Robert C. Koehler, a Chicago reporter and editor for over 30 years, proudly calls himself a peace journalist. He has won numerous awards for his writing and, since 1999, has written a nationally syndicated column on politics and current events for Tribune Media Services. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound, has recently been published by Xenos Press. The book is a collection of essays fused into several narratives. They run the gamut from the highly personal (dealing with grief, the death of his wife, single parenting) to the acutely political. The book is about the quest for both inner and outer peace and the urgency of both. His columns, along with information about his book, are available at commonwonders.com. He can be reached at [email protected]
“I’m so honored to be alive at such a miraculous time in history. I’m so moved by what’s going on in our world today.”
This was 2003. The words were those of Robert Muller — the other one, the one from Costa Rica, former assistant secretary general of the United Nations — who was speaking just after George W. Bush invaded Iraq, to the horror and outrage of most of Planet Earth. Millions of people took to the streets, in the U.S. and around the world, to protest the invasion. Muller called this movement “the other superpower.”
“Never before in the history of the world,” he went on, “has there been a global, visible, public, viable, open dialogue and conversation about the very legitimacy of war.”
Oh! Such ancient history, right? Yet in the wake of current events — in particular, the Trump administration’s release of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review — I feel an urgent need to summon Muller’s words back to the present moment. Is this moment empty of all hope and sanity, occupied as it is by the forces of empire and a militarized presidential ego? Or was Muller right? Is there a global, evolutionary counterforce out there as well, equal to or greater than the corporate militarism that seems to have a stranglehold on the future?
To talk about outrage — over war, over poverty, over environmental devastation — is one thing. It’s reactive, emotion-driven and without either a long-term plan of action or a reliable flow of funding. To talk about “the other superpower” implies something far more coherent and focused — or at least, something with enough power to seriously challenge the aims of . . . for instance, the nuclear arms establishment, which begins with the unacknowledged certainty that war is inevitable and winning the next one is always the first order of business.
As the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation pointed out in a press release following last week’s release of the new Nuclear Posture Review, the document “represents a reckless realignment of an already dangerous U.S. nuclear policy.
“The review specifically calls for the development of new, low-yield nuclear weapons that have lower explosive force. Many experts warn that such smaller weapons would blur the distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons, representing a significant and dangerous increase in the likelihood of their use. . . .
“The review seeks to deter nuclear war by making it easier to start nuclear war,” the press release noted.
“Last year, the price tag for a 30-year makeover of the U.S. nuclear arsenal was estimated at $1.2 trillion. Analysts say the expanded plan put forth in the Trump NPR review would push the cost vastly higher.”
The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation was one of numerous organizations to express shock and outrage about the document. And psychiatrists Bandy X. Lee and James R. Merikangas, in an op-ed in USA Today published shortly after the NPR’s release, pushed the concern about it beyond the political realm.
“Trump,” they write, “with the psychological vulnerabilities he displays, in an office that invests enormous power in one individual, may present a situation of unusual risk. Our military ensures that every officer handling nuclear weapons has the mental capacity to do so — but does not take the same precautions regarding the person who can command a strike. . . .
“There has already been a shift in international norms regarding nuclear weapons due to Trump. He has bragged about them, threatened to use them and expressed a desire to increase his stockpile in ways that suggest more psychological than policy-driven motives.”
Add to this the U.S. bombing going on throughout the Middle East and Trump’s recent orders to the Pentagon to organize a huge military parade in Washington, D.C., summoning, it seems, the glory of dictatorships past and present, and I found myself trying to reach for something beyond outrage. I started to feel a cold chill in my soul. What matters here is the emergence of a different sort of power that understands the reality of peace: It’s not something forced on the loser by the winner’s superior weaponry.
That’s the building block of nationalism. “What’s deeply engrained in our emotional makeup,” writes Barbara Ehrenreich in Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, “is something that’s very positive — the capacity to band together to experience a kind of euphoria from collective defense against a common enemy. . . . Those are the emotions we bring to wars and (they) are very noble and generous and altruistic.”
The paradox of reaching beyond war, as I noted in the wake of the Iraq invasion, is that doing so disrupts “the mobilized public at its level of deepest bonding” and “sews doubt in the psychic well of patriotism.”
