In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.
~ Pastor Martin Niemoller
What has Cindy Sheehan done to warrant the unfocused rage and vicious name-calling to which she has been subjected? What is the nature of her "offense" that has led conservative war-whoopers to heap untold abuse upon her for daring to exercise what they pretend to "defend" — even as they work to destroy its expression — namely, individual liberty?
She has been referred to as a "crackpot," an "America hater," a "tragedy slut," a "media whore," an "anti-Semite," and a "traitor," by various conservative talk-show hosts or websites. One allegedly Christian website went so far as to say that "traitors deserve firing squads." One can buy T-shirts reading "Sheehan is Nuts," or read a seemingly endless flow of non-sequiturs having nothing to do with her stated position. She has been condemned as a "Leftist," and for her association with Michael Moore. With the same sense of irrelevance that permeates both Congress and the media, Republican congressman Duncan Hunter observed that some of her supporters looked like "aging hippies." Nor does one have to wait long, on any Reich-wing talk show, to hear the refrain that offers their unassailable response to all dissenting views: "if you don’t like it here, why don’t you go to Africa or Asia?"
At her Camp Casey site, over five hundred crosses bearing the names of soldiers killed in Iraq were knocked over by one of Cindy’s critics in a pickup truck; an act that received little criticism from the allegedly Christian war defenders. A neighbor of George Bush twice fired his shotgun into the air in the presence of Cindy’s supporters; an act which, had it been engaged in by any of the antiwar people, would have resulted in massive arrests and Bill O’Reilly bellowing accusations of "terrorism" and Cindy’s ties to Al Qaeda!
At the same time the war-lovers were excoriating Cindy for the offense of having been born, the children and spouses of persons murdered by Dennis Rader — Kansas’ BTK killer — were testifying at his sentencing hearing. I heard no words of rabid vilification — from people who had the most personal reasons for being angry at this mass-murderer — that came close to those being directed at Cindy Sheehan.
What explains these ferocious and slanderous attacks? Cindy is but one lone woman. Unlike President Bush, she does not claim to speak or act on behalf of 275,000,000 people, but only for herself. Relatives of other dead soldiers have criticized this woman, saying "she doesn’t speak for us." But I am unaware of any statement made by Cindy purporting to speak for anyone but herself. She only seeks an answer to her personal question: "why did my son die?"
Cindy Sheehan does constitute a threat, not to America, but to the totalitarian forces that insist on crushing the spirit of peace and liberty in order that they might dominate the American people. History is awash with examples of men and women eagerly cooperating with those who would subjugate and destroy them. As Pastor Niemoller’s words so eloquently remind us, cristalnacht was neither the first nor last instance of people turning upon — rather than coming to the defense of — their neighbors when under attack by the state.
Sadly, what makes Cindy such a poignant figure is the fact that she is such a lone public voice in opposition to the brown-shirted mentality that has taken over in this country. That there are many individuals who have expressed the same concerns for peace, liberty, and the ending of the Iraqi war, is obvious. LewRockwell.com, Antiwar.com, and a long list of names that include Vidal, Rockwell, Higgs, Lapham, Pilger, Raimondo, Sobran, Hedges, Cockburn, Kwiatkowski, Woods, Bock, DiLorenzo, Bovard, Conger, Hersh, and many others that would turn this into far-too-lengthy a paragraph, are outspoken critics of this regime. But while these people find expression in the Internet and some of the print media, Cindy has galvanized widespread latent resentment to vicious statism and brought it to the surface.
Cindy has awakened the long-anesthetized souls of many Americans. Spirituality is a quality found only within individuals, as the expression of the inner nature of living beings. It is an attribute alien to institutional hierarchies, whose interests are confined to the physical and mechanistic world. To men and women who have adopted an institutionalized perspective, the non-material is immaterial. This is why you find little, if any, support for Cindy coming from corporations, political agencies, the major news media, or organized churches or universities. It is individuals who have responded to Cindy’s stance.
Cindy reminds people of the importance of the centered life that is free of contradiction; wherein one’s words and actions exhibit integrity; a sense of wholeness. Unlike the institution-serving news media — who insist on deflecting our attention from such concerns by entertaining us with scandals, Hollywood gossip, and the missing person du jour — Cindy’s questions get to the essence of human character. She has awakened dormant thoughts about the loathsome nature of killing innocent people and sacrificing our children upon the altar of political ambition. She reminds us that lying does matter, that deceit is not to be applauded, and that those in power should be held accountable to some standard higher than that of self-aggrandizement.
