September article 2012

Reflections – September 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.

This month I’d like to reflect on what I learned from Rose about nonviolence.

Rose, a neighborhood dog, decided a few weeks ago to bite me on the leg. She ran down the neighbor’s driveway, barked at me, and then went for my leg.

The first thing Rose taught me about nonviolence was: Don’t take it personally!

That was an easy lesson since I’d never seen Rose before. I was simply walking down the public sidewalk in front of her house. (I don’t think I’ve ever been bitten by a dog and this quite surprised me. I like animals, had no reason to act frightened or aggressive, and in any case I hardly had time to react.)

The next thing Rose taught me was: Prolonged anger was really pointless.

Of course I didn’t want to be bitten, didn’t enjoy it, and besides Rose tore through my jeans. It was not an experience I would have chosen. But after my initial surprise and shock, feeling angry at Rose seemed pointless.

What made anger easy to give up was thinking about Rose’s intention: possibly I reminded her of someone who abused her when she was a pup. Or perhaps she has some chemical imbalance. Whatever her reasons, I can’t think of any way they realistically served her (or was really connected to me personally).

Whatever caused Rose to bite me, she just wasn’t “in her right mind.”

As a student of nonviolence, that’s a phrase I find useful. I can think of times when I was not “in my right mind!” I don’t mean in the sense we’d normally call mental illness; I mean in the sense of thinking what is widely accepted and taught in our culture, shown on television, spoken of by many public figures.

As a young boy I thought that being good at fist fights (especially in a bar) was how men were supposed to be when we grew up. Then I watched more TV and wanted to reply to some opponent with a great speech which would totally devastate him or her. Then I watched more TV and thought that owning a bunch of stuff was what I wanted – but without thinking of the violence of how that stuff was made, nor of the violence we were doing to the planet to make it.

Was I “in my right mind” … to think these violent thoughts?

Was Joe Biden in his right mind when he spoke at the Democratic National Convention recently? He proclaimed that the murder of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces – not his capture for trial – somehow “healed our country.”

What is a “right mind” … what is the right state of mind to desire for oneself?

Foremost, we should want our mind to be as truthful and accurate a reflection of reality as possible. Otherwise we will inevitably find ourselves in conflict with how things really are.

Gandhi said that Truth is God. When he began experimenting with the power of nonviolence, first in South Africa and then in India, he chose the term satyagraha to describe that power. Sat is truth and agraha is clinging, so Gandhian nonviolence is the power of holding to truth, truth-force.

As I think back to Rose, it seems clear to me that she needs training and loving care, perhaps even some medicine, but not punishment. To act as she did is a sign that she is suffering in some way and needs to be helped. It seems to me that is the truth.

What has this to do with nonviolence?

One of the most famous incidents in Gandhi’s life took place in South Africa when he was thrown off a train at a station in Pietermaritzburg because a white traveler refused to share the compartment with ‘a colored’! Gandhi spent the cold night dealing with his anger and deciding what his response ought to be. In his biography of Gandhi, Narayan Desai writes of Gandhi’s response: “He reasons that the man who threw him off the train was not to be blamed, as he too was a victim of the colour prejudice.” [my emphasis]

That was Gandhi! Here is another account in India from the same biography:

The police caught Lilavatibehn Asar, an ashramite, by the throat. She fell on the ground struck by a lathi. The police then assaulted her and kicked her in the chest with their heavy boots till she fainted. Later in court she said, “I was angry for a while with the police, but I thought even if they are misguided they are my brothers. My mind was free of anger after that.

Now that is nonviolence … from one of many, many examples we’ve never heard of.

To look with kindness on those who act badly, even cruelly – to think of them as misguided and even as sick persons, but not as inherently evil persons – seems to me to be one source of the power of nonviolence. It is powerful, I believe, because it is aligned with truth.

I have dealt with the issue of Iraq for over 15 years. Here are two persons who have been very involved over that same period: one is Carne Ross, the UK diplomat at the UN in charge of Britain’s Iraq policy; the other is Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist on international relations.

Carne Ross came to my attention when he appeared on Bill Moyers TV program. An important part of that interview is repeated in his book The Leaderless Revolution where he talks about his role in supporting the US/UK economic sanctions regime on Iraq. This is what he writes on page 126:

… from 1990 to 2003, there was an “excess mortality rate” of more than 500,000 for children under five. In other words, half a million children died. Though Saddam Hussein doubtless had a hand too, I cannot avoid my own responsibility. This was my work; this is what I did.

I have no way to assuage the shame I feel when I contemplate this episode. I was aware of the reports of humanitarian suffering, but I did little about them.

I’m not aware of any other public figure who supported the Iraq economic sanctions regime who has made a similar public apology. Mr. Ross deserves credit for his change of heart and mind – and then for making his apologies public on television and in his book.

The section of his book dealing with those protesting the UK policy is also revealing. When protesters succeeded in reaching him – if they came in angry and also factually unprepared – they did nothing to change his mind (more likely the opposite). There are lessons here for protesters! Also Carne Ross’ candid reporting of his mind states when he entered the diplomatic service – and then chose to leave – gives us a personal insight into how change does take place.

The other public figure who was very influential in his support of sanctions – but unrepentant, as far as I know – is Thomas Friedman. In 1991 he 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.

I’ll leave you with a small bit of information about the bite … and a short amusing story about it too.


(I was advised by a doctor friend that I needed to inform the Seattle Animal Control Department about Rose. If Rose were to bite a child, it could be very serious. The day before I was going to call, I stopped by Rose’s owner’s house to let them know what I was going to do, so it wouldn’t come as a surprise. The family understood, it was a cordial meeting, and the owner again apologized, said he didn’t know how Rose got free, and offered to pay for any of my expenses … including a new pair of jeans.)

(A funny part of the story: When Rose bit me, then backed off a little but continued to bark, I was returning from morning coffee with a book in my hand. It was the second volume of Narayan Desai’s biography of Gandhi titled Satyagraha. It’s a big book, 600 pages long. I held it in my hand to fend off another attack by Rose, but in truth I didn’t wish Rose harm; that’s a key element of Gandhi’s nonviolence, ahimsa, the absence of a desire to harm. Would I have hit Rose on the nose with my Gandhi book if she’d come at me again? I don’t know. Would that have been a sacrilege? What do you think?)


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