November article 2012

Reflections – November 2012

Friends: Those who’ve followed these postings know that my legal battle with the federal government over a $16,000 fine (for traveling to Iraq to bring medicine without a U.S. license) has ended. The judge dismissed the government’s efforts to collect saying the government waited too long to sue. See Bert’s Case for a history of the legal issues.

I am grateful to the various readers and friends who have commented about these last postings.

In last month’s posting, I hypothesized that Rose, a neighborhood dog who bite me on the leg, did so in order to have me write about her. So that she could be famous! Well, no one agreed with that theory.

So this month I’m going to leave Rose and write about NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

I have spoken with Mr. Friedman and – even though he did not bite me – I nonetheless have issues of nonviolence with him. I believe that by trying to apply nonviolence in real-life situations we can best see how it works (or fails to work). And we can see more clearly how well we really understand nonviolence. It’s where the rubber meets the road.

In September some of you might remember that I posted the following four paragraphs about Tom Friedman’s columns on economic sanctions on Iraq:

In 1991 [Thomas Friedman] wrote, “Sooner or later, Mr. Bush argued, sanctions would force Mr. Hussein’s generals to bring him down, and then Washington would have the best of all worlds: an iron-fisted Iraqi junta without Saddam Hussein.” [emphasis added, NYT, 7/7/91]

From Qatar in 2001 he wrote, “All you hear and read in the media here is that the sanctions are starving the Iraqi people – which is true. But the U.S. counter-arguments that by complying with U.N. resolutions Saddam could get those sanctions lifted at any time are never heard.” [emphasis added, NYT 2/6/01]

I suppose one can wonder if Mr. Friedman remembers what he writes. I admit to forgetting things I wrote ten years before; but this is a major point, a question of life and death – of starving children – of an eventual war. Mr. Friedman, in his own words, says at one time that the sanctions are for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Then again, in his own words, at a later time, he says that sanctions would be lifted at any time if Saddam just complied with the U.N. resolutions to disarm.

I see that I’m running out of space and of time. Since I’ve met and talked to Tom Friedman twice (and his secretary in DC once!) I have a few stories to tell. I think that I need to leave that for the next time.

Time to tell those stories. Soon after Mr. Friedman wrote The Lexus and the Olive Tree in 1999, he appeared at a World Affairs Council event in Seattle to publicize his book. I paid my money to go and ask my question. (I was nervous. I didn’t expect the speaker or audience to be sympathetic to my question. But as I went in, there was Fr. Bill “Bix” Bischel who’d been invited by a friend; it was a great support to sit with him.)

In preface to my question I said honestly to Thomas Friedman that he’d done a good job in writing for a non-technical audience explaining the difference between analog and digital technology. He interrupted me to say that the CEO of Sun Microsystems had given him helpful advice. It was all very cordial and friendly.

But as soon as I asked my question, I could feel the atmosphere in the room change! I asked Mr. Friedman if he was aware of the 1991 New England Journal of Medicine survey which said that 46,900 Iraqi children had died excess deaths over the first eight months after the Gulf War (Jan.-Aug. 1991).

My question was a simple factual one: Was he aware of this survey report? I could immediately see he was becoming agitated and, I took it to be, defensive. His direct answer was evasive. Maybe he’d heard something about it, he wasn’t sure if he had or had not. But then he followed with a series of non sequiturs: he went on about how cruel and evil Saddam Hussein was, without ever connecting his statements to the reported deaths of the Iraqi children. Simply put, I could see he’d become upset.

As I look back on the exchange, it gives me a certain insight into Tom Friedman’s mind at that moment. Someone who is assured of the facts and his commitment to the truth does not get upset with a factual question (even a factual challenge). After all, if one believes in the truth, as a scientist might, new facts should be welcomed. Maybe one has made a mistake. In any case, a new fact has to be integrated into one’s understanding or theory of the situation. Non sequiturs and defensiveness are signs of weakness.

I can wish that I had a recording of our exchange, but this is my best recollection. (I remember one man in the audience who gave me a “thumbs up” after my question – but I think he was in the minority.) After Mr. Friedman’s talk, I went to meet him at the book-signing table to give him a book and video about sanctions, which he took. Some time later I got an email from a friend in the Mid-West. He’d also raised a sanctions question to Tom Friedman and Friedman commented that he’d just heard a similar question raised in Seattle. We had made an impression.

