The ‘Looney Left’ and the Human Rights of Soldiers

By Greg Moses

Because Sen. Dick Durbin and his fellow Democrats are concerned about the human rights of American soldiers taken prisoner during armed conflicts, on FLAG DAY he called upon the Bush administration to set a humane standard of treatment for “enemy combatants” and to respect the human rights of prisoners at Guantanamo and other US prison camps.

Durbin’s remarks suggest that the best defense of human rights for American soldiers and citizens begins with the examples that Americans set. When it comes to respect for international conventions that uphold human rights, the American flag should stand on the side of these rights, not against them.

If we want a world where our rights are respected then we have to lead by example. What better message to send on Flag Day? Yet right-wing commentators who have little time to think for themselves piled onto Sen. Durbin’s comments with a recklessness that will only further endanger the general level of human rights for soldiers and civilians throughout the world.

“The idea of moral equivalence between the U.S. military at Gitmo and the 15 to 30 million who died in the Soviet gulags or the 9 million who died in Nazi concentration camps or the 2 million dead in the Cambodia killing fields is utterly outrageous.”

Such is the way that one right-wing commentator characterizes the comments by US Senator Richard Durbin, but it is a poor characterization at best. Not to bore anyone with the facts, but here are the relevant paragraphs from Durbin’s remarks from the floor of the US Senate:

When you read some of the graphic descriptions of what has occurred here — I almost hesitate to put them in the record, and yet they have to be added to this debate. Let me read to you what one FBI agent saw. And I quote from his report:

On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold….On another occasion, the [air conditioner] had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night. On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been since the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the tile floor.

If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime — Pol Pot or others — that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners.

So here we see what evidence Sen. Durbin uses and to what extent he compares the practices of Guantanamo to infamous totalitarian gulags: If you read this and did not first know it was Guantanamo, then what would you think? You’d think this was some kind of gulag, that’s what you’d think.

Durbin did not say that one should compare the “scope” of atrocities between Guantanamo and Auschwitz. He simply said that certain dehumanizing practices found at Guantanamo were just the kinds of things that we expect to find at gulags.

“Senator Durbin and the looney left supporting him are slandering our military, our President, and our nation. It is a total outrage,” continues our right-wing commentator as if Durbin had said anything incendiary about “our military.” In fact, what Sen. Durbin argued in his carefully-worded remarks was that adherence by the US administration to Geneva Conventions regarding prisoners is the most prudent policy for PROTECTING our military in times of war.

Former Congressman Pete Peterson of Florida, a man I call a good friend and a man I served with in the House of Representatives, is a unique individual. He is one of the most cheerful people you would ever want to meet. You would never know, when you meet him, he was an Air Force pilot taken prisoner of war in Vietnam and spent 6 1/2 years in a Vietnamese prison. Here is what he said about this issue in a letter that he sent to me. Pete Peterson wrote:

>From my 6 1/2 years of captivity in Vietnam, I know what life in a foreign prison is like. To a large degree, I credit the Geneva Conventions for my survival….This is one reason the United States has led the world in upholding treaties governing the status and care of enemy prisoners: because these standards also protect us….We need absolute clarity that America will continue to set the gold standard in the treatment of prisoners in wartime.

Abusive detention and interrogation policies make it much more difficult to win the support of people around the world, particularly those in the Muslim world. The war on terrorism is not a popularity contest, but anti-American sentiment breeds sympathy for anti-American terrorist organizations and makes it far easier for them to recruit young terrorists.

So what’s really outrageous and tiresome in these right-wing backlashes against Sen. Durbin is the outright intellectual dishonesty of the smear tactics in use. Once upon a time, a Senator from Illinois tried to call the nation to conscience and his very nerve was perceived as a total insult to the right-wing establishment of the USA.

I hope the voices of conscience will be able to help Sen. Durbin withstand the unjust tirade that has been deployed against his remarks.

If I showed you Sen. Durbin’s remarks and then showed you the reactions he received, would you think you were living in a freedom loving country? Or would you rather think you were living amongst the brown-shirts of times gone by?

NOTE: Sen. Durbin’s full remarks on Gitmo made on Flag Day 2005.

CODEPINK: Making the world stop and look

By Susan Van Haitsma

Global Resistance Network / IndyMedia Austin

The handmade sign posted in the front of the bus read, “Bell broken. Please call ‘next stop’.”

The book in my bag that morning happened to be the collection of essays, “Stop the Next War Now,” produced by CODEPINK. The coincidence brought to mind political cartoons showing an oblivious George W. Bush driving a vehicle labeled ‘USA’ or ‘Iraq liberation’ or ‘No Child Left Behind’ straight toward a cliff’s edge. Warning bells are not working. The system is broken and passengers have got to call out.

