Saturday, October 21, 2006

Drinking Tea with Hizbullah

In the village of Silaa in southern Lebanon, on the forty-day memorial of the killing of 8 residents by Israeli aerial bombardment, a lunch in commemoration of the dead was provided to the villagers by the Campaign for Civil Resistance. After we completed our visit to the grieving families, we are invited to the muktar’s home, to share tea, fruit and conversation. The local representative from Hizbullah joins us. Upon learning that I am from America, he smiles and he entreats me to sit next to him. He asks me what I think and how I feel about the destruction I have seen. The nargillah is brought out and we leisurely smoke and drink tea, enjoying the shaded veranda and an afternoon breeze. We discuss the war, and the role of Hizbullah in civil society. I am told that Hizbullah is not a state within a state, but a state where none exists, for the south of Lebanon has been neglected for decades by the Lebanese government. In reference to the fighters, he asks, “Who wouldn’t fight to protect their families, their homes, and their communities?” How, he wonders, are we different from Americans?

This gentleman, his graciousness, kindness, his intellectual curiosity, and his intention of imparting a more compassionate view of Hizbullah to the American public strike me. His young boy sits in his lap, and he convinces him to eat, and ruffles his hair like I do my own boy’s. I recognize him as my brother.

This is the enemy my government has warned me about…the people Dan Gillerman (the Israeli ambassador to the UN) called, “a ruthless, cynical, cruel enemy, one of the most monstrous terror organizations this world has known”. I am not na├»ve and I recognize the loss of life “The Party of God” has caused occupation forces in Lebanon, including the US military in the 80’s, but the denunciations, the casting of Hizbullah as representatives of the devil himself, evil personified, just do not make sense to me as I sit smoking with Hajj and sharing fruit with his family. He is not interested in destroying freedom or stealing liberty; his is not the ideological struggle of the 21st century; he is not part of a calling (his or anyone else’s). He is interested in protecting his family and his community from an aggressor who had attacked and occupied his country. He is interested in my views as an American, whom he does not call enemy, terrorist, or evil. He calls me friend and welcomes me to his home. He is a human being, and he encounters me as a fellow human being- the result being a discussion and an opportunity to learn of each other- our common hopes, dreams, and desires. We speak of security, and education for our children, we speak of respect and dignity and self-determination. We respect each other’s opinions, as well as our differences.

Since my return home, I consider my President, (the “compassionate conservative”, the “uniter” and the self-claimed, “decider”), his administration, and our Congress. I think back on the myriad speeches about our new crusade. The speech of Sept 20th 2001 where our President vowed revenge in the name of justice- and our Congress stood and cheered. I consider his rhetoric of fighting them over there instead of here (where their children, wives, and elders can be bombed into oblivion, and we need not even change our shopping habits). Now the President has claimed “the war on terror” is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century- the calling of our generation, and the newest justification for the deaths of 600,000 Iraqis.

How, I ask you, can an ideological struggle be fought by dropping bombs?

Our President and Congress has provided Israel the means to attack Lebanon and lay siege of Palestine and has encouraged them every step of the way. We refuse to question the state of Israel about its development and stockpiling of nuclear weapons. We continue to advocate that the United States develop new nuclear weapons, while condemning nations not in our favor for doing the very same thing. When other countries refuse to bow to US pressure, the President announces, “All options, including military options, remain on the table”. These policies cannot lead to peace.

The concept of America as an “honest broker” has forever been banished to the rhetorical scrap heap, along with the idea that America does not torture, that America respects human rights and America abides by international law. In countless speeches there has been no nuance, no recognition of any possibilities other than defeating the enemy, “winning”. (Is this the ideology he speaks of? The one he is so willing to kill for? What ever happened to decency, human rights, equality, and justice? What about compassion, tending the sick and weary, what about Love? In any of the Presidents speeches, does he ever utter the word Love, as in “Love your neighbor”?)

What on earth will we win? What is the price we will pay in order to win? As we pay a higher and higher price in blood and treasure doesn’t the possibility of “winning” fall further and further from our grasp?

Haven’t we already lost?

In Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and other countries the United States is viewed as sponsors of state terrorism (yes, the very same accusation our President hurls at Iran and Syria). Each speech by our President, each bomb that drops on Gaza, each checkpoint killing in Iraq, each cluster bomb death in Lebanon, each water-boarding incident at Guantanamo, and each beating death at Abu Ghraib confirm this viewpoint. And we have no moral high ground to fall back on. We are a country that lives by the warped idea that violence leads to peace, a country that lives by the sword. These policies will never ensure our security.

