Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Die-In -- Friday, October 19

Police officer. Laborer. Shiite cleric. Sunni cleric. 8-year old. Doctor. Student. Sunni tribal leader. Shiite tribal leader. Provincial governor. 12-year old. Professor. Blacksmith. Journalist. Taxi driver. 3-year old.

Just a representation of the 96 Iraqi civilians killed each day in Iraq, according to U.N. estimates. In 2006 a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health report calculated nearly 655,000 deaths since the war began in 2003. That total is believed to be about one million deaths today.

To recognize these deaths that the U.S. military refuses to count, members of the Kalamazoo Nonviolent Opponents of War (KNOW) held its first Die-In in Bronson Park. Leaders read the names and occupations of Iraqis followed by a single drum beat for each person.

Modeled after the American Friends Service Committee of Chicago die-ins, KNOW attracted about 100 people to this Friday-after-work demonstration of protest against the war. It was four years and seven months to the day since the start of the war.

“We chose the downtown’s Bronson Park for the Die-in because of its central location,” said organizer Raelyn Joyce. “But next time we go to Portage, our sister city.”

Although KNOW has sustained a non-stop presence of protest since September 2002, it still struggles to gain the attention of citizens in the Kalamazoo area.

“The demonstration was successful,” said organizer Mark Miller, “ but we’re still talking to ourselves. We have yet to break through the indifference of most of our fellow citizens.”

The Kalamazoo peace movement is not alone in experiencing this apparent apathy among citizens. Small groups of peace activists throughout the country have remained steadfast in their protest but they are unable to amass the numbers of demonstrators who joined the 1960’s protests against the Vietnam War—or to match the millions of Americans who marched against this war before it began in 2003.

Some activists maintain that this lack of interest isn’t that people aren’t against the war. Polls show that over 70 percent of Americans want out of Iraq. However, people are communicating their opposition to the war through the Internet, e-mail and cell phones rather than through public demonstration. Many people are more focused on 9/11, which abound with conspiracy theories that the administration planned or at least remained complicit in allowing the attacks to happen.

Nevertheless, the fact that death accompanies war was not lost on Kalamazooans who lay still as “corpses” for 30 minutes on the cold ground covered by a simple white sheet with a red carnation on top.

“It was rough to listen to the multitude of names,” said Kalamazoo College student Adam Marshall. “These were people who had families, experiences, memories. Our government took that away and it’s difficult to reconcile.”

Many participants found the reading of the names moving, even meditative.

“I came because I think we should focus more on the civilians who are dying in this war. We only concentrate on the soldiers,” said Judy Whaley. “During the vigil I thought about how so many of these people would be such an asset to Iraqi society if and when this war is over. And the children—what they might have been.”

Dan Smith said the reading of names brought up a vision of each person.

“It’s as though I saw them as they died.” After the service concluded Smith said his empathy for the dead overwhelmed him to break down in tears.

“It was as though I were transported to Iraq and back,” said Smith.

Lorelei Stoto could also envision people and that lying down as a “corpse” among the other “corpses” was “sad, intensely sad.”

KNOW leader Steve Senesi opened the Die-In by pointing out that the living Iraqis are facing tremendous odds to survive. They must dodge the random killings of mercenaries like Blackwater, U.S. troops who conduct raids in people’s homes in the middle of the night, and insurgents who kill their fellow Iraqis.

“The military calls this ‘collateral damage,’ said Senesi, “and the unintended killing of civilians is a product of warmaking.”

The event was organized by KNOW, the Skyridge Church of the Brethren, the Kalamazoo Friends Meeting, and Swords into Plowshares from WMU's Peace Center. Food Not Bombs provided treats after the demonstration.

On Saturday, October 27 peace activists from Kalamazoo will go to Chicago to participate in a United for Peace & Justice (UPJ) regional mobilization to stop the war in Iraq. Other cities holding a similar demonstration include Boston, Jonesborough, Tenn., Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York City, Orlando, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Seattle. This regional mobilization is a UPJ strategy change from when it held national demonstrations in one or two cities.

A Letter to President Bush

Dear Mr. President,

I saw a clip of your news conference the other night and I am concerned about you. Your hairline is receding. Your face is wan and getting more wrinkled. You couldn’t stop giggling when you talked about World War III.

Is this job getting to you? Are you not sleeping at night? I think you may have 9/11 Fatigue.

