The Satya Interview with Joanne
Joanne Sheehan is a long-time peace
activist and the Chair of War Resisters International, and runs the
New England branch of the War Resisters League (WRL). She lectures throughout
the world on nonviolence and social empowerment, and has been a nonviolence
trainer/workshop facilitator since the 1970s. To help support her regional
WRL office, she also runs a vegetarian catering business called Pacifeast
Catering. In the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack, she
discussed with Angela Starks some lessons that we can learn from
similar situations and her thoughts on where we can go from here.
You have been a peace activist since the days of the Vietnam War
and the struggle for civil rights. How do you see the current situation
in the context of past struggles like these? And what differences or
similarities do you see between them?
When theres a call for war, similar things happen. For example,
at this early stage we see a lot of support for war in the polls. However,
we saw the same at the beginning of the Vietnam War; it took people
years to really get an understanding of that war and to oppose it as
more and more Americans came home in body bags. People start to think
things through, look at other options and wonder if we can ever reach
our goals through military use.
The other thing is that, theres a lot of patriotism. Ive
already been told to leave the country by a caller during a talk radio
show. Likewise, during Vietnam it was love it or leave it.
When peace activists exercise their right to free speechsomething
America was founded on and prides itself onwe are told were
unpatriotic, told were un-American! I think its a serious
contradiction and a scary one because its so common.
Because of our current state of emergency, our civil rights are also
being challenged by the governmentmore and more people are being
picked up and we can expect more wiretaps and things like that. During
the Vietnam War, activists found that some people who were going to
meetings with them were FBI agents, not fellow protesters. Thats
how organized it is.
Another similarity is the growing rhetoricthe us versus
them, the demonizing of the other. We have to dehumanize people
in order to be able to mobilize against them and commit violence against
them. Thats happened in every war in history. We saw that in the
way Saddam Hussein was demonized or the way the Vietnamese were referred
to as Gooks. And now, because there is an Arab American
population and Muslims in this country, were not only demonizing
the terrorists abroad, we are also demonizing people of color here.
This is affecting a lot of people in this country.
From your perspective as a seasoned activist, what lessons did weor
should wehave learned from those previous situations, or from
ongoing struggles from Iraq to Northern Ireland?
The main lesson is that violence hasnt produced justice. Nor has
it produced a real sense of security or peace for us. Vietnam is an
example: We killed millions of Vietnamese and 57,000 Americans came
home in body bags, so who won that war? Enormous amounts of Americans
came home suffering from diseases and psychological trauma and we have
large numbers of veterans who are homeless as a result. That war is
still with us. Then theres Gulf War Syndrome. Why did these men
and women come home so sick? The government keeps lying, saying We dont
have any proof that those toxins you were exposed to are whats
causing you to be sick and die.
They say that the first casualty of war is truth. We look back and we
see that the story that Iraqis came into Kuwaiti hospitals and threw
babies out of incubators was a lie. Many Congress people said they voted
to go after Iraq because they thought it was true. And so now we have
to ask: What is the government lying to us about this time?
Why do you think all the polls are saying people support war?
It could simply be the fact that weve been attacked and we want
to do something, but people do not understand that we have options.
This country has built its strength on weapons. We are by far the most
armed nation in the worldboth civilians and the military. However,
on a lot of levels were fighting guerilla warfare, or terrorists,
therefore a national missile defense or Star Wars shield
will not protect us from airplanes or whatever kinds of attacks that
terrorists come up with. Carpet bombing Afghanistan will probably create
more terroristsit certainly wont wipe them outso thats
not an answer either. Violence creates more instability and more anger
Its interesting that one of the nations of the world that took
a day off to mourn September 11th was Northern Ireland. The majority
of the population there has come to the understanding that the violence
is not getting them anywhere.
I have a T-shirt that says We Arm the World. Its pictured
as a line from Reagan in the middle of a lot of dictators, all singing
during the time when that song We Are the World came out.
