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War – Again and Again and Again

After September 11th several friends called, asking if I was still a pacifist. Others asked the same question following the savage attacks against Israelis in Haifa and Jerusalem. When Naomi Goodman and I co-edited the book, The Challenge of Shalom: The Jewish Tradition of Peace & Justice in 1994, we tried to answer those who asked how it was possible for a Jew to be nonviolent after the Holocaust, in a world still committing monstrous acts of violence.

My personal response is that in religious, secular and practical terms I remain a pacifist, a Jewish pacifist no less. In the long run, nonviolence has a far better chance of maintaining peace than B52s, cluster and daisy cutter bombs and a very lucrative weapons industry. And where Israel and Palestine are concerned, the never-ending reprisals and retaliatory raids have led to nothing but sheer hell for all parties.

Pacifists know very well why wars begin and how hard it is to stop once underway, when appeals to uncritical patriotism drown out and stigmatize critics. We aren’t “passiv-ists” but are instead activists opposed to killing, including those motivated by religious zealotry and governments. I – and we – know very well the role economic greed, arms races, imperial triumphalism, diplomatic myopia, hypocrisy, lies, and religious and ideological fanaticism has and still plays. That we recognize it, is one thing. That few, if any, listen to our alternatives before the shooting starts, is quite another. Still, we are always asked – no, challenged – during wartime: What would you do NOW? This was true again after the calamitous attack on the World Trade Center.

I do not have the answers that would bring these killers to justice, end worldwide terrorism and bring about peace and justice. But neither do bellicose and sheltered Washington-based syndicated columnists, politicians, neoconservative hawks and 24/7 cable station screamers. I certainly understand why many otherwise decent and outraged Americans want to punish the 9/11 murderers and that “love” is hardly a prescription for the world’s ills. Yet for those who were queasy about the war and possible future escalation, merely to raise questions in traditional media about the attack and past and present American policies has become taboo. Those who do have been excoriated in varying ways for daring to voice differing opinions.

I ask: Can America’s military might actually cleanse the world of terrorism? Hard-line war hawks in Washington – many of whom have never even served on active military duty – think so. They are articulate, have exceptional access to the media and are savvy about the Byzantine world of Washington politics. They demand that President Bush avoid repeating his father’s role in not going after Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. With impunity, Washington-based warriors criticize Colin Powell and others seemingly reluctant to invade Iraq, while many mainstream editors and TV producers have generally ignored dissenters, pacifist and non-pacifist alike. If our homefront hawks have their way, who’s next? Iran? Syria? Libya? Somalia? Sudan? Yemen? North Korea? America’s potent military is quite capable of destroying a lot of terrorists (and a lot of guiltless civilians too) but may very well create a new generation of terrorists.

Sadly, with few honorable exceptions, the mass media seems to have become a transmitter of government statements. Small wonder, then, that for a long time relatively few Americans have heard or read little of options from right and left and pacifists too that might have prevented some of our wars, including those we’ve armed and supported, as, for instance, in Central and South America.

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