In a world organized as a conglomerate of nations, we bless our worse instincts — to strike out in weaponized fear, to kill en masse — with our best instincts: generosity, altruism, cooperation, sacrifice. Those who support the war of the moment do so from their largest, most selfless instincts, just as do those who oppose the war.
The “other superpower” Muller envisioned a decade and a half ago is still in the process of creating itself out of this paradox. Love thy enemy as thyself? Actually, the creation process has been going on for a few thousand years now.
Top photo: The paradox of reaching beyond war, as I noted in the wake of the Iraq invasion, is that doing so disrupts “the mobilized public at its level of deepest bonding” and “sews doubt in the psychic well of patriotism.” (Photo: Cleo Leng/flickr/cc)
What’s a little cholera — excuse me, the worst outbreak of this preventable disease in modern history — compared to the needs of a smoothly functioning economy?
A week before he was kicked out of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet for allegedly having watched pornography on his government computer, former First Secretary of State Damian Green was quoted in the Guardian as saying that British weapons sales to Saudi Arabia were necessary because: “Our defense industry is an extremely important creator of jobs and prosperity.”
That statement is not the scandal — just business as usual. And of course Great Britain only supplies a quarter of the weaponry Saudi Arabia imports to wage its devastating war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The United States supplies more than half, with 17 other countries also cashing in on this market.
This amounts to a huge portion of the world at war, with a lot of winners and only a few, easily ignored losers. The losers include most of the population of Yemen, which has become an abyss of hopelessness, with famine and infectious disease intensifying the hell they are being forced to endure, as international players struggle for regional domination.
This sort of insanity has been going on since the dawn of civilization. But the voices crying out against war remain as marginalized and without political clout as ever. War is too useful politically and economically to be susceptible to a moral challenge.
“Our understanding of war . . . is about as confused and unformed as theories of disease were roughly 200 years ago,” Barbara Ehrenreich notes in her book Blood Rites.
This is an interesting observation, considering that “The cholera epidemic in Yemen has become the largest and fastest-spreading outbreak of the disease in modern history,” with more than a million suspected cases reported, and some 2,200 deaths. “About 4,000 suspected cases are being reported daily, more than half of which are among children under 18,” according to Kate Lyons of the Guardian. “Children under five account for a quarter of all cases.”
Lyons quotes Tamer Kirolos, director of the Save the Children NGO in Yemen: “There’s no doubt this is a man-made crisis,” she said. “Cholera only rears its head when there’s a complete and total breakdown in sanitation. All parties to the conflict must take responsibility for the health emergency we find ourselves in.”
I repeat: This is a man-made crisis.
The results of this strategic game of power include the collapse of Yemen’s sanitation and public health systems. And fewer and fewer Yemenis have access to . . . clean water, for God’s sake.
And it’s all part of the strategic game of power. In order to rout the Shiite rebels backed by Iran, the Saudi coalition “has aimed to destroy food production and distribution” with its bombing campaign, according to London School of Economics researcher Martha Mundy. When I read this, I couldn’t help but think about Operation Ranch Hand, the U.S. strategy during the Vietnam War to destroy crops and forest cover by inundating the country with some 20 million gallons of herbicides, including the notorious Agent Orange.
What military or political end could possibly warrant such action? The reality of war transcends all description, all outrage.
And the global antiwar movement has, as far as I can tell, less traction than it did half a century ago. U.S. politics is unraveling, not realigning itself to create a sane, secure future. Donald Trump is the president.
“Major nuclear actors are on the cusp of a new arms race, one that will be very expensive and will increase the likelihood of accidents and misperceptions. Across the globe, nuclear weapons are poised to become more rather than less usable because of nations’ investments in their nuclear arsenals. President Trump was clear in his State of the Union Address last night when he said ‘we must modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal.’ . . .
“Leaked copies of the forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review suggest that the U.S. is about to embark on a less safe, less responsible and more expensive path. The Bulletin has highlighted concern about the direction that countries like the United States, China and Russia are moving, and momentum toward this new reality is increasing.”