I wore it when I was visiting my dad in a nursing home. One of the residents
said What does your T-shirt say, honey? and I said
We Arm the World. Were the biggest exporter of weapons
to the world. So she turned aroundI thought she was going
to give it to meand said, And now were getting it
back arent we? She understood, this old woman.
Do you think the media is accurately portraying what the public
The role the mass media is playing is to kind of whip up a frenzy. Many
TV and radio stations are airing these little segments that play patriotic
songs or have quotes from Bush. Theyre not giving a voice to people
who are analyzing the situation, though we do find that more on public
radio stations and the like. Again, we talk about being in a country
where we have free speech and not having government control of radio
stations, but theyre still corporately controlled. There is a
censorship. Thats the first thing we have to say about the mediathat
they are not objective.
There are many peace organizations with large memberships that are increasingweve
had people joining WRL in the past few weeks. A number of prominent
spiritual leaders, like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn have come
out with messages of peace and compassion. Is it really only five percent
of us who oppose war, all combined? I dont think so. Its
just that its hard for individuals to find a voice because all
around you your neighbors have flags. Theres that feeling anyway,
that the whole U.S., 110 percent, wants war. Thats why we gain
strength when we come together in groups.
Theres a sticker on the WRL web site that says Our Grief
is Not a Cry for War. That says it all.
There have been a number of people whose children or partners or other
family members were killed, who have spoken out for nonviolence, who
have spoken out for more restraint. These people have written to the
American people saying Do not go to war in my husbands name
or in my sons name. There has been the fear among activists
that if we speak out well be thought of as insensitive, and I
think thats where the voices of the families of the victims have
given us some strength.
Does the WRL have a message for people in the armed forces?
Were one of the groups that supports the GI Rights Hotline that
people in the military can call if theyre beginning to look at
their conscience and say Whoa! I never really thought about whether
I could go to war, whether I could kill people. Maybe they feel as if
theyre being led into something that will kill innocent civilians
and want to find out how to register as a conscientious objector. You
shouldnt have to give up all of your rights and your conscience
too in the military, although that is what they ask you to do. Youre
meant to do what the commander says, not think for yourself.
Also, I do counter-recruitment work. I go into high schools and talk
about what the military is all about and I provide alternatives. The
recruiters are trying to sell you a college education, job training,
excitement around the world. Theyre not trying to sell you the
opportunity to go to war because that doesnt sell. In Vietnam,
we had to have a draft in order to get enough people to go to war.
Is the WRL 100 percent committed to nonviolence, in that you believe
no military action whatsoever should be taken?
Yes. WRL has a declaration that we share with groups throughout the
worldnot just throughout the countrythat war is a crime
against humanity. We dont believe that military action is ever
the way. We go further and say, however, that we will work nonviolently
to remove the causes of war.
So nonviolently means not bombing buildings, as well
Thats right. We have been asking ourselves: Can property destruction
ever be justified as being nonviolent? Within the broader nonviolent
movement theres a lot of disagreement; people have their own ideas,
including myself. I would say that raiding a draft board and destroying
the files of those who are about to get drafted would be justified property
destruction. Tearing down the Berlin Wall was justified property destruction.
But anything else is not. I personally think that any property destruction
has to be looked at within a context and would have to be something
that in no way would harm a human being. Blowing up a building would
be out of the questiona night watchman might be in there, and
I couldnt justify that loss of life.
Do you envision any specific solutions to the current situation?
This situation has made us ask Why? Why would people hate us? There
are short- and long-term solutions here. But this has been a long-term
problem with no quick answers. You dont get rid of terrorism by
getting rid of the terrorists that exist now, you have to look at what
fosters this. We have to look at the people who did this as extremists,
way out there on the end of the spectrum, while realizing there are
a lot of other people at various points on the spectrum who hate, dislike,
or oppose the U.S. because of our foreign and economic policies. For
example, we think we have a right to the oil in the Middle East and
that we can drive with it as much as we want, so we get the military
to safeguard that by propping up the governments there that allow that
to happen. Even Europeans were having massive demonstrations against
the U.S. for these very reasons!
