Strangling an abiding rose
The US government may have imprisoned one of America's most inspiring non-violent social activists, but her very existence points a way to the end of the state's claim to the right of "legitimate" force, writes Curtis Doebbler
A growing number of people in the world are recognising the great discrepancy between the "haves" and the "have nots". Equally, a finger is increasingly being pointed at the United States as primary perpetuating force behind global inequalities and direct violence, through its armed aggression around the world.
The few individuals who try to do something about it often resort to preaching to others, or trading remedies through words among the converted. Others get frustrated and turn to the use of force, or support those who do. This divide has been growing in an international social justice movement that is increasingly stratified between elites -- or would-be elites -- with a guilty conscience, and a belief that communication is key to human embetterment, and militants who believe now is the time to act with all necessary means. It is increasingly easy to join the latter of these groupings, and only the most committed proponents of non-violence can maintain the integrity of their stance.
One of those individuals whose commitment to non-violence has been as unfaltering as it has been stalwart is American activist Kathy Kelly. For more than three decades she protested every type of violence known to our modern world. From the unjust sentencing of American citizens, and America's aggression around the world, to the humiliation and oppression of Palestinians and Iraqis, Kathy Kelly has remained consistently persistent in her support for non-violent opposition to violence.
In recent years, she has risked imprisonment and life and limb by repeatedly travelling to Iraq to assist Iraqi children. She spent both the 1991 and 2003 wars on Iraq in Iraq, in solidarity with the Iraqi people. Although she always made clear her distaste for the policies and persona of Saddam Hussein she was welcomed by the Iraqis because of the sincerity of purpose she held in assisting Iraq's children with their most basic needs of medicine, books, and whatever else she could manage to smuggle past the sanctions regimes that claimed more than 500,000 children's lives over the decade they were in place. Often living among the ordinary people of Iraq, and when in the US among the most impoverished communities, Kathy Kelly has seen the violence that individuals can enact on one another. Rather than swaying her commitment, however, what she witnessed has strengthened it.
Her activities have made her a rare example for those of the next generation who aspire to using non-violence to cure the ills of the world. She has won acclaim in the press, from humanitarian organisations, from governments, and has been nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize. Only her own government has repeatedly scorned her non-violent activities.
Perhaps the American government is trying to send a clear message to the world that peaceful means of resistance will not be tolerated, will not work, and will be crushed with the same aggression it has used against sovereign states. Regardless of the intent, this is the message that is being sent with resounding clarity to every organ of civil society. Like the message of superiority that the Nazis spewed throughout Europe to pave the way for their conquests, the Bush administration has found its mantra.
Gone are the times when non-violence was respected even if one disagreed with the cause for which it was invoked. The message of non-violent activists like Kathy Kelly is being increasingly met with intolerance and recourse to varying degrees of violence. This was not always so. I can still remember receiving, after spending the first few weeks of the 1991 Gulf War in Baghdad with Kathy and others from the Gulf Peace Team, a letter from President Bush Sr, congratulating me on my support of a humanitarian effort. I knew the letter was merely mocking my resistance to his policies of violence, but it at least made me think that perhaps he respected something in the non-violent message that we were sending. Today, times have changed. Rather than foster non-violence, even if through hypocritical acknowledgement, Bush Jr's message is quite different and clear: "Either you are with us, or you are against us."
This inhumane mantra has caused many activists to flee the United States. I admit to being among them. My breaking point came when, at their request, I advised the US State Department about the legal consequences of a statement they had purportedly received. The statement claimed that resistance to America's illegal occupation of Iraq was legal. I responded in my capacity as an international lawyer confirming that this was indeed a correct interpretation of international law. Instead of a word of thanks, or even acknowledgement, American government officials threatened me. I decided then that I could not live and work in the intolerant gulag the United States has become.
Kathy Kelly has not run away. Instead, she has shown more courage and stamina in the face of even greater persecution. When recently she was arrested for non-violently protesting at one of numerous military installations that dot the landscape of fortified America she had the opportunity to leave the country to avoid prosecution. Indeed, though such a stipulation by authorities is unlawful, it would have perhaps been an understandable choice has Kelly made it, vis-à-vis a government that violates international law with such regularity that international lawyers now question whether law really exists. More enticingly she had been invited to attend the World Social Forum, a jamboree of workshops, lectures and strategy meetings with like-minded persons. Surely she would have found this rejuvenating. Instead, she decided to stay and fight the system.
True to its intolerant disrespect of non-violence the US system won this battle. It sentenced Kathy Kelly to three months in a federal prison for having entered military property during a protest against the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. The School of the Americas is infamous: so infamous, in fact, that it had to be renamed to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. No one doubts that the extensive training there provided in torture techniques and terror techniques, as exported throughout Latin America, continues. The prison sentence was undoubtedly due in part to the recidivist nature of her crime. It is not the first time that she has served a prison sentence for her peaceful protest. It will also probably not be the last. More surprising, however, was the fact that the sentencing court did not appear to take into account that Kathy Kelly had been physically assaulted by her government captors for no apparent reason; except perhaps that they could not palate her non-violent reaction to their aggression.
Contrary the lesson that the judge and her violent captors undoubtedly sought to convey, perhaps the biggest lesson that will be learnt will be taught unwittingly by this statement of American intolerance. This lesson will be taught when Kelly emerges from prison once again and reacts not with violence or hatred towards her persecutors, but with love and non- violence. And it will be repeated when she again takes part in the non-violent struggle against a government whose language and actions are becoming more oppressive by the day. It has happened so many times, that one need not wait to know it will happen again.
As Kathy Kelly goes back to the front-line of the struggle of non-violent resistance against oppression there will undoubtedly be those who will appreciate her example. There will be those who try to emulate it. There will even be those who in the face of the unfathomable violence perpetrated by America's military in Afghanistan and Iraq, and dozens of other places around the world, will refuse to resort to violence. These non-violent protesters will be subject to the physical violence of those against whom they protest, as well as the jeers of their more militant allies within the social justice movement. They will continue to be prosecuted by government authorities whose power emanates from policies of domination. But as long as there are examples of non-violent resistance like Kathy Kelly, battles may be lost, but the war may already be won.