9/11 Fatigue creeps up on you when you least expect it and it occupies every minute of your day. You start to see boogey men around each corner and tense yourself even when you’re trying to relax. You lie awake at night looking for ways to protect yourself from those who would harm you because, of course, you never know whom to trust. Worse yet, you spend endless hours trying to persuade others to join you in fighting an ever-elusive enemy. It’s almost as bad as post-traumatic stress syndrome that soldiers must contend with after serving in Iraq for their second, third, fourth and even fifth tours of duty.

I’m really worried about you, sir, because as the only visible leader left in government, if you fall, we all fall with you. So you must take care of yourself and here’s my best advice: spend more time out in Nature. I’m teaching my first-year college students to do this in a class called “Seeing the World at Three Miles an Hour.” It focuses on helping the students to slow down enough to notice nature, which I contend will allow them to enjoy life and get in touch with their deepest selves. Recently they went on a 75-minute walk in the woods where they had no cell phones, no computers, no ipods, no other people around to distract them. They experienced solitude.

You’d be amazed at how differently they looked after spending this short time in nature. One young woman couldn’t stop dancing she was so exuberant about her contact with the trees, their falling leaves, the crunching of her feet on the trail. Another student meditated on an anthill. Instead of crushing this little cone of sand as she usually does, she gingerly walked around it and felt compassion for the creatures scurrying in and around their home. Yet another student spent her time thinking about her father who had died five years before. He was a nature lover and had passed on that passion to her.

I’m so excited about what happened to my class. Their fatigue from the past four weeks of school just seemed to lift right off their faces. And so, sir, since your job seems to be wearing on you after nearly seven years, get some rest. Take a walk in the woods. (And for God’s sakes don’t ride in your pick-up truck or cut brush.) Experience the wonders of nature. Listen to the trees, talk to them and ask them for advice. (Stay away from the pines, however, they tend to pass along the secrets they hear). Take off your shoes and walk in the grass. Breathe in the autumn air and let it waft through your hair. Take a sketchpad and draw a log, a mushroom or a rock. Forget about the terrorists for a little while.

I strongly urge you to do this nature walk on your own. Even though the Secret Service has to watch over you, order them to stay out of sight so that you can just be alone with yourself for a change and not have to remember that you are the president.

If you did these things every day for an hour I think you would see the world much more differently, just as Eleanor Roosevelt did on her visits to Rock Creek Park near D.C. She found solace by simply staring at a sculpture there as she endured the difficult days of a Depression AND a war. People hated her, too, and blamed her for things that went wrong-just as they do you with this Iraq thing. And after she left the White House she continued to be a great woman just as you aspire to be a great man.

As you know, 9/11 changed everything and no president has ever had to deal with such challenges before. Lincoln had the civil war; Wilson had WWI; and FDR had WWII, but these were minor compared to what you must do to overcome those bastard terrorists. It must be exhausting work! But you must take care of yourself because, well, after all, you’re the president, Mr. President.

Better yet, think about resigning. Then you could spare your health-and the nation’s. As the decider of the free world, you just don’t seem to have that fast ball anymore to tackle such major league problems as global warming, massive migration, overpopulation, disease, hunger, oppression and social injustice. You’ve carried the ball this far in this difficult post-9/11 era and I thank you but I must say, things seem to have gotten worse in the world.

Besides, you’ll need your strength for the post-presidency, which is bound to last 20 to 30 years. You’re undoubtedly a long-ball hitter like your parents!

Of course, you’ll want to set the story straight about your legacy. Darn media won’t get it right without your direction. Or you might consider jumping out of plane like your father did in his post-presidency just to prove that he wasn’t a wimp. In that way you could show the world that you’re still relevant. That’s far more heroic than using veto power over those pathetic Democrats. You could also wear that cute little jump suit again. Gosh you looked so good back then when the mission in Iraq had been accomplished. Those were the days!

Please, sir. Give it a rest, sir. You’ll be doing yourself-and all of us-a big favor.

This article was published in Common Dreams on October 19, 2007.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

A Russian Diary

Oct. 7 is the first anniversary of the murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

She was greatly admired by her fellow journalists for her courage and commitment to the cause of free speech especially since her death brings to the surface the haunting reality that journalists in Russia--and all over the world--have become targets for murder as transparency and truth have been set aside in favor of security against terrorists and favorable government public relations.

In 2005 six journalists were murdered in Russia, 63 assaulted, 47 arrested and 42 prosecuted, according to a report by the Glasnost Defense Foundation. Since 2000 when Vladimir Putin came to power, 13 journalists have been killed.

Politkovskaya was a journalist with Novaya Gazeta (New Newspaper), which was founded as perestroika was emerging. She covered the first and the second wars in Chechnya and was just finishing a story about torture there when Russian-supported Chechen security forces gunned her down in the elevator of her apartment in Moscow.