I had purchased the CODEPINK book when co-editor, Jodie Evans and founding member, Diane Wilson were in town during their book tour. They spoke about actions, arrests and travels that brought them closer to women in countries where the USA is at war now or threatening the next one. Describing with humor and candor the already legendary creativity distinguishing CODEPINK actions, Evans said, “If we’re going to be an alternative, let’s be somewhere people want to go.” Wilson, a fourth-generation Texas shrimper from the Gulf Coast whose gutsy environmental and anti-war activism has landed her in jail several times explained, “The only thing that stops you in an action is yourself.”

Riding the bus, staring at the “Bell broken” sign, I was thinking about an action planned for later that day in Austin by local CODEPINK people. It was to be a demonstration at an advertising firm that creates recruitment ads for the Air Force that feature young children. The protest was
timed for that evening because the ad agency was hosting a reception to announce a book project called, “The Amazing Faith of Texas,” an effort to promote religious tolerance and explore common ground by focusing on five core values shared by faith groups in the state. CODEPINK wanted to dramatize the contradictions inherent in celebrating Charity, Humility, Forgiveness, faith and Compassion while selling the military to children.

Reception goers and several lanes of drivers stuck in rush-hour traffic in front of the ad agency were greeted by about a dozen women, men and children carrying signs and dressed mostly in hot pink. Two CODEPINK women decided to risk arrest by entering the reception area and holding their banner near the podium where the agency’s president was scheduled to speak about the book project. Recalling Diane Wilson’s challenge, I decided to join them.

Turning the tables, the company president cited First Amendment rights, welcomed us, and invited us to stay and distribute fliers to the crowd. For one moment while a CODEPINK woman did a quick errand, the president offered to hold her end of the banner, which read, “How can we create peace when we profit from war?”

As part of the event, local religious leaders had been invited to offer brief reflections on each of the five shared aspects of faith. With the CODEPINK banner serving as the elephant in the room, none of the five speakers addressed in their prepared statements either the war or the militarism that feeds it.

But if the speakers that evening avoided the opportunity to talk about war in light of Charity, Humility, Compassion, Faith and Forgiveness, the women and men who contribute essays to “Stop the Next War Now” explore these themes with eloquence and directness. Contributors include journalists, teachers, politicians, businesswomen and artists. Many have experienced the effects of war firsthand.

“A Mother’s Plea,” by peace activist and educator, Nurit Peled-Elhanan opens with a dedication to a 13 year-old Palestinian girl, Iman El-Hamas. Peled-Elhanan’s only daughter, Smadar was killed at the same age by a Palestinian suicide bomber.

She writes, “Death has created a new identity for me and has given me a new voice. …This new identity and voice transcend nationalities, religions, and even time; the identity overshadows all other identities and the voice deafens all the other voices I have been given by life. My little girl was killed just because she was born Israeli, by a young man who felt hopeless to the point of murder and suicide just because he was born a Palestinian…. There she lies, alongside her murderer, whose blood is mingled with hers on Jerusalem’s stones …there they both lie, deceived …And they were both deceived because the world goes on living as if their blood had never been shed. Both are victims of so-called leaders who keep on playing their murderous games, using our children as their puppets and our grief as fuel to continue with their vindictive campaigns.”

“… I have come here to ask you: please help us save the children that are left to us. Help us make the world stop for a moment to look at the small body of Iman, pierced by twenty bullets, and at the twenty-first hole at her smooth temple and ask with us, Why does that streak of blood rip the petal of her cheek?”

These closing words of Peled-Elhanan’s appeal should have rung like bells in the hall in Austin where folks pondered a book about religious tolerance while tolerating military advertising to children. Attenders had to have noticed the two women in pink calling out, “Next stop. Stop the next war now.”

High School Student Responds to Peacemakers

Very good article!

I am very much in support of these type of groups, and I feel like this is the type of thing I might want to do at some point. I feel like many Christians (especially on the right), forget that this is the type of thing that Jesus did, and this is the type of thing that Jesus calls us to do. These people are doing good for the world, unlike some conservative christians grandstanding on the issue of homosexuality. Anyway, thanks for the article.

Pushing Back the Violence: Peacemaker Teams Get in the Way

By Greg Moses & Susan Van Haitsma

DissidentVoice / CounterPunch / Global Resistance Network

For two unarmed peacemakers walking in Colombia’s Magdalena River Valley, there is only one thing to do. When an eight-year-old girl screams that troops are about to kill her father, they run toward the guns.

“Kill us first!” plead Scott Albrecht and Sandra Rincón as they move in front of the troops, arms outstretched. Had the Canadian and the Colombian not stepped in front of the girl’s father, say witnesses, the nine-man paramilitary force was “preparing to kill him.”

