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November 2001
Doves and War Drums: Strong Words on Nonviolence

The Satya Interview with Colman McCarthy


Colman McCarthy is a veteran peace activist, animal advocate and educator who founded and directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, DC. He was a columnist for The Washington Post from 1969 to 1997. McCarthy is the author of All of One Peace: Essays on Nonviolence and editor of two anthologies, Solutions to Violence and Strength Through Peace: the Ideas and People of Nonviolence. He recently shared his views on the September 11th catastrophe and the American reaction, as well as his hopes for the future, with Catherine Clyne.

What first came to mind when you realized that the Twin Towers had been deliberately crashed into?
Shock but not surprise. The depth of the horror was initially beyond imagination. But the attack itself was not a surprise. On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr., said that “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today is my own government.” He was right then and is right now. In only the past 20 years, the U.S. government has sent troops to kill or threaten to kill people in Lebanon, Grenada, Libya, Panama, Haiti, Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia and now Afghanistan again. All are poor nations and mostly people of color.

The U.S. has military bases in more than 100 countries to “protect our vital interests,” which really means to protect our vital privileges. The U.S. is the world’s largest maker and seller of weapons, often to dictators or governments that abuse human rights. Its military budget this year is $343 billion, a sum 23 times larger than the combined military budgets of our seven alleged enemies. Unless you’re an astronomer, $343 billion is too large a number to grasp. It comes down to about $900 million a day—four times more than what the Peace Corps gets in a year—or about $11,000 a second. It means also that an American family of four pays about $8,000 a year in taxes to the military. Half of the federal budget goes to the Pentagon. On any given day that we are spending $900 million for the illusion of security, about 40,000 people are dying around the world from hunger or preventable diseases. That’s a daily death toll. On top of that, while much of the world starves, a major preoccupation in America is how to lose weight.

And after all that, we wonder how come the world doesn’t love us? Take it to the neighborhood level. Suppose the wealthiest person on the block routinely walks up to people and smashes them in the face or cracks their skulls with a crowbar. It keeps happening. But one day someone swings back. Are you surprised?

How has the Bush Administration handled its response to September 11?
The same way every administration has responded to a conflict: Order the military to go kill people. At the same time the Bush Administration began killing Afghanis, he was telling Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate, deal, compromise, reach a peace agreement, learn to live together and stop the killing. It was what Clinton advised the sides in Northern Ireland. Why don’t we follow our own advice and do the same with the Taliban regime, one that we militarily supported when the Russians invaded a decade ago? Instead, Bush arrogantly says he won’t negotiate: We’re freedom-lovers, they’re evil doers. It’s the familiar pattern of U.S. foreign policy. On September 11th, U.S. leaders began to theorize about who did this and why. Days later, they began to demonize. On October 7th, U.S. pilots dropped bombs to victimize. And the cheerleading American media played its expected role: it glamorized. Whether it was Noriega in Panama, Qadhafi in Libya, Aidid in Somalia, Milosovec in Yugoslavia and now Bin Laden in Afghanistan, the scripted response is: theorize, demonize, victimize and glamorize.

Anti-war activists are often criticized for being “against” violence and “for” peace, but then don’t give concrete solutions. What sort of peaceful solutions should peace activists be discussing and to whom do you think they should be directing their message?
It helps to keep in mind that more than 35 wars or conflicts are being fought in today’s world. On average, some 40,000 people a month are dying as a result, and mostly it’s the poor killing the poor. The wealthy rarely go to war. During Vietnam, only one member of Congress had a son who saw combat. Bush was all for the Vietnam War, but not for him. Richard Cheney sought, and received, five deferments. Pat Buchanan, George Will and Newt Gingrich ardently supported the war in Vietnam, but not for them.

For the U.S. vs. Afghanistan, four solutions exist: military, legal, political and ethical. Bush and his generals chose the first, predictably. A legal solution is to use international tribunals—where Milosovec is now—to try suspected terrorists as murderers. The U.S. refuses: A superpower relying on some no-name judges in the Hague, wherever that is, to create justice? Those same judges might get uppity and haul in Bush, or belatedly, Henry Kissinger, for violating international law by carrying out an armed attack against another country.