Most of us long ago sold out our souls, and at prices determined in a buyer’s market. But deep within even the most brutish can be found the echo of a voice that asks "why?" in connection with the demands made by tyrants. It is the stirring of such voices that underlies the anger directed at Cindy Sheehan.
Being aware that the human soul can never be wholly repressed, the political establishment has never been without a laundry list of "noble causes" with which to rouse men into battle. Ridding the holy lands of infidels, freeing the slaves, making the world safe for democracy, and halting the spread of communism, are just a few of the better-known excuses for war. Unlike previous regimes — which did not have to contend with the Internet and its widespread, instantaneous flow of information — the Bush administration has had to tap-dance around lies in an effort to find a "cause" that might stick. In desperation, it exhumed Wilson’s excuse for America’s participation in World War I: to foster "democracy." But in today’s political climate, I wonder if Bush’s campaign on behalf of "democracy" is designed for any higher purpose than to allow one of his most ardent supporters, Diebold Election Systems, to sell more of its voting machines!
Increasing numbers of Americans are beginning to grasp the wholesale fraud underlying Bush’s foreign policies. His administration has been dominated almost exclusively by the worldwide pursuit of power. Not power as a means for the accomplishment of some end, but power for its own sake; not power "to," but power "because."
This administration is as Machiavellian as any I recall in my lifetime, having already done much to rehabilitate the image of Nixon! In their predilection for political power, they have internalized Machiavelli’s advice "never to let his thoughts stray from the exercise of war." Even the tortures at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere bear the imprimatur of their 16th century guru: "A prince, therefore, must not mind incurring the charge of cruelty for the purpose of keeping his subjects united and faithful."
When power becomes its own raison d’être, how it is acquired, upon whom it is exercised, and for what alleged purpose, become irrelevant questions. If power is an end in itself, and war is a strategy for keeping and expanding such power, the enemy can be selected by the tossing of coins or the throwing of darts at a world map. Was Afghanistan harboring Osama Bin Laden? Did Saddam Hussein have weapons of mass destruction, and did he plan to use them on Americans? Did Hussein have any connections to Al Qaeda or the attacks of 9/11?
There is no point to engaging in an empirical discussion of such questions, for to the neo-Machiavellians — and their flag-waving sycophants — answers do not really matter. To kill and die on behalf of lies is as meaningful as doing so for some allegedly loftier calling. It is enough that the state needs a permanent condition of war to sustain and enhance its powers. The "why?" of things is left to men and women whose conduct is informed by moral and philosophic principles; the kind of people whose sense of propriety is being aroused by Cindy Sheehan.
But for people or systems whose decision-making is focused on quantitative rather than qualitative factors, on the purely physical instead of the metaphysical, such normative inquiries can be most unsettling. There is no word more aggravating to authority figures than "why." To have to justify actions against another by criteria other than the arbitrary exercise of one’s will, is a challenge to the brute, a confrontation of bullying behavior.
To openly question power is one of the prime reasons for the unrestrained expression of ideas and opinions in society. Free speech — whatever its medium — is premised on the idea that there are normative standards by which the propriety of governmental action is to be judged. But if power is to be its own purpose — restrained only by logistics, material calculation, and causal analyses — what remains to be evaluated and judged? Beyond such mechanistic considerations, what is the relevance of opinions as to the "rightness" or "wrongness" of state action? One is either compliant or disobedient, and if you don’t like what the state demands "why don’t you move to another country?"
Institutional fears of questioning minds plagued mankind long before inquisitions, heresy trials, and the persecution of witches made such vicious practices known to every educated person. Modern statists are equally aware of the disruptive consequences of the free flow of information as well as philosophic, value-laden questions they are incapable of answering.
Institutions insist upon nothing so much as the maintenance of the status quo. But the prevailing state of affairs is being challenged by processes of decentralization that are causing vertically-structured institutional systems to collapse into horizontally-networked patterns of which I have often written. It is the de-institutionalizing of society that represents "terror" to established interests, against which "wars" must be fought.
But there are those who question the rationale for societies operating on the premise of unquestioning obedience to self-styled emperors; rulers who enjoy the unrestrained exercise of police powers and military authority. America and Great Britain are two Western nations succumbing to this totalitarian madness. The first step, in this absolutist subjugation of erstwhile free people, will be to restrain free expression and the questioning of state policies.
