March article 2012

Chapter 15: the U.S. chooses not to appeal (March 2012)

Welcome to the fifteenth monthly posting: Two days ago I got the word that “the government throws in the towel!”: they chose not to appeal the dismissal of their law suit against me. You’ll remember the suit was to collect a fine I’ve refused to pay since 2002. The fine was for a 1997 trip I took to Iraq to deliver medicine to children in need – and didn’t ask for a U.S. license to do so. More on this final development in my case in a bit.

But first … a book review.

Every once in a while an experiment is done which changes fundamentally how we look at the world. The Michelson-Morley experiment in physics, 125 years ago, changed how we understood the nature of light – and provided support for a paper Albert Einstein was to publish eighteen years later. Einstein’s ‘thought experiment’ – his Theory of Special Relativity – radically changed our world.

His insight into physical nature led Einstein to recognize the equivalence of mass and energy, stated in the famous equation e=mc2. And this led to the eventual development of the atomic bomb.

In the year following publication of Einstein’s theory, another experiment was done by a man who would become no less famous than Einstein and who would also provide insight into a different source of energy, a radically constructive and healing energy within human beings. The date was September 11, 1906 – the man was Mohandas Gandhi – and the energy he discovered on that date he came to call satyagraha or “truth-force.”

The common English translation of these terms is “nonviolence.” But that word is often taken to connote a negative – even when not hyphenated – meaning simply not physically violent, or not assertive, not confrontational. However in 1906 Gandhi began to develop this force until it became so powerful as to cause the British Empire to leave its prize colony India.

A new book by Jim Douglass provides a fascinating and detailed story of Gandhi’s own development of this force, which he used to lead India to independence. It is called Gandhi and the Unspeakable: his final experiment with truth. If it were only an account of Gandhi and nonviolence, it would be well worth reading.

But it is significantly more. It is also the story of an opposing force – a force diametrically opposed to the power of nonviolence which Gandhi advocated – a force which was to lead to Gandhi’s assassination – and which would lead India eventually to develop a nuclear bomb.

This book is about events many decades ago. But few books are as relevant now to our world situation. Today our leaders are debating whether to attack Iran because they may be wishing to have what nine other nations in the world already possess, an atomic bomb.

This book about Gandhi begins with a quote from him: “I did not move a muscle when I first heard that the atom bomb had wiped out Hiroshima. On the contrary, I said to myself, ‘Unless now the world adopts nonviolence, it will spell certain suicide for humanity.’” The book ends with this quote from Martin Luther King: “The choice today is … either nonviolence or nonexistence.” That choice is ours.

We barely averted nuclear holocaust during the Cuban missile crisis, when John Kennedy had to call on Nikita Khrushchev for help to resist our own military, which was pushing him for a first-strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. And Khrushchev had to resist the push of his own military to attack us as well. This fascinating account of Kennedy’s turn towards peace is documented in Jim Douglass’ earlier book JFK and the Unspeakable: why he died and why it matters. That book argues that Kennedy was assassinated by a dark force aligned with violence, just as Gandhi was killed by a similar dark force.

That dark force is “The Unspeakable” in the title of both books. It is a phrase from the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Merton characterizes it this way:

It is a void that contradicts everything that is spoken even before the words are said; the void that gets into the language of public and official declarations at the very moment when they are pronounced, and makes them ring dead with the hollowness of the abyss. It is the void out of which Eichmann drew the punctilious exactitude of his obedience.

I thought of this description when I listened to President Obama’s opening statement in his 2012 State of the Union address:

Last month, I went to Andrews Air Force Base and welcomed home some of our last troops to serve in Iraq. Together, we offered a final, proud salute to the colors under which more than a million of our fellow citizens fought – and several thousand gave their lives.
We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world.

Can anyone possibly believe that our 2003 invasion and war in Iraq has “made the United States safer and more respected around the world”? Can President Obama possibly believe this? Does it matter that thousands of U.S. lives were lost, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, $5 trillion dollars have or will be spent paying for the war, Iraq has been left in shambles, and much of the world knows about Abu Ghraib and knows that this war was an illegal war of aggression? Does it matter that no one can believe what Obama says?!

This is “The Unspeakable” made palpable in words – words that no one pays attention to – and which therefor become especially dangerous and lethal as they seep unnoticed into our consciousness. It is “the void which makes [official declarations] ring dead with the hollowness of the abyss.”

Gandhi has said that Western civilization is a civilization of violence. If we continue with our reliance on violence – spending half the world’s total outlays for war preparation – we are practicing a form of financial bankruptcy. And the implicit idea that we can a prevent nuclear war (or nuclear accident) by attacking countries we decide are untrustworthy of the bomb is absurd. For how long? For another decade? For another generation? What about our grandchildren? What about nuclear abolition?

The power of Gandhi and the Unspeakable is that Jim Douglass has posed the choice we confront today in stark terms of two opposing world views – views dramatized in the lives of these two central protagonists in the struggle to decide how India should win its independence. One is Gandhi, a man so well known that he is often referred to simply as “The Mahatma” (The Great Soul); his means was nonviolence. The other is a man virtually unknown outside of India, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the dark mastermind behind Gandhi’s assassination; his means were assassination, terrorism, violence.

In 1909, when Gandhi was on a visit from South Africa to London, he shared a speakers’ platform with Savarkar to debate their respective understandings of how to free India. Gandhi repeatedly stressed the inherent, inviolate connection between the means with the end. Gandhi said that no good end can be achieved with bad means. If you kill to achieve a free India you will create a state ruled by violence.

Albert Einstein is reported to have said, “The atomic bomb has changed everything except our way of thinking.” Mohandas K. Gandhi taught us a different way of thinking. James W. Douglass has put that new way of thinking in sharp contrast with the old – the old way that we, especially in America, have become so accustomed to accepting that we no longer think about it.

Gandhi also said that “Truth is God!” It is our choice between nonviolence – what Gandhi called “holding to truth” or satyagraha – and violence, nuclear war, and living our lives within an unarticulated knowledge of the Unspeakable. Gandhi could also have said, truth is good. If we have the courage to seek to know deeply what is true … and to hold to that truth as best we know it.

The process of seeking to know what is true, and holding to truth in action, Gandhi called his experiments with truth (the subtitle of his autobiography). I believe we all in our lives conduct our own experiments with truth, however small and subtle they may seem. And whatever is the outcome “out there” they will all have an impact on our lives “on the inside.”

Sixteen years ago, Jim Douglass came to Seattle and spoke about his travel to Iraq a few months earlier. He spoke about what he witnessed in that country, devastated by the Gulf War and sanctions. I thought to myself, if this is the kind of person who goes on this kind of delegation perhaps I should consider it for myself. And so thus began my own experiment with truth, confronting the unspeakable in American foreign policy towards the people of Iraq.

Now it seems my legal confrontation with the U.S. government over Iraq has at last come to an end. I had planned to write something of what I’ve learned from the experience. But the end of my case has come just a few days ago. And I’ve written quite enough for one posting already. I’d also like time to formulate my thoughts about the benefits of doing what I’ve done: activism as a tool for coming to truth.

That said, there are a few final things I want to say today: I need to express my deep gratitude to my lawyers who’ve given so generously and freely of their time. And to express my appreciation for all of those who’ve read these postings and followed my case with their words of support. And finally to my friends in the media who’ve recognized that this issue is not ‘old news’ but an important ongoing one.

Thanks to you all,

Bert

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