This is a man-made crisis. Or is it something less than that — a crisis of the worst of human instincts? In Yemen, cholera and famine have been unleashed by men in pursuit of victory for their cause. The faces of suffering and dying children — the consequences of this pursuit — provoke shock. This is so clearly wrong, but geopolitically, does anything change?
Violence is still sold as a necessity of security. “We must modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal.” And it’s still being bought, at least by those who think the violence is aimed at someone else.
Uh . . . pardon me while I interrupt this false alarm to quote Martin Luther King:
“Science investigates,” he says in The Strength To Love, “religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.”
These words stopped me in my tracks on MLK Day. They seemed to fill a hole in the breaking news, which never quite manages to balance power with wisdom, or even acknowledge the distinction.
Our relationship to power is unquestioned, e.g.: “In the United States itself, there are around [nuclear] 4,500 warheads, of which approximately 1,740 are deployed,” Karthika Sasikumar writes at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “Even more worrying, around 900 of these are on hair-trigger alert, which means that they could be launched within 10 minutes of receiving a warning (which could turn out to be a false alarm). . . .
“The threat to the United States is very real, but fattening the nuclear arsenal is not a rational response. The United States already has 100 times as many warheads as North Korea. . . .”
The U.S. has enormous power, but so what? Such data is almost never addressed in the mainstream media — certainly not in the context of . . . disarmament. That concept is sealed shut, barred from the consciousness of generals and news anchors. Certainly it didn’t come up in the coverage of what happened last Saturday in Hawaii, when an employee of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency hit the wrong link on his computer screen during a shift change and an incoming-missile alert went statewide, throwing residents and tourists into 38 minutes of panic: “Children going down manholes, stores closing their doors to those seeking shelter and cars driving at high speeds . . .”
Nor did it come up three days later, when a false missile alert went off in Japan, a country with a few memories of the real thing: “Within 10 seconds the fire that wiped out the city came after us at full speed. Everyone was naked. Bodies were swelling up. Some people were so deformed I couldn’t tell if they were male or female. People died screaming, ‘Please give me water!’”
So said Emiko Okada, who was a little girl living with her family on the outskirts of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Her older sister, who had just left for school, disappeared that morning and was never seen again. Emiko tells her story in the remarkable 2010 documentary Atomic Mom.
In a column I wrote about the movie at the time, I asked: “What if schoolchildren stood facing not the American flag every morning before class started but a photograph of a devastated Hiroshima, shortly after it was obliterated by our atomic bomb, and pledged their allegiance to the idea that such a thing will never happen again?”
What, I wondered, if we started facing our fears instead of living in fear? To do so, we have to find wisdom in the maw of power.
What we find instead is a president who shook up the whole planet when he called Haiti and the countries of Africa shithole nations — managing, as far as I can tell, to make the word “shithole” far more acceptable to utter in public than “disarmament.”
But the monstrousness of the word isn’t that it used to be obscene, but rather that it does what so many other words do: renders a segment of humanity soulless: the enemy, and therefore expendable. Japan is now our ally, but when we nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki, its people were Japs or Nips and without value.
Is not the first step toward wisdom when it comes to a world still preposterously armed with weapons of mass destruction a national and international commitment never to dehumanize a living soul? With such a commitment in place, the obvious next step is committing never to launch a nuclear weapon, and therefore agreeing to get rid of the ones we have and, of course, refraining from developing new, more “usable” generations of nukes.
To put it another way, mutually assured destruction is not wisdom. It’s playing with global holocaust, an outcome that may be beyond the ability of anyone, at least anyone who is not a hibakusha — an atomic bomb survivor — to imagine. Free of such paralyzing awareness, national leaders postulate how they would retaliate if attacked, as though a counterattack, killing millions more people, is in any way a sane response to a nuclear attack (or apparent attack).
The Atlantic, in an article about the Hawaii false alarm, quoted one scholar’s tweet of a possible scenario: “POTUS sees alert on his phone about an incoming toward Hawaii, pulls out the biscuit, turns to his military aide with the football and issues a valid and authentic order to launch nuclear weapons at North Korea. Think it can’t happen?”
Come on. With this president?
I think it’s time to free MLK from his day of honor and put him back at the center of the national news.
Dred Scott lives!