From Politkovskaya’s viewpoint, Russia is a country in chaos. She illustrates this in the pages of DIARY, which bleed with horrible scenes of death, the escalating stink of corruption and the population’s utter resignation that nothing can be done.

Democracy is dead in Russia, says Politkovskaya, and the people have done it to themselves because they fail to challenge government policies, put up opposition candidates, support an independent media or finance independent sources for significant public projects. Instead, they pine for the good old days of the U.S.S.R. Although she admits that political opposition lost its steam in 1996 when Yeltsin beat the Communists, Politkovskaya also puts democracy’s demise squarely on the shoulders of Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin who, she says, masterminded the monstrous system that manipulates information, avoids responsibility and restricts human freedom.

For example, Putin holds inane and scripted press conferences. He makes promises he does not keep. He does not respond to criticism and is unmoved by human tragedy, like the deaths of 300-plus children who were killed by Chechen terrorists in a Beslan school in 2004.

Putin is equally unconcerned about soldiers who are bullied by the older “grandfather" soldiers or that they are in harm’s way in Chechnya without proper protection, decent food or even shoes to wear. He forgets about veterans, too, especially disabled veterans. He has even abolished the right of the Duma (legislature) to vote—and got the people to support him.

A few citizens’ groups have attempted to challenge the government, like the Soldiers’ Mothers, who valiantly and passionately appealed to Putin to change the awful conditions their sons must endure, but there are not enough citizens who involve themselves in these movements for change. Politkovskaya believes this silence comes from the Russians’ “serf-like psychology”:

"Our society isn’t a society anymore. It is a collection of windowless, isolated concrete cells…. The authorities do everything they can to make the cells even more impermeable, sowing dissent, inciting some against others, dividing and ruling. And the people fall for it. That is the real problem. That is why revolution in Russia, when it comes, is always so extreme. The barrier between the cells collapses only when the negative emotions within them are ungovernable."

Liberals and democrats have tried to appeal to Putin, she says, but they are locked in an insidious Catch-22 where they cannot seek to work with the same man they are pressing to resign.

Perhaps most disturbing is Politkovskaya’s warning about the government’s eerie and surreal return to Stalinism as revisionist historians and public relations staff laud the former dictator’s brilliance in helping to win World War II. The truth, according to Politkovskaya, is that Putin is using some of the same Stalinist tactics where dissenters are abducted, tortured, drugged with truth serum or killed. Elections are rigged, and there is an aura of secrecy and suspicion surrounding the abject lawlessness of those who hold powerful and influential positions.

Without a free press reporting on such activities, says Politkovskaya, democracy has no chance, so she takes it upon herself to report the bad news and then dearly pays for it with her life.

A RUSSIAN DIARY is imbued with an edgy and tense tone, yet Politkovskaya does not come off as shrill because her passion for truth is so forthright. Nevertheless, readers may need to take frequent breaks from the book because it is so utterly depressing to read about the government’s deliberate cruelty to its people who are so complicit to the process.

Though Politkovskaya was a strong-willed woman, as her picture on the back book jacket suggests, sometimes the situation in Russia is so dire that even she is consumed with deep bitterness and disappointment. “The main problem,” she writes, “is that while collapse [of the government] is inevitable, we will not see it in our lifetime. That’s a pity, because we would like to.”

A profound sense of hopelessness pervades the book, and readers come to know someone who loves her country yet grieves over its inability to overcome its abuses and predicaments.

Russians will probably never see this book because of government censorship. In fact, 82 percent of Russians support the restriction of freedom of speech and of the press, according to a 2005 poll by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center. Politkovskaya surmises that such sentiment stems from the blatant sex and violence on television that people abhor. Censorship of the press, however, prevents citizens from obtaining information and understanding the nation’s politics, including its dealing with Russia’s current nemesis, Chechnya.

DIARY's greatest asset is that it provides a sobering view of what an ebbing and unchecked social contract between government and its citizens looks like.

In his foreword to the book, Scott Simon, host of National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition Saturday,” honors Politkovskaya by recognizing that she did not do her journalistic work for “money, notoriety, or advancement, but the struggle for the survival of her country….” In fact, she stayed in Russia even though she could have left her country quite easily. This fact makes the book all the more compelling especially as she expresses her reasons why in a postscript:

"The more I think about it, the more I would be betraying these people if I walked away. The only thing to do is to take this to the bitter end, so that no one can say that when things became difficult, I ran away."