We in America have lost our way; we have surrendered our ideals and lost our freedoms. We have been lied to and misguided. Our president has no use for diplomacy, no idea of the middle way, no idea of reconciliation, no idea of truth, forgiveness, or Love. His sole solution is my way or the highway. I’m ready for the highway. Recently the President has said, “Nobody has accused me of having a real sophisticated vocabulary. And maybe their words are more sophisticated than mine.” Perhaps someone could explain to him the difference between truth and lies, freedom and oppression, and peace and fear.

Then we could begin anew. We as Americans must regain our humanity. We must work for justice nonviolently. We must work to reduce poverty. We must work to educate the poor and care for the sick. The greatest obstacle to this is the idea that we must preserve “our way of life”. The key to ensuring freedom in this country and around the world is surrender, not winning. We must be willing to give up the luxury we take for granted in order to lift up those who live with nothing. We must be willing to give up our indifference and stand up for justice. We must be willing to surrender our ignorance for truth. There is work to be done, let us begin.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

I Shall Not Be Disappeared

I, for one, am standing up. I, for one, am facing my government, my so called leaders in Congress, and this corrupt, morally bankrupt administration that would strip the Constitution, suspend habeas corpus, and destroy the very foundation this country was built on while in the same breath promising the world that democratic reform will reduce tyranny. I, for one, will not be silent in these dark days of our dying democracy.

In a speech at Ft. McNair in March 2005 our President stated, “It should be clear that the advance of democracy leads to peace, because governments that respect the rights of their people also respect the rights of their neighbors. It should be clear that the best antidote to radicalism and terror is the tolerance and hope kindled in free societies.” If this is the case, what should we make of the passage of the “Enemy Combatants Bill”, the bill that curtails the rights of the American people and limits our democracy?

The bill passed by Congress would make it legal for a person to be picked up off the street and disappeared- the fate of so many in Iraq (prior to our occupation as well as now), in Chile, in the Soviet Union, in Nazi Germany, in so many places in the world ruled by despots and dictators, men drunk on power and corruption- men the US once stood in opposition to and now choose to imitate. (On second thought, this needs clarification. I recall Donald Rumsfeld shaking Saddam’s hand at the time he was gassing Kurdish civilians and Iranians as well. The CIA was involved in the coup that put the regime in power in Chile that caused so many to die …and under the law just passed by Congress, George Bush’s own grandfather could be defined an “enemy combatant” for providing financial assistance to the Nazi’s).

So I’m laying it on the line, spelling it out. Though I may be swept off the street, or taken from my home, I will never be disappeared, because here and now, I am telling my truth. Since George Bush’s infamous speech of September 20th, 2001, when he stated, “You are either with us or you are with the terrorists” I knew I was in trouble. I stood in my living room and calmly replied to my TV, “George Bush, I am not with the terrorists and I am not with you”. And as I write this, I have no qualms about my stand and can state today with certainty and conviction, “George Bush I am not with you or your administration, or this Congress that enables you to torture, to render, to imprison without due process. I am against these policies, 100%. In five years you have done more to curtail freedom, thwart democracy, and increase the threat of global terrorism then I could have imagined in my wildest dreams.

Let me state here that I am an ordinary person. Until recently I was an accountant at a major multinational corporation. I am a father. I volunteer my time to civic organizations. I enjoy my life and simple pleasures. As a Buddhist practitioner, I try to live a life of care, concern, and compassion. I take seriously the Buddhist precepts, especially the one concerning not killing.

It so happens that I was in NYC the morning after the twin towers came down. It was a defining moment for me, standing in the smoldering, pulverized concrete of those buildings. But my reaction was the opposite of my governments call for vengeance. I committed myself to working for peace and alleviating suffering. I made a commitment to meet the people of the countries my government chooses to demonize and try to learn something of their lives, and maybe learn something about myself as well.

Since that day, I have traveled to Palestine to promote non-violent civil resistance to military occupation. I spoke with Israeli activists and Palestinian and Israeli human rights workers. I stood with Palestinian peace activists in opposition to the wall and the expropriation of Palestinian land. I spoke with Israeli settlers, supporters of Hamas and Fatah, religious representatives, legislators, and people who have lost loved ones on both sides of the conflict. I listened to their stories and shared them when I returned home.

I traveled to Iraq before the war to dialogue with ordinary Iraqis caught in the crosshairs of our government’s malfeasance. I stood in vigil outside the UN inspector’s headquarters urging them to continue their work. I, along with others, hung signs on power plants and water treatment facilities that said, “Bombing this site would be a war crime.” On returning home I continue to denounce the conflict for what is- an immoral, illegal invasion and occupation.

