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NYC 6-18-10: “The People’s Journey”: Open-Hearted Witnesses of War to Contracted American Hearts -- "Give Peace a Chance!"

The NYC chapter of The World Can't Wait peace organization emailed me about an event in NYC Friday night up at St. Mary's Church on W. 126th Street. I skimmed the message. The People's Journey, a touring group of representatives of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, along with two Iraq War vets, advocating peace. They were conducting forums in 22 major U.S. cities between June 1- July 4.

W. 126th Street!!! And at 6:30pm? Too far away. Too inconveniently early.

I told myself I could read about experiences of Gazans, Afghans, Iraqis, and conscientious objecting soldiers on the internet, after all. Though all in one place at the same time? How curious was that!

But I could even catch up, with the internet, learning the gist of this particular group's message, couldn't I? Save myself the trip. I had so much to do on my night off. Life maintenance stuff. I also hadn't seen a movie in a while. Why not skip this? I'd been blogging a lot lately, after all. Give myself a break.

Yadda yadda yadda.

My damn conscience wouldn't let it alone. People who had come all the way from those countries along with soldiers who had defied the military matrix. All of them crossing the entire expanse of the U.S. to plead peace. Hadn't these IRL events been inspiring me? Another opportunity to witness real spiritual heroes. I could once again use their assistance in opening my own, too-long contracted American heart and mind.

At the last minute I scrambled out the door to get there.

I was blown away by the speakers. Their messages. Their courage. Their how-the-hell-can-they-sustain-it hope. Hope in Americans after what America has done to Middle East homelands and families, either directly or indirectly? Also, what America has put the consciences and psyches of young soldiers through.

This project exhibits a bold faith that fellow human beings in the U.S. can recognize the insanity of surreal and savage war. They are calling out America, as one group of citizens of the world, to end the gratuitous and grotesquely unjust punishment of other groups labeled and darkly mythologized as the “OTHER.”

These messengers want their American audience to connect the dots between the global victimized communities of human beings embattled simultaneously by U.S. and U.S. allied military oppression. A systemic, world-expanding travesty of injustice, destruction and communal dis-ease. Again, they maintain if we have a more immediate, awakened and experiential sense of our commonality as human beings hostility against “specter enemies” will dissipate.

These folks sure have their work cut out for them I thought as I sat in the lovely church on a perfect summer night with maybe two dozen New Yorkers out of how many millions, is it? But their pilgrimage for peace, their mission statements, are sending truth ripples out into the hearts and minds of their listeners, and those listeners will continue these truth ripples onward. Here I am now, blogging as best I can, from what I learned from them to you.

It seemed there would be only three speakers on this particular night. Part of their troupe was not able to be there due to illness and logistics. And there was a technical problem with skyping during one portion, a young man named Hakim from Afghanistan with a charismatic face and voice whom we got to see and hear only flashes of. We were presented with his powerful video, though, of poignant arguments for peace narrated by radiant and vital young people from Afghanistan. The People's Journey was conceived by Hakim and other Afghanistan youth, working with other groups of young people from the U.S., Israel/Palestine and Iraq. Their simple premise? That human beings contacting and communicating directly with each other, citizens without borders, so to speak, could achieve PEACE ON EARTH. They could end war.

Though there were only three in-person speakers Friday night, these messengers gave a powerful summit.

Josh Stieber was the main organizer in the United States. A tall, handsome, unassuming young man. Earnest and soulful in his delivery. Stieber was a member of the infamous Bravo Company 2-16, the military unit involved with the Wikileaks 2007 helicopter shooting of Iraqi citizens. 12 people were killed including two Reuters employees. Stieber did not participate in that shooting spree but he had later written a courageous and heart-felt letter of reconciliation along with a fellow soldier of conscience, Ethan McCord, also part of the company, to the people of Iraq. A passage of their letter:

Our government may ignore you, concerned more with its public image. It has also ignored many veterans who have returned physically injured or mentally troubled by what they saw and did in your country. But the time is long overdue that we say that the value of our nation's leaders no longer represent us. Our secretary of defense may say the U.S. won't lose its reputation over this, but we stand and say that our reputation's importance pales in comparison to our common humanity.

Stieber also quoted a poignant portion of a song from Neil Young during his talk:

Have you seen the flags of freedom?
What color are they now?
Do you think that you believe in yours
More than they do theirs somehow?
When you see the flags of freedom flyin'

I couldn't help thinking as I heard of Stieber's strength in taking a moral stance against military violence that he was a David against the Goliath of the U.S. Military Industrial Complex Killing Machine. A gentle David, sans slingshot, even, it would seem, as Stieber went on to explain his transformation from misguided soldier to total advocate for peaceful coexistence among countries and, most importantly, between human beings when one-on-one relating.

