Time For New Ideas
As a kid, I believed I was a pacifist. By sixteen, I had read widely and concluded I would allow my own death before responding violently to a threat. King and Gandhi and poor black women on the Edmund Pettis Bridge influenced my young mind.
I got lucky in 1971 and drew number 328 in the draft lottery. I wasn’t forced to take the stand I was committed to and I avoided moving to Vancouver, BC. My idealism came cheaply.
When Ian was born in 1980, that ended. I realized I could and would kill anyone threatening my family or others close to me. It was a visceral knowledge. In the early 1990’s, I killed a Rottweiler that was biting the feet off our rabbits, smashing its head with a stone and a shovel. I felt no regret.
These days, I could envision fighting a war, if defending against a direct threat. But not to protect plutocrats, oil companies, a son’s need to prove his manhood to his ex-president father, or delusions of American hegemony.
My idealism hasn’t waned entirely. I still abhor any killing of post-partum human beings, other than as an unavoidable last resort.
Americans certainly do not have a monopoly on violence or abuse of force, though our recent adventures in Iraq should be classified as war crimes. Human beings are brutal animals, and we have been abusing and killing one another for millennia. But Americans should be better than our human history. Yet, we continue to fall into the Old Testament rationale of responding to violence with violence, and usually well out of any rational proportion to the original threat or insult. In the case of Iraq, we missed by an entire country.
This week, Malaysia Airlines MH 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine by a surface-to-air missile, while it cruised at over 30,000 feet. All 298 souls perished, including 192 Dutch nationals, returning from vacation. The likely perpetrators are Russian separatists using Russian-supplied ordnance. Details. Dead is still dead.
Our President decried the shooting as “an outrage of unspeakable proportions.” It is. He’s right.
Meanwhile, Hamas continues to launch shoddy rockets into Israeli territory, missing any strategic targets and so far, killing no one. Nonetheless, this too is unspeakable. What if they get lucky?
In response, Netanyahu is shelling Gaza, citing the need to defend Israel. So far, 280 Palestinians have been killed, with estimates of another 2,000 injured. Most reports point out these are mostly all civilians with no ties to the rockets. Many are children.
In this case, our President chooses to rationalize Israel’s response and support their right to “defend” themselves. Somehow the killing of the same number of innocent people, this time also deliberately, but now using US weaponry from the trillions of dollars in military aid we supply, is not an “unspeakable outrage.” But it is and he is wrong. Israel’s response goes far beyond defense. It is unconscionable.
Nearly two million Palestinians live in Gaza, an area the size of some American cities, roughly seven miles by thirty-two miles. And they cannot easily leave. There is an expression, “like shooting fish in a barrel” that applies here. This is a small area, densely packed with extremely poor people. A few years ago, 80% of residents were receiving some sort of international aid. The GDP per capita in Gaza is less than US$1,500. By contrast, the same metric in Israel is US$33,000.
I wish we could learn better ways to deal with conflict, anger and inequality in the world than bombing women and children and old people who are barely surviving in the first place.
Language is a key enabler of our comfort level with deadly retaliation. “Terrorist” is a label we use that allows us to discount cause or motive or humanity. “Terrorist” places perpetrators into a sub-human category. We think, but often do not say, “These are people who love violence for its own sake, do not value life as we do, have no regard for freedom or peace or security, and are in no description anything at all like us. The things they do we cannot ever imagine doing ourselves.” Our hatred and ignorance go unchallenged.
Relative wealth is another enabler. Few of us have truly been wanting for shelter, food and comfort. Of course we cannot imagine doing desperate things. But let the electricity or cable go out a couple weeks, and the food supply stop flowing, fresh water turning to poison, and our tenuous social fabric will tear.
My point is not that Hamas have a justifiable reason for launching rockets at innocent Israelis. They do not. My point is not that relative poverty is a pass for bad behavior. It is not. Israel should protect itself. So should the Palestinians. But the label we apply precludes any serious consideration of what motivates people to violence in the first place. Terrorism becomes the only issue. We have forgotten what it feels like to be under the boot.
As long as this is the case, as long as we refuse to make antagonists sit down and discuss real issues and work toward reconciliation, and as long as our only response to the pushback that comes from oppressed people is more violence of a higher magnitude, then peace will elude us and all our security will be at risk.
Like the silver-plating on an old quarter, my idealism has rubbed off over the years. My copper-colored fear and impatience are showing through. While I believe violence can be warranted in extreme situations, I see that we elect it all too easily. It has become our first and only response. We are either so busy, so lazy or so afraid, that we cannot envision listening in order to understand those we are estranged from, or pausing long enough to allow creative solutions and compassion to bubble up, or being patient while the other one works out his or her anger, or taking that huge leap to see the world through the other’s eyes.
These are our only salvation. An eye for an eye, or a life for an eye lead us to a place we don’t want to be.
As Israeli tanks and troops stream into Gaza, I pray for a new idea to occur to us.