With the Supreme Court’s declaration that President Trump’s third version of a Muslim travel ban is now enforceable, even as legal challenges against it proceed, the court and the country reopen the racism that permeates American history.
“The question is simply this: Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guaranteed by that instrument to the citizen?”
Thus begins Chief Justice Roger Taney’s explanation of the Supreme Court’s 1857 ruling against the slave Dred Scott’s lawsuit that he was entitled to freedom when he was taken by his “owner” to a free territory. Taney’s answer, of course, was no. Sorry, you’re not one of us.
Trump, who during his presidential campaign called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” has, in the name of specious national security, managed to close U.S. borders to more than 150 million people, declaring with zero evidence that doing so is necessary to stop terrorism in this country. In version three of Trump’s ban, citizens of six predominantly Muslim nations — Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Chad — as well as citizens of North Korea and certain categories of people from Venezuela, cannot enter the United States. The last two countries were added, according to a Washington Posteditorial, as nothing more than “a fig leaf to disguise a would-be ‘Muslim ban.’”
It’s all justified in the name of keeping America safe. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the court ruling was “a substantial victory for the safety and security of the American people,” according to the New York Times, and a spokesman for the White House called the ban “lawful and essential to protecting our homeland.”
“How many terrorist attacks have Chadians committed on US soil? The answer is zero,” Moustafa Bayoumi writes in The Guardian. “Why is a Syrian grandmother a threat to Americans? The entry of any Syrian, regardless of age, is now suspended. Should a Somali wife not be able to reunite with her husband in the United States? Love conquers all but the Muslim ban, it seems.”
Shattering families by bureaucratic edict is, ironically, an action supported primarily by people who otherwise say they hate government and want to drown it in the bathtub. When people are dehumanized, abstractly and en masse, those who do so make themselves immune to the human consequences of their actions. But those consequences are real, and in no way do they contribute to anyone’s “safety.”
“These are people fleeing the worst imaginable conditions and then having the door slammed in their face,” said Jennifer Nimer, executive director of the Columbus, Ohio, chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“There are lots of Somali’s here. They’re all going to have their families barred for the most part. We have clients from Libya who are trying to bring spouses and children, so there’s a lot of people who are going to be affected, no doubt about that.
“A Syrian professor at OSU . . . wants to bring his daughter, no criminal history, nothing like that, but simply because she’s Syrian she cannot come.”
America, America . . .
A year ago, shortly after Trump’s pseudo-election, I wrote: “Trump says build a wall. Even if the wall is mostly a metaphor, the effect of that metaphor is to lock in consciousness, as though ‘America’ is the only truth Americans are capable of understanding: Fifty states and that’s it. We’re exceptional and the rest of you, keep out. Locked-in consciousness never keeps people safe, but it does keep them scared. You might call it patriotic absolutism, which yields fear, violence and war.”
This is the rebuilding of Jim Crow Nation: “We will not allow this to become the new normal,” reads a statement put out by theCenter for Constitutional Rights. “Whatever the courts say, the Muslim Ban is inhumane and discriminatory. We must continue to demonstrate that we reject and will resist the politics of fear, anti-Muslim racism, and white supremacy.”
Caged, aggressive nationalism is the life partner of terrorism. But it’s always so easy to invoke fear — I mean “safety” — as a governing principle. I am certain that mass, social safety is more to be found in legal respect for all human beings and protection of families than in mocking, bureaucratic indifference to them.
“President Trump scapegoated Muslims — dehumanizing and casting them as outsiders and others — when he ran for office. Now,” said Katharine Rhodes Henderson, president of Auburn Seminary, “the U.S. Supreme Court is complicit in Trump’s attacks on their rights. In allowing the Muslim ban to be enforced, our country is discriminating against people because of their religious beliefs; that goes against the core American value of religious freedom — a founding ideal of our nation and the bedrock of our democracy.”
I would only add that the values at stake here aren’t simply American, but human. National boundaries are artificial constructions. Someday their aggressive “defense” will be seen to be as obsolete as the Dred Scott decision. A nation that cares only about itself and fails to acknowledge the well-being of the whole planet is waging war on the future.
Top photo: Rally in Washington DC against Trump’s initial “Muslim Ban” enacted in early February. (Photo: Lorie Shaull/flickr/cc)