As a super-power we continue to do what we want. Bush has become a mouthpiece
for that more than ever. Theres a kind of arrogance about his
style that has really angered people. So thats the climate were
in which gave rise to this. Even people of the Islamic faith who wouldnt
necessarily support these bombings still feel that they are targeted
by the U.S. in so many ways.
Lets look at our inconsistencies. We claim that one of the problems
we have with Saddam Hussein is the way he treats the Kurds. Yet Turkey
has the same exact history against the Kurds and they are our ally,
and we have military bases there. Our foreign policy is totally inconsistent
and is totally based on our own interests. And when anyone else sees
that, it gives rise to anger because of the injustice they feel that
they or others suffer. For a variety of strategic reasons the U.S. just
closes its eyes. So were not a humanitarian nation. We support
governments that violate human rights around the world. We give China
most favored nation status yet we try to starve out Cuba.
One of the other problems is that were an isolated nation. I have
a friend from England who was travelling in the U.S. about 12 years
ago on his motorcycle through Oklahoma. This was when self-service gas
pumps were coming in and hed never seen them before. He went up
to the guy at the gas station and said, Excuse me I dont
know how to use this because Im in a foreign country, and
this guy jumped up and started screaming at him, Dont you
ever call the United States a foreign country. Isnt that
hilarious? We think that foreign means bad guys,
not that it simply means another country. Most Americans dont
understand how the world sees us and we dont understand the rest
of the world.
People I know who are otherwise very open minded will nonetheless
but we are the greatest country in the world,
so I feel as if Im hearing brainwashing going on amongst my own
One of the things WRL asks is How do we foster a discussion to
get people to look deeper at these issues? So when we say Were
the greatest country does that mean we have more stuff? How did
we get it? Whose was it to begin with? Todays young people were
raised to be consumers with TV ads directed at them. It has become our
purpose in life, this is what meaning is supposed to be.
And Giuliani or Bush tell us to Go out and buy. Thats
it: Patriotism means go out and buy, buy, buy and support the American
way of life. Bill Clinton said, They said to go out and shop so
And so we continue causing the problems that are making people resent
us in the first place?
Exactly. Its a vicious circle. Were not being reflective.
Where does peace activism go from here?
Pacifist groups, religious groups and others that have a commitment
to peace began to circulate statements in the first few days. The Internet
has helped this tremendously by providing an alternative forum for discussion
and passing on information which has helped people to sort this out
and think this through.
I think we need to build a movement, but we need to do it in a way that
doesnt polarizenot go after those people who are pro-war,
but figure out how to expand the dialogue, to go deeper, asking questions.
How do we get real justice? How do we really get rid of terrorism? How
do we provide real security for ourselves and the rest of the world?
How do we support human rights? Thats where peace activism has
to go, and I think it will grow and be a movement. I have seen it grow
since September 11th.
What do you think might be the most positive possible outcome from
all this, if anything?
One unfortunate lesson weve had to learn is that now we know what
its like to be victims, so lets not make any more victims.
Maybe we can gain in sensitivity. Were horrified by this, and
it is horrible, but people in Northern Ireland, in the Basque country,
and in many parts of the world, live with violence every day. We should
look at this issue of justice in the world, look at our foreign policy,
look at our economic policy. I hope that brings us to asking deeper
questions and then really asking for some sort of change. We had the
war to end all wars at the beginning of the last century, didnt
we? What does it take to get people to wake up?
What can individuals do on a daily basis to help create a nonviolent
Theres something each and every one of us can do. We make personal
choices and then we join with others to try to stop something that we
think is wrong. We need to figure out: Is this where we want our tax
dollars to go? Do we really want our sons and daughters to go off to
the military to be fed into this machine? Do we intervene in our own
communities when people say hateful things about other people?
I define myself as someone trying to practice nonviolence. For me that
means in my daily life: I am a war tax resister, I have raised two children
without war toys and have always given them nonviolent options, and
I became a vegetarian in the mid-1970s. We live on a small income and
try to live as environmentally sensitively as we can. We aim to be aware
of the world we live in: Treating everyone and everything nonviolently.
To learn more about the War Resisters League, visit www.warresisters.org.