On Being a Pacifist in a Time of Constant War

On Being a Pacifist in a Time of Constant War December 3, 2015

One cries out: Lord, how long? And then, too, what creeps into my mind is the little fear or big, that when it touches me very personally, will I be faithful? I want to stay on now. I believe now that this is right…Here I am starting from scratch but it must be his plan and He is teaching me and there is real peace in spite of many frustrations and terror around us…God is very present in his seeming absence.”

– Maura Clarke, martyred in El Salvador along with three other US missionaries in El Salvador on this day in 1980

“It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

As I made my way through the museum at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. national historic site in Atlanta two weekends ago, my gaze became fixed on this quotation written on a wall. Alongside several students, teachers and activists, I was on my way home from a pilgrimage. I had just spent three days meeting old and new friends, attending workshops on the current political realities in Mexico and El Salvador, serving as an interpreter for a Guatemalan man whose wife had been kidnapped and killed during the genocide of the 1980’s, acting as a Eucharistic minister in an ecumenical liturgy, and, as always, marching in a solemn vigil outside the gates of Ft. Benning, Georgia, joining with a thousand concerned citizens to raise white crosses in a litany for the dead.

Every November since 1990, people from around North America and beyond have gathered outside the gates of Fort Benning to protest the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly known as the School of the Americas (SOA). Founded after the assassination of six American Jesuit priests and two women in El Salvador in 1989 at the hands of SOA graduates, the movement to shut down this military institution is the largest and longest ongoing antiwar protest in the US. While closing the SOA-WHINSEC – whose graduates are responsible for the death of Oscar Romero in 1980, the 2009 coup in Honduras which ousted a democratically elected government, and countless ongoing acts of violence throughout the Americas – is still of paramount importance, the School of the Americas Watch movement has broadened its focus in recent years.

Seeking to “connect the dots” between our government’s policies and their consequences, we have turned our attention to the treatment of migrants in the US, many of whom are driven to flee their countries as a result of SOA-WHINSEC-fuelled violence. For the past two years SOAW activists have participated in an annual march to the gates of the Stewart Detention Center, a private prison where people are held indefinitely without due process, forced to work for $$1-4 per hour, and subjected to sub-par living conditions (there are reports of maggots in the food) all for the egregious crime of living in the US without the proper papers. This year, eleven people crossed into Stewart in an act of civil disobedience. One of them, longtime SOAW activist Mary Anne Perrone, said her motives for doing so were simple: “I wanted to stand up to those who make their profit from human misery.”

Next year, the SOAW movement will move its vigil to the US-Mexico border – some of whose guards are SOA-WHINSEC trained. Most members of the movement see this as the next logical step, and also as a way of building bridges with other activist groups. But as someone involved with SOAW for the past three years, I find this move bittersweet. For 25 years activists have been trying to close this school, and at times we have made real progress. But unfortunately, the school remains intact, and some of the countries that had withdrawn their troops from its program have resumed sending them. But as I signed the many petitions that were circulated during the weekend and listened to a discussion of the latest legislative strategies to close the school, it became clear that the movement is not about to give up its original mission. A small group of SOAW activists will continue to gather at Ft. Benning each year. Nevertheless, focusing our attention on one single military institution is not enough.

We need to connect the dots – to look at the relationship between militarism and migration, between capitalism and neo-colonialism, between violence in Chicago and violence in El Salvador. In the words of longtime SOAW activist Silvia Brandon Pérez, “We see the explosion of mass incarceration, particularly in communities of color, as a global business opportunity with no downside, and we observe that Ferguson and Palestine and Central America are occupied territories of a global empire of oil, greed and blood, whose present capital city is the United States.”

Looking at the world events – in particular the recent wave of Islamic State attacks – I realize why I sometimes meet with scepticism when discussing my involvement in the peace movement. Is the pacifism of a great leader such as Gandhi a viable option in today’s world? Sam Harris’s polemical 2005 essay “In Defense of Torture” argues that it is not:

While pacifism […] can constitute a direct confrontation with injustice (and requires considerable bravery), it is only applicable to a limited range of human conflicts. Where it is not applicable, it seems flagrantly immoral. We could do well to reflect on Gandhi’s remedy for the Holocaust: he believed that the Jews should have committed mass suicide, because this ‘would have roused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.’ We might wonder what a world full of pacifists would have done once it had grown ‘aroused’ – commit suicide as well? There seems no question that if all the good people in the world adopted Gandhi’s ethics, the thugs would inherit the earth.

The case of World War II is the most commonly cited one against pacifism. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain has gone down in history as a weakling and a fool for appeasing Hitler, though in his time he honestly believed that through his actions he could avoid a war. As for Islamic State, it is clear that if left unchecked, they will simply seek to expand their power, gain control over more territory, kill and torture more people, and destroy whatever non-Islamic cultural artifacts they can. Yes, there are times when war is necessary. However, such necessity does not make it just.

Some would argue that warfare is an inevitable component of human nature; since the dawn of humanity war has always raged in one corner of the planet or another. However, in recent times we have heard dissenting voices. In The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker suggests that humans have actually become less violent over time. The vast technological advances in our methods of warfare, the overall rise in human population, and the instant coverage of world events by the global news media make it seem like we have become worse; however, the amount of violent deaths per capita has actually declined throughout history.

Meanwhile, a closer look at history reveals that war often stems from a complex series of causes and effects. Hitler most likely never would have come to power in Germany were it not for the vengeful Treaty of Versailles after World War I – a senseless conflict caused by blind nationalism and a ridiculously messy system of alliances. Would Islamic State have come to power without the 2003 war in Iraq? Some argue that it was necessary and beneficial to remove Saddam Hussein from power, but how did he come to power in the first place? CIA involvement in Iraq, which deposed the previous leader, was definitely part of the equation.

What is clear is that in the fourteen years since those planes hit the World Trade Center on that bright September Day, we have been engaged in a constant war that has failed to make the world safer or more secure. While I am not in the position to propose concrete policy alternatives, I do think that we need to look at the roots of conflict, such as economic disparity and other imbalances of power. Recognizing that war is sometimes necessary, we do not have to acknowledge it as just. Instead, as Pope Paul VI told us, in striving for justice we work to prevent war and sow the seeds of peace.

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