The Further Invention of Nonviolence

Last month, Judge G. Mallon Faircloth sentenced me to three months in prison for participating in a November, 2003 peaceful protest, organized by the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW), at Fort Benning, GA. During three days of trial, 27 activists offered moving testimony about why they carried crosses and coffins onto the base. Defendants called for an end to the U.S. Army combat training school, the SOA-WINSEC. All were found guilty. Some were sentenced to probation, others to probation with fines, and still others to three to six month terms in prison. As in previous years, the trial provided a forum for defendants to speak on behalf of people whose voices can never be heard in U.S. courts, the voices of those who’ve been wounded, orphaned, maimed, disappeared and murdered because of U.S. militarism.

For my part, it was important to recall experiences tracing back to 1985, when I traveled to San Juan de Limay, in the north of Nicaragua. Children there were radiant and friendly, many of them too young to understand that during the previous week, U.S.-funded Contras had kidnapped and murdered 25 people in their village. Later that summer, I fasted with Nicaragua’s Foreign Minister, Rev. Miguel D’Escoto, himself a Maryknoll priest, and listened to stories pour forth as many hundreds of Nicaraguan peasant pilgrims vigiled and fasted in the Monsenor Lezcano church to show solidarity with the priest-minister’s desire to nonviolently resist Contra terrorism. Rev. Miguel D’Escoto urged those of us from the U.S. to return to our homes and there develop nonviolent actions commensurate to the crimes being committed. This experience gave me reason to believe that the U.S. could have used negotiation and diplomacy to resolve disputes with Nicaragua.

Likewise, in Haiti, the poorest country of the western hemisphere, nonviolent activists had experienced, through peace teams, an arrow pointing to the potential for nonviolent activism to protect human rights. The Christian Peacemaker Teams maintained a steady presence in Jeremie, in the southern finger of Haiti, throughout the time when the U.S. had determined it was too dangerous for U.S. soldiers to be there. I was there for three months in 1995 just before the U.S. troops returned. Throughout this stretch of history, the U.S. spent more money on moving, equipping, and training troops, than it spent on meeting human needs. The Commandant of the region, Colonel Rigobert Jean, commented publicly that he was “ashamed and embarrassed that it was left to the ¬Ćblans (Creole for foreigners) on the hill to preserve peace and security in the region.” He was referring to our five person team. Again, I had reason to believe that unarmed peacemakers with almost no funding could be relied on to create greater security than the military could provide, in an area of intense conflict.

Indelibly marked in my memory from that summer are the Creole words that children could no longer suppress as evenings drew to a close and they longed for adequate meals. “M’gen grangou” – I’m hungry.

More recently, in Iraq, during the U.S. bombing in March and April of 2003, I saw how children suffer when nations decide to put their resources into weapons and warfare rather than meeting human needs. All of us learned to adopt a poker face, hoping not to frighten the children, as ear-splitting blasts and gut wrenching thuds exploded across Baghdad. During most days and nights of the bombing, I would spend a little time holding little Miladhah and Zainab in my arms. That’s how I learned of their fear. These two little girls were grinding their teeth, morning, noon and night. But they were far more fortunate than the children who were survivors of direct hits, children whose brothers and sisters and parents were maimed and killed, and children who were themselves scarred and deformed.

A recent report in the London Observer quoted U.S. Armed Forces medical personnel warning that 20 percent of the veterans returning from Iraq will suffer post traumatic stress disorders – already 22 soldiers have committed suicide. As of this writing, over 500 U.S. soldiers, caught in an inconclusive war in Iraq, have been killed, and 9,000 wounded.

How can we best educate the U.S. public about the futility of pouring U.S. resources down the rathole of military spending?

During the recent SOAW trial in Columbus, GA, as co-defendants told what motivated them to risk imprisonment and heavy fines, we heard stories of military atrocities that explain why increasing numbers of people in other parts of the world feel seething rage and antagonism toward the U.S. In a very real sense, our dangerously over-consumptive lifestyles were on trial, just as much as U.S. readiness to use threat and force, overwhelming military force, to protect the American way of life. The belief that, as President George Bush said at a 1992 energy conference in Rio de Janeiro, “the American way of life is non-negotiable,” leads others to justify violent responses to stop U.S. imperialism.

For most of us, the U.S. government does not want our bodies on the line in combat. It wants our assent and our money. Elected officials often perceive that we put them in power to protect our inordinately comfortable lifestyles, and if they have to use violent means to do so, we will foot the bill. Refusal to pay for war (through war tax resistance) and readiness to radically resist militarism through nonviolent means helps us find what Rev. D’Escoto pointed us toward: “actions commensurate to the crimes being committed.”

Before sentencing me, Judge Faircloth asked me why the campaign I work most closely with is called “Voices in the Wilderness.” I explained that we believe there is a wilderness of compassion here in the U.S. I’m grateful to have been part of the passion that motivated defendants in the courtroom. We haven’t given up on nonviolence. Rather than advocate that others risk torture and slaughter as the only way to resist U.S. warmaking, this group and the many thousands of supporters who are part of the SOAW network are committed to “the further invention of nonviolence.”

By telling a judge that we are willing to go into the prison system, and there give witness on behalf of mothers and fathers separated from their children by a cruel and wrongheaded prison-industrial complex, we can point to a radically countercultural departure from accepting the status quo that now exists in the U.S.