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A Task of the Nonviolent Warrior

A Shepherd Q&A with Marquette University’s Father G. Simon

Mar. 12, 2008
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By Louis Fortis and Lisa Kaiser

In March 2003, the United States invaded Iraq in what was sold as a “cakewalk” that would last a few weeks and plant the seeds of democracy. But five years later that vision has turned into a nightmare. The war has claimed the lives of more than 1 million Iraqis and close to 4,000 U.S. soldiers while displacing more than 2 million Iraqis, emboldening Iran and destabilizing the region. Despite the heavy opposition to the war in popular opinion here and abroad, the United States seems to have no plan to reduce troop levels or find a path to lasting peace.

An early critic of U.S. policy in Iraq is Father G. Simon Harak, a Jesuit priest and founding member of Voices in the Wilderness, which has found creative nonviolent ways to draw attention to the damage done by the U.S. sanctions in Iraq. The group has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times. Last year, Harak joined Marquette University, where he founded the Center for Peacemaking.

Harak said that he hopes the center will help students and the wider community find ways to reduce violence and support peace at home and abroad. Harak will speak at a rally and march against the war in Iraq on Saturday, March 15, at O’Donnell Park. Last week, he visited the Shepherd offices to talk about his views on peacemaking and his work with Voices in the Wilderness.

Shepherd: Voices in the Wilderness was the lone group speaking out against the sanctions that the United States imposed on Iraq after the first Gulf War. Those sanctions created a terrible humanitarian crisis in Iraq, although few Americans acknowledged that. So how did Voices in the Wilderness begin?

Harak: We sat down in 1995, sitting at a table, in early August, because we had just done a protest against nuclear weapons, in Chicago. Five of us sat around the table and said, “How should we focus our attention?” And people began saying, “What about these sanctions?” We had such little knowledge about it then. “Do we still have sanctions? Are they bad?” That’s where we were. So we began to focus more and more attention on that. But there we were, five people. And most of the people in the peace movement were saying that sanctions are better than war. Folks like Sojourners never joined us in calling for the end of sanctions. So we came up with our name, Voices in the Wilderness.

Shepherd: Madeleine Albright bears a huge responsibility for those sanctions.

Harak: I give her thanks because nothing galvanized the peace movement more than her 1996 interview with Lesley Stahl on “60 Minutes.” When Lesley Stahl said, “We’ve heard that 500,000 children have died”— that was the figure at the time—and asked, “Is it worth it?” And Madeleine Albright said that it was a difficult decision, but we think the price is worth it. Excuse me? Five hundred thousand children under the age of 5—that’s worth the price?

Shepherd: And what did the world get for it?

Harak: I went over to Iraq, and I’ll tell you what one doctor said to me. He pointed to one of the starving, diseased, dying children, of which I had seen tens of thousands on my visits to Iraq during those years. I went back three times and each time staying longer. He pointed to one of those children and he said, “This is what your government wants. It wants to destroy our children and our future so that they cannot control their resources.” So by the time we went in there [invaded] in 2003 the country had been so devastated by the sanctions, there was no resistance. To go over there and see the effects of the sanctions firsthand—that was really devastating.

Shepherd: Were there restrictions on travel when you visited Iraq?

Harak: Yes. There could be no transactions within Iraq without the permission of the United States and the U.N. If you paid a taxi driver or bought a bottle of water, that was a transaction.

Shepherd: Like Cuba. It is the U.S. government preventing U.S. citizens from spending their dollars.

Harak: Exactly. Of course, then to bring in anything—toys or sheets of paper, books, magazines—anything— sheet music, pens, pencils. Well, pencils were not forbidden.

The lead in pencils was forbidden because they could be used to create stealth planes. So you picture these little kids drawing planes and that layer of graphite in the plane could turn into a stealth plane. Not that any of their planes could fly. So the sanctions were cruel. And they were mean.

Shepherd: What is your concept or definition of the term “peace”?

Harak: I see it as a tremendously dynamic force, a strength, a force that’s constantly moving. Maybe the closest we can get to creating an active image of peace is a vibrant community. That would be peace. It isn’t just people sitting around doing nothing. It may be an excited conversation. It may be difference of opinion. There could be a project that everyone wants to undertake so people have to pitch in to accom- plish the task. But my sense of peace would be this vibrant community. That would be my picture. And that the more that this community can encompass and integrate other visions of the truth, the richer and more powerful it will be.

Shepherd: Why is peace so threatening?

Harak: To start off with, I think, there are certain very few people who make money from violence. If you look at any standard conduct of violence, there’s a concentration of authority in the hands of fewer and fewer people. And sometimes when that particular concentration of authority is threatened, then the person who holds that authority feels threatened too. I think that’s why people feel threatened. If your world is built around dominating others—whatever you call that or however you rationalize it—as opposed to empowering others, then when people approach you with this notion of peace, for example, as community, as opposed to telling you what to do, then that might threaten you.

To put that on another foot, that’s part of our job as peacemakers. We have to recognize just how threatening we are to people who stand for violence. Part of our life is to understand just how threatening this may seem to them. We have to find ways for them to embrace and be embraced by the community that are not threatening to them. That’s a task of the nonviolent warrior, if I can put it that way.

I’m reading a book that I recommend called On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, by Dave Grossman, a military psychologist. I don’t know if he’s in the military anymore. He interviewed people who had killed in war.

He says that for 98% [of those who have killed during war], it really does traumatize them. No matter how just the war is, or if it’s done in self-defense, there’s a terrible trauma to taking another person’s life. I like to have my friends and students read this so they can begin to understand what’s being defended. If we come at it from the standard nonviolent point of view that every human life is sacred, then we’re asking someone to look at an action— killing—in a different way, that something not sacred has happened. And then there has to be some kind of restoration that takes place.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.


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