I wrote this letter to my family on February 11, 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq. It touched off a war of words. I still stand by what I wrote.
I got the letter from Dad, and this is my initial response.
I believe in grassroots mobilization and in the power of organized people to confront organized money. I believe the American media make it impossible to find accurate facts and ethical opinions about the global situation. I believe we are living in a pivotal historical period which will be marked primarily by the growing ability of organized money to control information, resources and peoples’ lives. And I believe that the accelerated pace of those who wish to control the world will be matched by an accelerated grassroots organizing of those who wish to maintain human values of freedom, compassion and creativity as a tiny flame for the future, along with those who want to begin a global refocusing of people’s attention on these human values right now.
Dad sent a letter with a missive from a Catholic priest, outlining the Catholic church’s “three conditions” for a just war and the “four circumstances” which should also be taken into account. Although I’m glad for each anti-war person, whatever his or her reasons, I find this argument less than compelling. Jesus is the foundation for the Catholic Church, and all other Christian churches, and I have never heard that Jesus said in any New Testament passage: “Love your enemies, unless your circumstances fall under the four exceptions or your situation meets the three conditions.”
He just said: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you....Do not judge, or you too will be judged...Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy...Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other side also...Love your neighbor as yourself...Love the Lord your God with all your heart...”
I don’t know what you all think of the Iraq war plans, other than that Mom and Dad are against it. I think the question boils down to whether you think there can be an evil more evil than war, and if so, does Saddam Hussein fit the bill? My own view is that there is no evil more evil than war, because war is just one manifestation of the human frailty that causes us to sometimes deny that other living things are just like us, and matter just as much. To initiate and conduct a war, many, many people must decide that it’s okay for the Iraqis to have their communities turned to rubble and their bodies turned to charcoal, even if we don’t think it would be okay for someone to turn the towns where we live into rubble, or turn all of you and all of your friends into charcoal.
There are no circumstances or conditions under which I would find it acceptable for someone to bomb your houses and kill you and your children. I don’t especially like George W. Bush. I’m convinced he is a tyrant and a dictator who manipulated the electoral system to gain illegitimate power, just like Hussein. I’m equally convinced that Bush, like Hussein, “kills his own people” (to the extent that a man can own people) through violent, greedy foreign policy and greedy, violent domestic policy. We just don’t have photographs of the bodies of homeless men and women who have frozen to death; desperate unemployed workers who have killed themselves, children in cancer hospitals, poisoned to death by nuclear waste.
Despite my convictions about Bush as, overall, tipped toward the evil side of the human moral paradox, I still can’t think of any circumstance or condition under which I would find it acceptable for someone to bomb the White House and turn him and Dick Cheney and Laura, Barbara and Jenna, and Condi Rice, and Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld into charcoal.
I can see the argument appealing to reasonable people, though. “We must kill thousands of Iraqi civilians, or else Saddam Hussein might kill them, or might participate in a chain of planning which would end in the deaths of thousands of Americans.”
But the logic is flawed, so long as you value each life, whether Iraqi or American, animal or plant, exactly the same. I also concur with Virginia Woolf’s statement in Three Guineas: “As a woman I have no country. As a woman, my country is the world.” The borders to me are utterly imaginary; “defending” a “nation” or a “flag” is ludicrous.
Killing does not prevent killing, and destruction does not prevent destruction.
In short, I am not safe or free now, in America, as an American. And it will not make me safer when thousands of people in Iraq are dead, and thousands more are slowly dying from the leftovers of war. No one is safe: not here, and not there. No one will be safe or free until every single person in every place is safe and free. When no one is suffering under the thumbs of tyrants and dictators (home-grown or installed), no one will have any reason to hate and attempt to harm anyone. We can’t have safety in isolation. There are no walls or metal detectors big enough or sensitive enough to keep out despair and hatred, and no bombs or drugs strong enough to eradicate them. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred. Only love can do that.”
The counter-argument is: ludicrous idealism. That’s not how the world works. Others must have too little for the most powerful (currently Americans) to have what we think of as “enough,” and so long as we must take away the ability of others to have an absolute “enough,” to obtain our “too much,” they will hate us and try to kill us. Bush is only trying to make the world safe for American overconsumption, and that’s a pragmatic goal, shared by leaders since recorded history began.
And my response must be: we each live already what we believe, and as our beliefs change, so will our lifestyles. If Iraq had a big, strong economy and full employment, and Saddam Hussein tried to get more than half of the tax revenue poured into weapons of mass destruction and soldiers mobilized to kill us, I would want the Iraqi people to resist anyway they could: on their tax returns, in their Congress, on the streets. So I will continue to struggle to find the courage to be a tax resister, to get my views publicized and into the currently inadequate debate, to get the Congress of the land in which I happen to live to cut off the funding for murder all over the world, to lift up my voice and help fill the streets with yelling bodies, yelling that we don’t hate the world, we don’t want to own the world, we don’t want to kill the world’s people in any way, by any weapons, for any reason.
And I will continue to hope that you will do likewise, for whatever reason makes the most sense to you.
In conclusion, I think morality matters. I don’t think morality is defined “once and for all” by popularity polls. I also don’t think it’s defined “once and for all” by ancient texts interpreted by a series of Catholic priests and theologians. I think morality is a living, growing, shifting thing defined by each person making each choice he or she is presented with. And to have a firm foundation, those choices must always be made with reference to the past, present and future likely experiences of other people who will be affected: every one else, as though they are ourselves.
The American Civil Liberties Union wants me to join, “Because freedom can’t protect itself.” I think that too is less than compelling, like “conditions” and “circumstances” justifying war, like national borders. Freedom isn’t a thing in a box. The Bill of Rights is only as strong as the people who take it for inspiration in choosing their actions, not for protection afterwards. If someone wants to beat me up when I march in New York City this weekend, the Bill of Rights won’t stop them. Their own realization of our common aliveness is the only thing that will stop them.
Freedom wasn’t invented by the Founding Fathers and it won’t be destroyed by John Ashcroft and his “PATRIOT” acts. It’s at the core of all life; the yearning and striving for it is part of my understanding of God.
I don’t want a single Iraqi person to die. More importantly, I don’t want a single American person to become a killer-of-Iraqi-people by proxy.
Is there an evil more evil than war? Perhaps passive apathy or active acquiescence in the face of the threat of war.