Just three weeks ago I was in Southern Lebanon delivering emergency aid to those who lost their homes, their livelihoods, their elders and their children to precision guided rockets and cluster bombs provided to Israel by my government. Bombs made by American corporations who are enriching themselves through the many conflicts our government endorses in the Middle East under the guise of self defense and security. In order to do this, I along with others, spoke with Mayors as well as Hizbullah representatives of each village we worked in. This was necessary in order to provide aid anywhere in the south. I worked with them to deliver baby formula and diapers, food, water, and clothing to people who were left scrounging through the pulverized concrete (that was exactly the same texture and smell of the pulverized concrete of our twin towers) searching for anything to salvage of their lives.

By the terms and definitions of the legislation that has passed through Congress, I could disappear at any moment. This legislation defines an “enemy combatant” as anyone the President, the Secretary of Defense, or a tribunal approved by them, determines to have “purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States or its allies.” (Anyone who has watched this administration in action recognizes that anyone who disagrees with the President and his policies may be defined in these terms.) This legislation is so broad that individuals, including legal residents of the United States, including me, can be thrown into military prisons, tried by military tribunals with coerced testimony (AKA torture) and hearsay, and the testimony can be kept secret from the accused. It would allow someone convicted under these rules to be put to death- without a full judicial review of the evidence. If that isn’t disturbing enough, the bill suspends the writ of habeas corpus. This is a fundamental recognition that in America the government does not have the ability to detain people indefinitely and arbitrarily. This right is the very bedrock of our constitutional democracy.

In voting against this legislation, Russ Feingold said, “We must not jeopardize our nation's proud traditions and principles by suspending the writ of habeas corpus, and permitting our government to pick people up off the street, even in U.S. cities, and detain them indefinitely without court review. That is not what America is about.” But it seems Senator Feingold is in a minority. This legislation passed with ease. Maybe we should stop fooling ourselves- in this day and age this is exactly what America is about. Makes no difference if my “representative” is a former POW, a Republican or a Democrat. Each and every person who voted for this legislation has put a nail in the coffin of our democracy and our freedom. Every person who failed to filibuster this bill is equally responsible.

Returning to the speech on Sept 20, 2001, George Bush said, “I ask you to uphold the values of America. We are in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them.” Yet our President has turned his back on his responsibility to live by our principles, and he’s about to make it the law of the land.

He also said, “I know there are struggles ahead, and dangers to face. But this country will define our times, not be defined by them. As long as the United States of America is determined and strong, this will not be an age of terror; this will be an age of liberty, here and across the world.” Yet our President has pen in hand to strip the very laws that protect that liberty. His policies continue to threaten the liberty of myriad peoples across the world.

Our president has stated, ”Great harm has been done to us. We have suffered great loss. And in our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment. Freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom -- the great achievement of our time, and the great hope of every time -- now depends on us. Our nation -- this generation -- will lift a dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.” With the passage of this legislation our leaders have failed. They have failed to uphold our Constitution, they have failed to uphold our democracy, they have failed to uphold fundamental human rights and the rule of law, they have failed to rally the world to our cause, and they have failed to protect the American people.

Yes, great harm has been done to us. We have suffered a great loss. But that harm and loss has been increased by orders of magnitude by this President, this administration and this Congress. I do not recognize the America I live in today. But I give credit where it is due. The President is right on one point. The advance of freedom now depends on us, the American people. We can no longer count on our representatives. We must demand a return to basic decency.

Returning to the speech at Ft McNair, our President stated, “Pervasive fear is the foundation of every dictatorial regime -- the prop that holds up all power not based on consent. And when the regime of fear is broken, and the people find their courage and find their voice, democracy is their goal, and tyrants, themselves, have reason to fear.”

So friends, true lovers of freedom, true patriots, I, for one, have found my courage and I have found my voice. I write this so that the day I am disappeared, in this land of freedom, liberty, and justice for all, each one of you will know that I have not succumbed to fear, that I stand tall and free.

Peace and Love, Johnny Barber

free·dom n
1. a state in which somebody is able to act and live as he or she chooses, without being subject to any, or to any undue, restraints and restrictions
2. release or rescue from being physically bound, or from being confined, enslaved, captured, or imprisoned
3. a country’s right to rule itself, without interference from or domination by another country or power
4. the right to speak or act without restriction, interference, or fear


lib·er·ty n
1. the freedom to think or act without being constrained by necessity or force
2. freedom from captivity or slavery
3. any of the political, social, and economic rights that belong to the citizens of a state or to all people (often used in the plural)
See also civil liberties