with Ebola but to save them. Are there ways to apply that model to the plague of extremist hatred? We won’t know until we open our minds to what might lie beyond knee-jerk shock and awe. We did this (the “we” here including Russian diplomats) when we negotiated the peaceful destruction of Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons instead of bombing.

I was speaking about war prevention at the Rotary Club of Boston a few years ago and suggested mildly that it might have been a mistake not to have made more of an effort to bring Osama bin Laden back alive. A woman, eyes darting with indignation, walked out in protest. The infection of hate assumes that murderous obliteration of the adversary is the only possible resolution of conflict. Unfortunately, that is our own national policy goal for ISIS, explicitly stated by the President himself—as if he somehow forgot how hard he has tried to extricate us from two other fruitless campaigns of obliteration. Our challenge is to discover how best to fight the plague of hatred without being contaminated by it ourselves. In the nuclear age, unless we find an effective vaccine, catching this plague could lead down the time stream to the extinction of us all.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Survival


The way the United States has chosen to approach the chaos of the Middle East has far more frightening implications than we think, especially in terms of the world our children will inherit. If we are honest about how our adversaries perceive us, we will have to admit that there is a grand cycle of violence and insult operating, in which we ourselves are implicated up to our necks.

If we are to have any chance of breaking this potentially endless cycle (our military bases in Saudi Arabia leading to 9-11; 9-11 leading to the second Gulf War, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib; the second Gulf War helping to create ISIS; ISIS beheading our journalists; President Obama suckered into reluctant bellicosity etc. etc. etc), we have to start by admitting our own role in it—something extremely difficult for our culture, and therefore almost impossible for our political leaders.

Righteous wrath and the urge for revenge are terrible foundations for creative policy-making. They lead almost inevitably to doing stupid stuff. 50 years beyond the Cuban Missile Crisis and 70 years into the nuclear age, the time for stupidity in international strategy is over. It is not merely possible, it is just about inevitable that the cycle of violence between the West and the Middle East will eventually go nuclear if we keep on as we are. Building these weapons is now an open secret.

If we want our children to survive, the foundation for smart, realistic international relations in the nuclear world becomes the polar opposite of military force: the emphasis must shift to encouraging the positive, the relational, the building of trust and friendship, mutual compassion, understanding, and aid. Erik Erikson put it this way back in 1964, in an essay called “The Golden Rule in the Light of New Insight”:

“Nations today are by definition units of different stages of political, technological and economic transformation . . . insofar as a nation thinks of itself as a collective individual, then, it may well learn to visualize its task as that of maintaining mutuality in international relations. For the only alternative to armed competition seems to be the effort to activate in the historical partner what will strengthen him in his historical development even as it strengthen the actor in his own development—toward a common future identity.”

This constitutes Erikson’s savvy modern restatement of the Golden Rule, a formulation that occurs, with some variation, in all the major religions, including Islam, where it goes: “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother what he desires for himself.”

Erikson’s theme was the active, creative potential of mutuality—between spouses, parents and children, doctors and patients, teachers and pupils, even between nations. Mutuality, Erikson asserted, is a relationship in which partners depend upon each other for the enhancement of their respective strengths.  The curiosity of a student elicits from the teacher the skills for transmitting the excitement of learning in a way that benefits both teacher and student. 

There is an urgent need to figure out how to apply this thinking to breaking the great cycle, to making it the foundation of foreign policy—not merely as “soft power,” which is simply the flexibility we think is open to us when we possess an overwhelming excess of hard power, which we do. We possess sufficient hard power to destroy the world many times over. What is required for our survival is to use our immense resources to make things better where we can, giving extremists infinitely less reason to attack.  Our bombs only create more fanatics bent upon crucifixion and beheading—an old, old story. Only we can create a new story, and if we do, the world will respond gratefully.

Today, the Golden Rule has been perverted into the Iron Rule of vengefulness: if you do harm unto me, I will do yet more harm to you.  A wise teacher who lived 2000-odd years before nukes understood that those who live by the sword will perish by it. We hear this when our Vice-President, a good man, asserts that we will follow terrorists right to the gates of hell. If we do that, we can be sure that the gates will open wide enough to swallow us right along with the extremists.