Half a world away, at the entrance to the main market place in the Palestinian city of Hebron, ten men are blindfolded, handcuffed, and kneeling. Israeli soldiers tell peacemakers to move on or face arrest. Instead, the peacemakers wait for more international observers to arrive, and the prisoners are released on the spot.

During February in Iraq a newly formed group of Shi’a peacemakers in Karbala talk about going into the heart of Sunni territory to help with the recovery of Falluja. There are several reasons why they think the trip will be difficult. Isn’t there conflict between Shi’a and Sunni? Aren’t the Sunni resentful of newfound Shi’a control? Yet by early May, a delegation of Shi’a peacemakers from Karbala and Najaf are at work in Sunni Falluja, helping city officials to clear the rubble.

These are some of the stories archived at the website of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). In the wake of a harsh report by Amnesty International on the status of human rights in the world, CPT archives remind us that the world doesn’t have to wait on the USA or UN to deliver peace. So long as people of the world want peace, there are ways to get it. Helpless we are not.

In the past 18 years CPT has sent delegations to Iraq (prior to both Bush wars), Palestine, Haiti, Chiapas, Chechnya, Vieques Island, Pine Ridge, Colombia, and Grassy Narrows. Today several of those delegations are permanent. In Iraq, CPT is one of the few NGOs to still work outside the heavily occupied Green Zone. And this year in Iraq CPT helped to organize the first Muslim Peacemaker Team (MPT).

It was 1984 (of all years) at a Mennonite world conference in Strasbourg when the idea of creating a global team of peacemakers was sparked by Philadelphia scholar Ronald J. Sider. For two years, the idea was discussed among Mennonite congregations. In 1987 Gene Stoltzfus was hired as the first coordinator of CPT, a position he held until 2004.

“You can’t run away,” says Stoltzfus speaking to university students on a recent tour of Texas, his twinkling Santa Claus eyes and his full North Pole beard contributing to his charm. “Because if you set up a system where you run away, you can’t push back the violence.”

“Pushing back the violence” is a phrase that Stoltzfus has adopted over the past few years to describe peacemaking. The phrase comes from his gut, he explains. Pushing back the violence creates a new space or “sacred space” where transformation can occur. He envisions a day when a Peace Army will be trained and ready to go into high violence areas “to stand up for peace” around the world.

At the University of Texas class on “Religion, Violence, and Nonviolence” one student wants to know how the Christian label plays in Iraq. “It has helped us!” answers Stoltzfus. “It helps to be Christian in the Muslim world, because Jesus appears in the Koran and the Koran teaches respect for Christians.” In fact, the idea that there might be Christian Peacemakers often helps to start long conversations. In Mexico and South America also, the Christian label is helpful. The only place CPT tends to encounter resistance as a Christian group, says Stoltzfus with dramatic pause, is within the USA.

“The ministry of Jesus was a public ministry,” says Stoltzfus. Biblical scenes of major transformation tend to take place in humble, ordinary settings. When violence is pushed back anywhere by ordinary people, space is made available for something new – something as simple or as revolutionary as a conversation.

“When you talk with your adversary,” says Stoltzfus, “you are establishing the possibility for change. You’re not just confronting them to say they are bad; you’re establishing a relationship for the future.” From the beginning, CPT recognized the need to talk with all sides in conflict situations. In Colombia, peacemakers get cell phone numbers from military, paramilitary and guerilla groups. “We tell them we are here and we are watching,” says Stoltzfus. “You know who we are, and we know who you are. We are not apologetic in the least.”

Sitting later at a small table in an Austin bakery, Stoltzfus recalls what it was like to be born into a “peace church family.” When he was 6 years old (the youngest child in a large Mennonite family in Aurora, Ohio) schoolmates pushed his head into a toilet. Returning home from school he asked his parents: “Why don’t they like us?” And his parents answered, “Because we don’t go to war.” Stoltzfus remembers thinking that was a pretty dumb reason not to like someone. Even among USA schoolchildren, there was something unsettling about a peacemaker in the neighborhood.

At the age of 23, Stoltzfus affirmed his peacemaking commitment by registering as a conscientious objector and performing five years of alternative social service in Vietnam, where he worked among civilians and soldiers alike. He credits the experience with developing his interest in peace teams: “That was the most important influence on my life.”

In Vietnam, Stoltzfus learned there can be “nonviolent imperialism” that imposes problem-solving strategies without first engaging local activists. “If we push back violence in the wrong direction, that can be a problem, too,” he explains. “In Palestine, CPT definitely didn’t work enough with Palestinians at first,” admits Stoltzfus. Today, teams ideally include local and international membership. In Colombia, CPT teams now conduct their business in Spanish, a good sign of local voice.

“The best team is one that includes good gender balance and a variety of ages and nationalities. We’ve got people aged 20 to 80 on our teams!” Stoltzfus says enthusiastically. “And in the Arab world, a range of ages is especially valued.” Once a team is on the ground, it begins looking for opportunities to take small actions on issues important to local communities.