Stieber told of his enlistment in the army after high school. He wanted to do his patriotic duty for his country. Very soon, he was troubled by the conflation of violence with a spirit of celebration, by the obvious "desensitization" training he and his fellow soldiers underwent. They were shown films of bombs going off while rock music blasted away in the background. During one-on-one training interviews they were challenged as to the appropriate spontaneous conduct if confronted by a potential terrorist. The SOP his officers insisted upon was to shoot WITHOUT HESITATION, innocent people's lives being endangered must not be a distracting consideration on these occasions.

Stieber kept making reference to "buffer zones" – psychologically speaking -- which he maintains human beings exist within. The buffer zone could be created from stereotypes, denial, blind loyalty, ignorance, revenge, nationalism, all sorts of motivations and confused assumptions. Whatever can separate a human being from reality and truth. He said his own buffer zone during his tour as a soldier was challenged again and again and it kept on shrinking.

He and his fellow speakers contended that the buffer zones of peoples, though creating such profound obstacles to peace collectively and/or individually, at the same time could easily – miraculously -- be dismantled with one on one honest and empathetic communication. Stieber pointed to his own transformation from a morally blind soldier to one capable of recognizing the humanity at the other side of the gun.

He said upon arrival in Baghdad he was surprised to witness hostility from the locals to the U.S. military. He expected gratitude. But then he saw over and over how the military behaved with such lack of empathy for the locals. At one point, the military took over a factory. The locals tried to communicate how disruptive this would be. Their non-violent protests only inspired escalating brutishness on the part of the military. This in turn inspired escalating violence from the locals. A chain reaction of violence. When Stieber approached his officers to protest such escalations, he was told the strategy was to make the locals more afraid of the U.S. military than of the insurgents. The plan, Stieber concluded, was ironically to "out-terrorize the terrorists." The ever popular "ends justifies the means" recipe for disaster.

Stieber explained that the soldiers wanted to get back to their own families, whom they loved so much, back in the States. And if they had to run roughshod, even to critically wounding families in the Middle East to get there, their buffer zones of demonization and desensitization tragically enabled them to carry out heinous acts.

He mentioned G.W. Bush's famous assertion: "We do not negotiate with terrorists"! Stieber said at one point an alleged terrorist was captured who turned out to be the mayor of a town. The soldiers did negotiate with him, and a commitment was garnered from the insurgents not to bomb the soldiers for an entire month. Negotiation does work, Stieber declared.

Stieber spoke of the horror depicted on the Wikileaks video. He said that such depraved, desensitized killing happens all the time. The slippery slope of amorality. The buffer zones of his fellow soldiers escalate this conduct quite often. He spoke of grand scale lethal cruelty or petty, gratuitous sadism exhibited by some soldiers. He witnessed one once rip the head off an Iraqi child's doll. Another time a soldier while driving deliberately splashed mud on an old woman walking beside a roadside.

Stieber told an especially powerful anecdote on behalf of his missing (for this event) fellow journeyman, Conor Curran. Curran was leading a group of soldiers doing house to house searches one day in Iraq. He was feeling particularly angry. He came upon a house that had a startlingly beautiful garden. Curran decided to "act out" some of his own aggression on this garden. He took a shovel to it, while other soldiers were turning the inside of the home upside down. While perpetrating their recklessness, the owner came home. Unbelievably for Curran, the owner soon appeared in the yard with a tray of cups of tea for him and his fellow soldiers. Curran was stunned at such amazing grace in light of the circumstances. Curran claimed it was a turning point for him. The U.S. was supposedly bringing civility to this country, and yet this Iraqi was illuminating what genuine civility was. This man's courageous and generous heart shrank Conor's buffer zone.

Josh Stieber also spoke a bit of what he had to go through applying for conscientious objector status. He was still asked to fulfill some of his soldierly duties like shooting practice at the firing range. Stieber told a very, VERY unsympathetic sergeant that his conscience could no longer let him fire bullets into images of Muslims, which were how the shooting range targets were adorned. The sergeant apparently reamed him harder than anyone ever had. Josh confided that during that barrage of hate coming at him, he realized he could make a choice. He could unfurl his own rage back, or even let it well up silently inside himself, or he could exercise peace and patience with the sergeant and the sergeant's buffer zone.

