Amman – The city of Amman, Jordan, is awash with numerous colorful signs that proclaim independence, "Istiklal." The word is found on posters and placards in store windows. It names a major thoroughfare, a hospital and a shopping center. Appreciation for independence is palpable, and this could be said for numerous cities and towns throughout the region, including Iraq, where past struggles for independence are commemorated by naming buildings and streets "Istiklal." It reflects the love of independence and the longing for it.
But independence is elusive in a region suffering multiple wars and occupations. Particularly in Iraq, it’s hard to imagine an independent society growing up amid the violent wreckage of economic sanctions, US bombardment and staggering corruption.
A struggle to seek independence from war and violence in Iraq, using nonviolent means, may seem even less viable, but that’s the mission of a sturdy network, called "La Onf," (the Arabic translation for the word nonviolence). The group now has chapters at work in all but two of Iraq’s 13 governorates. Each chapter chooses its own focus, and then explores how they might develop nonviolent problem solving. Last month, I had a chance to be part of a meeting between workers in the Amman office of the organization and representatives of Peaceful Tomorrows, a network of family members of 9/11 victims, determined by their horror and loss to pursue alternatives everywhere to the violence that claimed the lives of their loved ones. At the end of our meeting, the La Onf organization celebrated a modest yet solid accomplishment: One of the chapters, working in the south of Iraq, convinced governing authorities in the Muthanna province to issue a law banning the import and sale of war t oys and fireworks throughout the governorate.
Proponents of the ruling believe young Iraqis have seen enough guns. But more than this, the La Onf workers believe their children are themselves seen by too many American soldiers for it to be safe for them to have toy guns – children have been shot often enough in Iraq for looking too dangerous to soldiers – and the La Onf workers can tell you the stories of festive family gatherings turned to scenes of bloody havoc when US military personnel have mistaken celebratory fireworks for threatening attacks. The real guns, the real explosives of the invaders – our guns and explosives – have proven to Iraqis that war is no game.
"We are too often self-censoring," says my friend Ciaron O’Reilly, reflecting on our responsibility to ban weapons. "We think we can’t do much, so we do nothing at all." Ciaron was speaking at a May 13, 2008, celebration following the acquittal of nine Irish activists who entered a Raytheon weapon manufacturing plant in Derry, Ireland, and damaged the corporation’s computers. Ciaron and four companions had set a precedent for this kind of action when, in 2003, shortly before the then-imminent US attack against Iraq, they entered a hangar in Shannon airport and, using mallets, did 2.5 million dollars worth of damage to a US Navy warplane. A Dublin jury, in 2006, acquitted him and his fellow "Pitstop Ploughshares" because, as they noted, they were taking steps to prevent a crime and save lives.
Like the Pitstop Ploughshares, the Raytheon defendants in Derry insisted throughout their trial they had acted to prevent the commission of war crimes. They knew the Israeli Defense Forces had used Raytheon’s bunker-buster bomb to attack civilians living in the village of Qana, Lebanon, during the summer of 2006.
As part of preparation for their trial, they traveled to Lebanon and met with the families whose loved ones were killed by Raytheon’s bunker-buster.
In a statement following the trial, they dedicated their victory to the Shaloub and Hasheem families of Qana, who lost 28 of their closest relatives on July 30, 2006, all sheltered in a building they knew normal bombardment wouldn’t bring down.
It happened that I and several Voices for Creative Nonviolence members were in Qana two weeks after the attack, once a ceasefire had, with agonizing delay, been signed. We had heard of the massacre in Qana, and we felt it was essential to document. And so we went, and we sat with those Shaloub and Hasheem families during their funeral commemorations for their lost children. From my notes for that day:
Umm Zaynab asked a child to bring the stack of newspapers and magazines. "Here," she said, carefully sorting through the pile, "this is Zaynab." Zaynab is a little girl. Photo after photo shows Zaynab held aloft, lifeless, by a strong, helmeted relief worker who is seen shouting to heaven his shock and terrible awe.
Next to her in the shelter was her friend, Zahara. The girls show few outward signs of injury or mutilation: The force of the explosion seems to have destroyed their internal organs, with little outward trauma, as they slept in each other’s arms. They never woke up.
Next, she placed in our hands a framed picture of Zaynab, a curly-headed little girl with huge dark eyes, posing seriously for the camera. One can only imagine what her smile would look like. "Who are the terrorists?" whispered Umm Zayneb to me, showing me the photographs of her daughter. Her eyes held mine as she answered her own question. I heard her say, "Bush," before Farah translated, "She is saying that Zayneb and the children aren’t the terrorists. She says the real terrorists are the ones who kill children."
The Derry defendants, along with the jury which acquitted them, seem to have agreed, as one reports:
"The jury has accepted that we were reasonable in our belief that the Israel Defense Forces were guilty of war crimes in Lebanon in the summer of 2006; that the Raytheon company, including its facility in Derry, was aiding and abetting the commission of these crimes; and that the action we took was intended to have, and did have, the effect of hampering or delaying the commission of war crimes. We have been vindicated…. We believe that one day the world will look back on the arms trade as we look back today on the slave trade, and wonder how it came about that such evil could abound in respectable society. If we have advanced, by a mere moment, the day when the arms trade is put beyond the law, what we have done will have been worthwhile." (www.indymedia.ie )
The arms trade is, as the slave trade was, a crime against independence: The weapons are used to coerce, to enslave, to terrorize. Terror and death, death of innocents, death of children, are the obvious staple of both trades for this very reason. And Americans pride themselves as defenders of freedom, and opponents of slavery.
On July 4th, in cities and towns across the US, people will gather to watch fireworks and remember "The rockets’ red glare" and celebrate Independence Day with pantomime explosions, and the deafening, mounting concussions of the like, that in Amman, in Iraq and in a myriad places around our globe, people need no help remembering. And a friend reminds me that 150 years ago, 150 years exactly to the day come this coming September 11, President Lincoln publicly asked, "What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence?"
"… It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling sea coasts, the guns of our war steamers, or the strength of our gallant and disciplined army. These are not our reliance against a resumption of tyranny in our fair land: all of them may be turned against our liberties, without making us stronger or weaker for the struggle. Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in our bosoms: our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, every where. Destroy this spirit, and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors."
Of course, our weapons destroy this spirit. If we think about it, if we think of how they are used time and time again, we realize that’s simply what they’re for. Imagine if, on this Independence Day, we could celebrate the spirit of independence, that love of liberty which becomes its opposite if we only love our own: we must celebrate and yearn for everyone’s independence: We must call for it: call for Istiklal. We may do so quietly, privately to ourselves, if among those who would not understand, or publicly and insistently if we wish, in doing so, to stand for independence and our own right not to kill.
In independence’s name we must ask, when is that day "the world will look back on the arms trade as we look back today on the slave trade," the day when the arms trade is put beyond the law? When is the day when we and the leaders who act in our name will allow Istiklal and independence in every other language of this world to flourish? When is the day when "they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and nation shall not rise up against nation, neither shall they study war any more?"
This July 4th, we must all ask, when, at long last, is Independence Day?