Peace activists must overcome their fear of talking to soldiers, says Stoltzfus. In Iraq, CPT often serves as intermediary between USA military officials and Iraqis seeking information about loved ones in prison. Very early in the occupation, CPT documented patterns of abuse and torture of Iraqi detainees and met repeatedly with Coalition Provisional Authority officials to relate their findings. CPT members distributed flyers to soldiers detailing human rights provisions of the Geneva Conventions. When Abu Ghraib photos were exposed, background evidence compiled by CPT helped substantiate the story in media reports around the world.

One challenge to maintaining contact with military officials, observes Stoltzfus, is rapid turnover within the armed forces. That is a reason CPT remains committed for the duration, recognizing that nonviolence is a long-term process involving many small, important steps. “It takes years to see things nonviolently,” he explains. Both within ourselves and in the situations that surround us, there are nonviolent resources that we commonly overlook.

Jumping in front of a gun takes some know-how. “Being a peace person is no excuse for being dumb,” warns Stoltzfus. “You don’t just innocently say I love you. Where things are hot, a peacemaker thinks well.” Although CPT would view the term, “Christian Soldier” as oxymoronic, team discipline and training are crucial.

CPT is neither an Army of One nor simply a group of human shields. Their brand of discipline is rooted in the knowledge that, through good training and lots of practice, a diverse team of equals does the best job. Referring to the lack of training given USA soldiers sent to Iraq and to concerns during preliminary Mennonite discussions about “nonviolent armies,” Stoltzfus stresses, “It’s dangerous to send an undisciplined army to a dangerous place.”

Spiritual discipline is also integral to CPT’s program. Each day begins with a period of prayerful reflection. Team members don’t need much in material terms – a hat, pen, notebook, sturdy shoes, and nowadays a digital camera. Less tangible “weapons of the spirit” include wit, wisdom and a common faith in the transformative power of love. Among Colombians, CPT peacemakers are known as “the activists who pray.”

People who express interest in CPT are asked to participate first in a delegation. Delegations of 10 –12 people usually travel to areas where permanent teams are present. They join the team’s daily routine of facilitating meetings, dividing up group chores, working with the media, and engaging in nonviolent direct action. Those who apply to join a permanent team attend a month-long training session. At least half the training, says Stoltzfus, involves role-play. “You can’t convince people about nonviolence through paper. They have to learn through experience. They have to be … saved,” he says with that Santa Claus smile. It’s a concept he thinks people in the Bible Belt will understand.

“We have delegations out to all four of our current projects right now,” says Amy Knickrehm from the CPT headquarters in Chicago. “That’s rare, and coincidental, but we’ve got a total of about 35 folks out there for them.” Full time CPT members make 3-year commitments to Core Teams (rotating between 4-6 months on location and 2-3 months off). Many continue to serve with the Reserve Corps. In 2004, 48 team members served full-time along with 144 Reservists. Grassroots funding comes from individuals, a few grants, and 250 church congregations representing several denominations.

In Iraq, CPT has collaborated closely with other organizations that employ peace team and delegation formats such as Voices in the Wilderness, American Friends Service Committee, and Fellowship of Reconciliation. CPT also has been called upon to help train other intervention groups such as the International Solidarity Movement.

“Good nonviolence awakens energy,” says Stoltzfus, and his visit to Texas testifies to this. Wherever he speaks, young and old gather around him afterward, eager to learn more. Following a presentation to the Austin Veterans for Peace chapter, an Iraq War veteran requests a CPT application. Stoltzfus envisions continued growth and wider embrace of the concept of nonviolent peace teams, especially as the untenable nature of protracted war and occupation becomes more obvious every day.

Winding up his Texas tour, Stoltzfus climbs into his pickup, heading back toward his Ontario home, not quite to the North Pole. On the long ride northward he will continue speaking about CPT. In the back of the truck he carries an iron frying pan. He says it is a gift for his lodging, but it looks very much like a metaphor for his work. Always a frying pan handy for any fire. His stories and contagious excitement are gifts to be used.

The gifts of nonviolence offered by Gene Stoltzfus, Christian Peacemaker Teams, and the newly founded Muslim Peacemaker Teams give to ordinary persons the ability to push back seemingly insurmountable violence to create transformative, sacred spaces where change can take place. If people in conflict are ever going to cease reliance on armed force, the alternative must be visible. This bearded messenger of peace is real; his message is no myth.

Note: Thanks to UT-Austin Sociology Professor Lester Kurtz for permission to visit his class.

Greg Moses is editor of Peacefile and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. Susan Van Haitsma is active with Nonmilitary Options for Youth and Austin Conscientious Objectors to Military Taxation.

To comment on this article, please see the blog at gregmoses.net.