Stieber listened respectfully to the sergeant and then quietly re-asserted his truth. I know I earlier compared Stieber to David of David and Goliath, but as he was telling this particular story, well, I say this with a personal and grave sense of awe of Josh Stieber, it seemed to be Jesus he was channeling. Stieber smiled with such joy at being able to reveal to us how his relationship with that sergeant metamorphosed into one of mutual respect and affection. Not only did that same sergeant help expedite the conscientious objector process, but he gave Stieber a great big hug when he ultimately left.

Mr. Stieber had already finished another U.S. pilgrimage by bike last year called the Contagious Love Experiment before organizing this People's Journey. He had linked up with "Our Journey to Smile", an effort by Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (Hakim) to connect with peace seekers around the world. And halfway through his Contagious Love Experiment he was joined by vet, Conor Curran. Then while these two men finished up that tour in the San Francisco area, they serendipitously met up with an Iraqi refugee Salam Hassan. The three found such spiritual common ground that Salam agreed to join up with them for The People's Journey.

Salam Hassan was a very engaging speaker, also. Thoughtful, sharp, intelligent-eyed. Hassan was on crutches. He did not explain his disability during his talk, but googling information from a similar event revealed Mr. Hassan had had polio at age one. Hassan exuded an air of hard-won serenity. A survivor. He is an engineer and a journalist.

Hassan said that most Americans imagine Iraq as being a country of tents and deserts. He said a lot of Iraq is urban and he considers himself a city boy. He said, also, that Iraq's people are far more educated than is assumed in the United States. Education has always been free in Iraq, all the way through college. Getting a PhD even costs a nominal fee.

He said during his school years teachers made their students conscious of to what great degree Iraq was a military state. How other outsider nations were "bad" and a threat to Iraq.

Hassan worked as a translator during the wars in Iraq. He said he was confused by the motives of the big bruiser soldiers who came to the 130 degree heat and wore 40 lb packs on their backs. He said he was fascinated, too, by American civilians who did not share the military mind set.

When Hassan as a refugee joined a Jewish family in the San Francisco area to launch his American life, he said that he "rebirthed" himself to the culture by watching movies that Americans of his age bracket were raised on. He was startled to see with movies, tv and cartoons that the United States was very much a culture of violence as was Iraq. He said how unfortunate it was that the moment of the kill was depicted as a "heroic act" in entertainment. How video games, for example, encourage that "shooting without hesitation" reflex-challenge. Hassan suggested when an enemy avatar is killed on screen, perhaps a half hour depiction of the actual bleeding and dying should be integrated into the experience to remind the player of the reality of death.

Hassan shared that he had once had a revealing half-hour conversation with a U.S. soldier (which I am paraphrasing). "If you saw me on a street in Iraq would it be likely you would kill me if you did not know me?" he asked of him. The soldier said "Yes." "After this half hour conversation, would it be likely you would kill me?" he then asked of the soldier. "No," the soldier replied. "Why not?" "Because we have gotten to know each other." "Even if your officer ordered you to kill me?" "No," the soldier insisted. "I know you now." Hassan found this quite remarkable. That in half an hour of conversation, what he called "18 years of training for violence" was dismantled. This was undoubtedly a strong incentive for Hassan to join forces with The People's Journey and extend himself for more of those "half hour disclosing conversations." Clearly, Hassan is doing all he can, too, to reduce the troubling buffer zones of his fellow Americans. He, as Stieber, exhibit a special serenity, patience and earnestness in advocating peace.

Pam Bailey of Peace Action was the third participant of this forum. A tall, attractive woman. Articulate, no nonsense and at the same time very passionate and emotional about the plight of Gazans. At one point early on during her talk I thought to myself, if I were in trouble I'd sure want a Pam Bailey fighting on my behalf. Bailey had contacted Josh Stieber to join forces with the People's Journey so it would include a peace perspective for the people of Gaza. Ms. Bailey is now also chaperoning two young female students from Gaza on this tour. Since they were unable to attend Friday night, Ms. Bailey shared her story and perspective.

Bailey had recently lived in Gaza for five months or so. It is not easy for “internationals” to spend time in Gaza, she confided. She gave up a lucrative corporate job to do humanitarian work for Gaza. She decided to become more than an “intellectual” liberal, and to walk the spiritual walk. She managed to get over there and fell in love with the people, and embraced first hand the horrifying restrictions on that comparatively tiny population of people collectively being punished by Israel.