The political solution is to follow our advice to Israel and Northern Ireland and negotiate. There is also the precedence of Richard Nixon going to China in the early 1970s to dialogue with the Communists, who were long demonized by him. Ronald Reagan went to the Soviet Union to talk with what he called “the evil empire.” Now both nations are trading partners with the U.S. Both China and the Soviet Union were once portrayed in far more monstrous ways than the ragtag
Taliban regime is now.

Finally, the ethical solution, which is in the tradition of Gandhi, King, Dorothy Day, Jeannette Rankin, A. J. Muste, Isaiah, Rabbi Christ, Andre Trocme, Howard Zinn, Dan and Phil Berrigan, John Dear, Jane Addams, Joan Baez and a long list of other pacifists, including the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the War Resisters League and the International Women’s League for Peace and Freedom. It says to those behind the attack: We forgive you, we reject vengeance, we will not reply to your killing by our killing. And then, summoning still more courage, to ask them to forgive us for all our violence. This rational approach is not about to happen. Instead, we are getting jingoism, as when Bush said, “Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model for the world.” A model for what? Vengeance, retribution, score-settling by killing civilians in their homes in Afghanistan?

What’s your response to people who feel that those who are not in support of military action are “anti-American” and “pro-terrorist”?
I’d suggest they read Tolstoy’s essay on “Patriotism or Peace” in which he denounces patriotism as nationalistic self-absorption and egotism. After Tolstoy, some Martin Luther King, who said: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” And then read the former Marine Corps commandant General David Shoup: “America has become a militaristic and aggressive nation. We have an immense and expensive militaristic establishment, fueled by a gigantic defense industry, and millions of proud, patriotic and frequently bellicose and militaristic citizens. Militarism in America is in full bloom and promises a future of vigorous self-pollination.” Then some Barbara Ward: “There is an old Roman proverb that says, ‘If you would wish for peace then prepare for war.’ Rubbish. If you would wish for peace than offer alternatives to war.”

What’s your alternative?
I thought you’d never ask! Education. For the past 20 years, I’ve been teaching courses on nonviolence to high school, college and law students. I’ve had more than 5,000 students in my classes. This year, I am teaching courses at two public high schools in Washington as well as at American University, the University of Maryland, the Washington Center for Internships and Academics, and the Georgetown University Law School. Since 1985, I’ve directed the Center for Teaching Peace, a nonprofit which helps schools at all levels begin or expand peace studies programs. I’ve been lecturing at about 20 colleges a year. I know first-hand that students are hungry to learn about alternatives to violence, and not just military violence but also alternatives to domestic violence, environmental violence, death penalty violence, verbal violence, violence to animals. The leading cause of injury to American women is being beaten up at home by a husband, boyfriend, ex-husband or ex-boyfriend. Twelve million animals a day are slaughtered for food in the U.S. The literature of peace is vast. Schools are where the peace movement needs to be. Unless we teach our children peace, someone else will teach them violence.

What have you seen or heard lately that inspires hope in you for the future?
I see it everyday in my classrooms when students begin to devour the literature of nonviolence and slowly commit themselves to living a life in which conflicts are settled through the force of justice, the force of organized resistance to abusive power, the force of truth—satya—and the force of love, and at the same time not the force of fists, guns, bombs, nukes or armies. Pacifism is not passivity. Gandhi said it is direct action, well-organized and designed not to bring adversaries to their knees but to their senses. It is not foolproof. On this planet, nothing is. Joan Baez came to my class once and explained to the students that “the only thing that’s been a worse flop than the organization of nonviolence has been the organization of violence.” I think she’s right.

Of late, pacifism has been denounced, even called evil, as on the op-ed page of The Washington Post, or mocked as nonsense in The Wall Street Journal. It brings to mind what Hermann Goering, the Nazi leader, said: “The people can always be brought to do the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you do is tell them they’re being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism.”

The peaceable society won’t be brought about in our lifetime. So what? Don’t worry about being successful, worry about being faithful. It’s true that a small daily act of peacemaking often doesn’t seem like much. While few of us are called on to do great things, all of us can do small things in a great way.

To learn more about the Center for Teaching Peace or to order Colman McCarthy’s two anthologies, Solutions to Violence and Strength Through Peace: the Ideas and People of Nonviolence, contact the Center for Teaching Peace, 450l Van Ness St. NW, Washington, DC 20016. Tel: (202) 537-1372. Each costs $25, plus $3 for shipping. See Satya, August 1997, to read about McCarthy’s views on animal activism and the media.


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