Chasing Tanks

Structural Adjustment…Free Trade…Collateral Damage…Enemies of Freedom… Axis of Evil…These are only a few of the many words and phrases that have become a part of our North American lexicon. Another equally Orwellian term I have often heard is “Tank Chaser”, used to describe peace activists who engage in direct action, standing in the way of armoured jeeps, tanks, bulldozers and other military vehicles in the midst of a conflict. One of the more famous examples was 23 year-old Rachel Corrie from Olympia, Washington who was crushed by a giant D-9 bulldozer in front of a Palestinian home in March 2003. The residence was scheduled for demolition by the Israeli military in the Gaza Strip refugee camp of Rafah. While there were memorials and vigils in honor of the slain International Solidarity Movement activist, a number of statements, cartoons and articles also appeared referring to Rachel as naïve, a tank chaser and an idiot.

I began to ask a few questions: how did the idea of “tank chaser” gain such a negative connotation? What kind of a world do we live in that we have come to see this form of commitment as something to be ashamed of? First of all, there appear to be numerous assumptions about international activists:

-They refuse to immerse themselves in local, often less provocative issues, choosing the “sexier” struggle on foreign soil. Misfits at home, but suddenly relevant to a people being oppressed far away.

-Confrontation is the preferred choice of resistance. Internationals have no patience for diplomacy, negotiation or other elements of a struggle that do not involve rock throwing or being dragged by soldiers.

-Those involved in international activism –particularly if under 30 years of age- have no capability of understanding the history of the region in question or the nuances of the conflict; therefore they cannot be an effective part of resistance.

Even within the alternative, progressive press several articles have appeared that question international activists who involve themselves directly in struggles for justice. (Most notably Mother Jones, Sep-Oct 2003). My limited experience as an activist contradicts the above list of lazy stereotypes, as I have worked with a diverse group of people, ranging from students to nurses to teachers to business owners, demonstrating a humbling level of commitment to both international and local issues. By making these blanket statements perhaps we are just rationalising our own inaction and ensuring that we are not touched by issues outside our own borders. I wonder if, in some way, we are saying that military occupation, invasions and incursions are something we should learn to live with. Hopefully not. I’d like to think that our notions of justice and solidarity have not become so bent out of shape. Eduardo Galeano, in his work from 2002 titled “Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking Glass World”, gives us many examples of how the world has been turned on its head, and laments what remains:

The century has turned. What world has it left us? A desolate, de-souled world that practices the superstitious worship of machines and the idolatry of arms, an upside-down world with its left on its right, its belly button on its backside, and its head where its feet should be.

The words of Bertrand Russell resonate here as well:

Our world has sprouted a weird concept of security and a warped sense of morality. Weapons are sheltered like treasures and children are exposed to incineration.

There are many haunting images that illustrate the twisted nature of our world, such as the Tiananmen Square confrontation or the Palestinian boy with his arm raised, both people squarely in a tank’s path. Or who can forget the Greenpeace zodiac, set against huge whaling ships in the open ocean? Closer to home, we were inundated with footage from the APEC and WTO protests that many in North America were a part of. These scenes demonstrate graphically that the playing field is anything but level when it comes to resistance and empire. They also demonstrate the need for “tank chasers” and “eco-terrorists” when other avenues of protest go unheard. Such labels are used to camouflage the level of absurdity that these images reveal, and, unfortunately, it is too often a successful tactic because of our collective reluctance to engage in any critical thinking.

The term “tank chaser” also falsely indicates that one needs to search out military vehicles in order to confront them. Typically, activists are present in a community where there is heavy military activity, or are notified of an incursion, then respond based on direction from local leadership. Ambulances and medical relief personnel (local heroes as far as I’m concerned) do follow Israeli armoured personnel carriers during incursions into refugee camps, sadly anticipating civilian casualties. If that is tank chasing, then we need more of it.

Those who stand up against military machinery are a part of something urgent, something relevant, worlds away from standing in a theatre line-up to see Michael Moore’s latest offering. (No disrespect intended, Mr. Moore) So, on a very practical level “tank chasing” is similar to becoming a vegetarian or getting involved in local politics. It’s a way of saying, albeit in a loud voice, that the world is not the way it should be.

So…how can someone be seen -often by their own people- as a fool or an idiot, while their revered image covers walls in refugee camps and occupied towns halfway around the world? Are we in North America that far removed from the struggles outside our borders? Are things really so upside down, so twisted? Is it more acceptable to wait in long queues for Krispy Kreme donuts than to block logging trucks in the heart of an old growth forest? Is it okay to sit with friends in front of our big-screen plasma televisions but not okay to stand, arms locked together in front of a bulldozer as it demolishes a village? That these questions are even being raised suggests that a new generation of tank chasers, human shields and eco-terrorists is needed.

This is not just about Rachel Corrie and others who have lost their lives in the struggle for human rights. This is equally about reclaiming language and asking questions of what we read. But isn’t it getting tough to ask such questions? The mainstream media is becoming more concentrated and frivolous, yet somehow angrier as well. In an age when many of us fail to look beyond what we see through the glass window of a roadside newspaper dispenser, our words need to have meaning.


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