Bailey stressed how the United States is profoundly responsible for what is happening to the Gazans both financially and politically. Our unconditional support of Israel against UN sanctions (40 vetoes so far), our $3 billion a year support for military weaponry when Ms. Bailey points out Israel is the eighth largest exporter of weaponry in the world? The over-the-top pro-Israel bias, especially of our lobbied Congress and administration.

Again, as all three speakers stressed, if only citizens of the world could experience their commonality as human beings hostility against “specter enemies” would dissipate. But sadly, Ms. Bailey pointed out that the Gazans are profoundly isolated from the international community and even the citizens of Israel. The Israeli government keeps them in their open-air prison and prevents the natural acculturation that would occur with communal integration. This separation beefs up the spirit of tribalism and nationalism of many Israeli people. It seems to justify for them the Gazans being forced to live a subsistent ghetto life.

Palestinians are a wonderful, resilient people, Bailey asserted. But so few can appreciate this. She flashed a picture of a sweet faced, bright-dark-eyed little girl across the screen. She is painfully thin, Ms. Bailey explained and added the little girl had ceased talking after she was awakened one morning in her little bedroom when Israeli commandos drove the family from its home. No warning. The ugly right of might, apparently.

Ms. Bailey said she and some internationals while they were there took the family back to visit their empty homestead at one point. The family was so excited just to see it, maybe take heart there was hope to return to it, they had a picnic of gratitude and celebration in spite of the ominous presence of the nearby watchtowers. Soon after, that one home, their dear empty homestead, was bulldozed completely. Specifically singled out from the rest. Ms. Bailey showed the pictures. A zero tolerance message sent. Zero tolerance for hope?

She showed a picture of two charismatic looking male teens whom she declared were her best friends over there. She had wanted them to join her on the tour. They wanted to dream of someday leaving Gaza but did not believe it could happen. They don't even know what an escalator is Bailey mentioned. This seemed a startling but human revelation amidst Ms. Bailey's summary. Can any of us imagine their limitations, she asked. To not even have a hope of some day seeing the world? Bailey tried hard to get them visas. Apparently the US and Czechoslovakia are the only two countries that demand in-person interviews to acquire a visa, no videoconferencing. The boys would have had to go to Tel Aviv to apply. They are not be allowed to go to Tel Aviv.

The blockade of Gaza has been in effect for 3 years now, she told us. 34% of Gazans live under the poverty level. 67% of the population is under 18 years of age. There are power outages 8-12 hours each day. 90% of the water is unsafe to drink. More and more restrictions are placed on the people. The most fertile wheat fields were confiscated recently. What self-supporting outlets are available to the Gazans are steadily being ripped away.

The Gazans are informed of a change in rules and new restrictions by suddenly having live ammunition showered on them, as was done to earnest, hard-working women bent over the wheat fields one day recently. In the West Bank rubber bullets and tear gas are used (though as we have heard, those canisters are viciously aimed) but in Gaza, live ammo is used. Ms. Bailey said while she was there she had to watch one Gazan bleed to death before her eyes.

Ms. Bailey explained that those infamous rockets sent against Israel are no longer sent. The ones the entire 1.5 million population is being punished for. And the population does exercise non-violent protest. Ignored by Israel. Unseen by the rest of the world, especially America.

She showed pictures of incredible artwork made from broken glass of destroyed infrastructures done by one artisan. Artwork that would be highly marketable if the man could participate in Israel's nearby commerce or even beyond. The Gazans live on humanitarian aid and if not for the tunnels would starve to death, Bailey asserted, but they don't want to live on aid. They are proud and talented and want to be self supporting. It is the blockade that needs to end. They appreciate the massive amounts of humanitarian aid the flotilla freedom workers attempt to bring them. But they want OPEN borders. By the way, Ms. Bailey stressed, they were horrified and heartbroken by the deaths and woundings of those humanitarian activists on international waters on May 31st.

Ms. Bailey ended her talk by encouraging Americans to not stay silent about the Gazan situation. She said she knew, often, people did not want to emotionally inconvenience their Jewish friends bringing it up. But she said it is a matter of morality. She encouraged us to write letters to the editors when bias is evident in their reporting. To contact our Congress, assert what pressure we can.

I shook hands with each speaker and expressed my gratitude for their consciousness raising, their courage and inspiring examples. As I made my way toward the Broadway subway terminal, I thought of the first two lines of the Serenity Prayer. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, and the courage to change the things I can." Clearly these committed peace activists have an extra measure of courage to change the things they can.

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