[C-SPAN broadcast in 1999 the first rally in opposition to the Bosnian war with one exception: your editor’s speech. C-SPAN even left in the part where a singer announced, “I’m the warm-up act for Sam Smith” but the speech itself was cut. Here’s the speech.]
I am a native of this place. You might even call me an ethnic Washingtonian. For two centuries, this little colony of America has been denied the rights called for in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and more recently in the Charter of the United Nations.
At no time during this 200 years, however, has a single bomb been dropped on our behalf. In fact President Clinton and the Congress, now busy saving the Kosovars — whether they survive to thank us or not — conspired to remove what little self-government we had on the grounds of a budget deficit worth about the cost of four nights’ Belgrade bombing runs. It was the greatest disenfranchisement of African-Americans since the end of post-reconstruction in the 19th century.
You will excuse me, therefore, if I am a bit skeptical about current professions of interest in democracy in distant places. . .
We gather here exactly 31 years and one month after William Jefferson Clinton was reclassified 1-A by his draft board during a war of which he wrote, “I didn’t see how my going in the army and maybe going to Vietnam would achieve anything except a feeling that I had punished myself and gotten what I deserved.” A lot has happened since then, including, under Clinton, more frequent and gratuitous military incursions into foreign lands than ever before.
To be sure, he merely ices a long trend. By the count of author Bill Blum, since 1945 we have bombed China, Korea, Guatemala, Indonesia, Cuba, Congo, Peru, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Libya, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Yugoslavia.
The most striking exception to the ubiquitous futility of these deadly adventures has been a single unqualified military triumph — we brought Grenada to her knees.
At what point does the constant reiteration of failed and fatal policy become a war crime and reckless incompetence become grotesque cruelty and tactics of death become — to use a term used casually these days — become genocide?
Well, consider this. The Holocaust resulted in some six million deaths. Now here are some other figures:
There were nearly two million killed during the Vietnam war, most by air attacks that dropped twice as many bombs as we did in all of World War II — nearly one 500-pound bomb per person. One million civilians were killed by our strategic bombing in Japan even before we got to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More than two million civilians were killed in our bombing runs over North Korea. And one million Iraqi have died as a result of our sanctions.
Add these up and you come to the same figure as the Holocaust. Which is shocking enough until you realize that together, the Holocaust and our bombing raids of the past fifty years represent less than ten percent of all the deaths by warfare in our century.
Trace the American role in this extraordinary violence to its source and you come not upon political extremes, but to the heart of this country’s establishment. Contrary to all myths the most deadly place on the American political spectrum is in the center. It is there that a fatal combination of power, machismo, incompetence, avarice and delusions of adequacy has time and again caused murder, mayhem and suffering for those who want only to live their lives in peace and decency. Even the KKK, so often cited as an example of the ever-present danger from extremism, was in fact powerful not because it was extreme but because it was at the precise center of so much of America — holding political, judicial and law enforcement office as well as hiding beneath its robes. In some towns, lynching parties were even announced in the local paper. . .
We have, of course, been trained to think of our own leaders as normal, sane people. That these destroyers of land, lives and the ecological balance of the earth are wise and honorable men and women engaged in noble and difficult tasks. .
But ask yourself this:
Is it normal to kill millions of innocent people in the name of a freedom they will never live to know?
Is it normal to let the young and the ill suffer so you can support a military budget so huge that $30 billion a year simply can’t be accounted for?
Is it normal to lock up nearly two million citizens — the most of any country ever — many of them for simply preferring marijuana over such legal drugs as vodka and cigarettes?
Is it normal, because of one’s draconian penal system, to remove the franchise from one out of every seven black men?
Is it normal to damage the health of a planet for better 4th quarter profits?
Consider that the use of nuclear weapons as well as other forms of mass destruction presently depends upon the will of a brutal egomaniac in Belgrade, a terminal dipsomaniac in Moscow, and a felonious serial sociopath in Washington. This, my friends, is not normal.
When I was a child in this town, the cruelties of segregation were considered normal. An elite not unlike the one in charge today insisted it was so, just as they told us that if we crawled under our school desks we would be safe from the atom bomb.
Few in power dared tell us that what was said to be normal was actually madness. We had to find out for ourselves. And when we did, and when we discovered that others had as well, things began to get better.
Today we must make this same self-discovery, and learn from those on either side of us, in front of us and behind us, that we are not alone. The elite, including its media, will try to keep us from this news. They will not tell us the biggest secret of our age — that the widest political, cultural and moral division on earth is not between right and left, east and west, or black and white, but between the peoples of the world and their own reckless leaders.
This weekend some of the latter have come to town and erected a Berlin wall behind which to conceal their deadly work. We on this side of the wall are the resistance. Not just against nukes. Not just against war. But a resistance against all the craven, cruel and corrupt madness of those who lead. And against the apathy and surrender that lets it happen.
Let me suggest a simple platform to replace this madness. That:
We seek to be good stewards of our earth, good citizens of our country, good members of our communities, and good neighbors of those who share these places with us. We seek a cooperative commonwealth based on decency before profit, liberty before sterile order, justice before efficiency, happiness before uniformity, families before systems, communities before corporations, and people before institutions. And that we, unlike so many who profess to lead us, seek to treat our politics, our country and each other with common decency, common sense and with a search for common ground.
So simple. So normal. And yet so far. . . .
At the end of the Second World War, Albert Camus wrote an imaginary letter to a German friend in which he said,
“This is what separated us from you; we made demands. You were satisfied to serve the power of your nation and we dreamed of giving ours her truth.”
That is our business today, and every day, until those who lead us make it their’s as well — and no longer hide behind barricades celebrating mindless power, deadly weapons, and corrupt intentions. Until they turn instead to their proper business which is to join us in giving all the lands of this fragile earth their truth.