An end result of our impression was his second op-ed from Qatar which I quoted above. I still find it a stunning admission: “All you hear and read in the media here is that the sanctions are starving the Iraqi people – which is true. But the U.S. counter-arguments that by complying with U.N. resolutions Saddam could get those sanctions lifted at any time are never heard.” After a moment’s thought everyone would recognize that we would not accept the idea of starving American children to get an American President to comply with the U.N. Charter. We’d all understand what that is: terrorism.

This very morning I was reading a few more pages in the biography of Gandhi My Life is My Message. Gandhi writes, “I would be guilty of violence if I harbored any ill-feeling against the Kathiawar Resident. … As a votary of truth and ahimsa, my business is to state the naked truth without fear but without ill will against the wrongdoers.” (my emphasis)

I can perhaps claim that I asked my question of Tom Friedman by stating a naked truth in a respectful manner. I cannot claim that I did it without any fear, as witnessed by my nervousness and appreciation for signs of support. And even though I was respectful on the surface, I can not claim that I held no ill will against Mr. Friedman for his ‘wrongdoing’ – his ongoing support of the cruel policy of sanctions.

My fear was not that someone there was going to attack me physically. Or even verbally. So looking at why I felt some fear illustrates the great value of trying to put into practice my understanding of nonviolence. As I continue to learn from such experiences (including writing about them) I am encouraging myself to recognize hidden and dark places deep in my mind. For example, what is my attitude towards authority? Was I nervous because I was challenging ‘an authority’?

Why are hidden and dark places in our minds important? A friend recently sent me a review of the Batman movie which opened in Aurora, Colorado. That’s the midnight movie where a man entered the theater with weapons and killed a number of the movie goers. The review (written after the killings) stated, “Part of the pleasure of movies like The Dark Night Rises is to immense oneself in a world that is free of real-world physical and social constraints – to imagine what it feels like to beat up somebody who deserves to be beat up, for example. It feels gratifying.”

To imagine what it feels like to beat up somebody who deserves to be beat up” – and this was from a religious newsletter!! As ‘intelligible’ as it might be, what a hidden and dark place in the mind that is. We can reasonably ask, Who deserves to be beat up? How can we build a peaceful, nonviolent relation, family, or world if we cling to the belief that this is a sensible question to ask?

Here is a poem by Merna Hecht, poet, nationally recognized storyteller and teaching artist. It’s about Abdi Sami, a dear friend who died recently and the Batman movie.

Special Effects

In tribute to Abdi Sami, filmmaker, peacemaker, and poet;
July 22, 2012, Aurora, CO, Batman movie, the morning after.

This morning I am remembering you, how as honored guest
you talked with my students who had recently arrived in …..America
from refugee camps where borders are stacked with blood …..and bullets.

Remembering when you told them you were a founder
of Dream Quest, winning academy awards for special …..effects,
how their faces remained blank,
until you spoke of the film you made
in the land of your birthplace, Iran,
after the earthquake, and a man you met in a cemetery,
how with no special effects, but because of grief
he looked older than the crumbled stone, the rubble,
how the two of you wept together.

This morning you and I would weep together
because last night in America, with its monstrous appetite
for special effects and its hairline border crossings
between reality and horror, thirty minutes into the latest …..blockbuster,
a young man with gas mask, explosives
and loaded guns went on a killing tirade.

My gentle friend, you loved to create
films daring with special effects, but if I could reach for you
on the other side, I know you would stand with me
when the young men and women who came here as you …..once did
from where war raged, would ask us to explain what …..happened
in real time, in real life, after midnight, in America, and what …..would we tell them?

I have no words, no story, to meet the moment.
I am less a stranger to your untimely death,
or an imagined place where the dead might drift,
or a shot zooming on a war-torn border,
than familiar to my own country. I am drowning in the deep
pools of permission given by the big money, the big screen, …..the big guns,
the President and the pundits who will not say the dark night …..has risen
even as the semi automatic was fired and the hair dyed red
and the Joker lost his mind, and for several moments
no one was certain where stood the border between the …..shadow and the light.

-Merna Hecht

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