Hillary Clinton proposed such chains upon the Internet a few years ago, suggesting that a "gatekeeper" — guess who — control what gets communicated through this medium. Other totalitarian minds — such as Bruce Fein, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman — have proposed the punishment or blacklisting of those who engage (in Fein’s words) in "speech likely to motivate terrorism." "Reasonable suspicion" of "sympathy with terrorism" would seem enough to satisfy Fein’s test for calling in the state!
Friedman’s proposed government blacklist — what he terms a "War of Ideas Report" — would include "excuse makers" (i.e., those who "tell us why imperialism, Zionism, colonialism or Iraq explains why the terrorists acted"). According to public opinion polls, most Americans would appear on Friedman’s blacklist, as they see a connection between the Iraq war and terrorist activity!
Just how far such thought-policing might go was well-expressed by Bill O’Reilly who declared that "any American that undermines [the Iraq War] . . . is a traitor. . . . [A]ll those clowns over at the liberal radio network, we could incarcerate them immediately. . . . Send over the FBI and just put them in chains." Such is the evidence for an intellectually bankrupt political system in freefall.
In his short story, Harrison Bergeron, Kurt Vonnegut presented what has to be the ultimate crime in a bureaucratic police-state: "suspicion of intent to conspire." Life is now imitating art, with Britain’s Tony Blair leading his own war against individual liberty. Blair recently announced his plan to deport any non-citizen who is guilty of "justifying or validating . . . violence," adding that visitors to Britain have a "duty" to "share and support the values that sustain the British way of life." That these "values" consist of accepting governmental policy was expressed by Blair as follows: "We are not having any of this nonsense about [the subway bombings having anything] to do with what the British are doing in Iraq or Afghanistan, or support for Israel, or support for America, or any of the rest of it. It is nonsense and we have to confront it as that." Blair’s fascistic rant was even too much for his wife who, in a speech, declared that attacking civil liberties "cheapens our right to call ourselves a civilized nation."
In other words, Blair is warning tourists that if you suggest there is a causal connection between British, American, and/or Israeli governmental policies and "terrorist" attacks, you are likely to be thrown out of the country. These standards for state action would doubtless satisfy the totalitarian preferences of Messrs. Fein, Krauthammer, and Friedman for dealing with Americans as well. To such impoverished minds, a "free society" can be maintained only as long as the state can punish those with differing opinions!
Such is the barbaric nature of the state when individuals dare to question its actions. Such savagery becomes escalated when, as now, vertically-structured, command-and-control systems are in retreat before the forces of decentralization. In such circumstances, the high-school civics class lies about the state as "representing" the "sovereign" people get stripped away to reveal Leviathan in its bloody-clawed monstrousness. Even the most gullible valedictorian might become aware that the state "serves" the public in the same way that a cannibal "serves" his neighbor!
As social systems become more decentralized and individuals regain more control over their lives, an understanding of the processes of chaos and complexity will provide insight into alternative forms of order. In the study of chaos, we learn of the "butterfly effect," wherein even the slightest local perturbation can, when reiterated back into the system, produce unpredictable global consequences. Those conditioned in the political mindset will continue to believe that, only in mass action can change occur. But with Congress having become as impotent and politically meaningless as the British House of Lords, even the most ardent political activist must begin to sense the need for alternative responses. Perhaps they will realize, as did Carl Jung, that only the transformation of individuals can save mankind from self-destruction.
As we better understand the nature of complexity and the decentralized systems implicit therein, we may finally bring an end to the soulless and destructive machinery of state violence, and rediscover the humane sentiments that may allow us to walk away from war, torture, genocide, and other acts of repression. The world of politics divides us into groups with allegedly conflicting interests. But, as Pastor Niemoller’s words remind us, the way of peace and liberty lies in breaking down these contrived barriers and discovering what the statists hope we never learn, namely, the common interests we have in protecting one another from the state. Let us retain such thoughts as we contemplate — and join in — Cindy Sheehan’s stand on behalf of all humanity.
Let us also not forget the "butterfly effect" and the power of local, decentralized action. If wars can be started by nineteen men, armed with nothing more than box-cutter knives, perhaps peace can be precipitated by a lone woman standing alongside a road in Texas, demanding that a president be accountable for his actions. Don’t think for a moment that the established order is unaware of and not fearful of just such a possibility.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.