Confronting Our Toxic Legacy

Editor’s Note: Chicago-based journalist Robert Koehler’s articles are intuitively Girardian. While he may not write specifically about mimetic theory, his articles demonstrate the contagious nature of violence, and more importantly, inspire hope in the contagious power of compassion. We are honored to feature his articles every Thursday.

Maybe if we declared “war” on poison water, we’d find a way to invest money in its “defeat.”

David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, writing at Tom Dispatch this week about what they called “The United States of Flint,” make this point: “The price tag for replacing the lead pipes that contaminated its drinking water, thanks to the corrosive toxins found in the Flint River, is now estimated at up to $1.5 billion. No one knows where that money will come from or when it will arrive. In the meantime, the cost to the children of Flint has been and will be incalculable.”

I sit with these words: “No one knows where the money will come from.”

In the president’s latest budget proposal, $7.5 billion is earmarked to “fight ISIS,” an absurd non-threat to the nation’s survival, but no matter. We’re engaged in endless war with whoever the latest enemy happens to be and this war is endlessly funded, no questions asked. Mostly we’re engaged in war preparation, of course (and the containment of the consequences of past wars — at least the ones that can’t be ignored). As usual, the Pentagon and other war-engaged institutions will consume well over half the nation’s discretionary spending, including a $59 billion “slush fund that permits the Pentagon to break through Congress’ legislated budget caps,” according to the National Priorities Project.

But the children (and adults) of Flint remain vulnerable to contaminated water and no one knows where the money will come from to replace its decrepit water pipes, which started leaching lead into the water supply after officials used chlorine to deal with the biological contaminants that invaded the city’s water after an austerity decision was made to draw water from the heavily polluted Flint River.

And Flint just happens to be the place drawing media attention right now. Millions of people across the country and around the world remain vulnerable to our legacy of industrial — and military — pollution.

And mostly they’re people of color, suffering from what is appropriately called environmental racism: “the fact that sewage treatment plants, municipal landfills and illegal dumps, garbage transfer stations, incinerators, smelters and other hazardous waste sites inevitably are sited in the backyard of the poor,” as David J. Krajicek wrote recently at AlterNet, citing the work of Dr. Robert D. Bullard.

Tick, tick, tick. This is the threat we face: toxic soil, water and air, our legacy of two centuries of industrial ignorance and recklessness, combined with something even worse: militarism and the arrogance of empire. The U.S. military is the largest and worst polluter on Planet Earth, leaving radioactive dust and an all sorts of other toxins in the wake of its disastrous adventures, including unexploded land mines and cluster bombs, and, for good measure, severe desertification across Iraq.

Its unregulated pollution has spread cancer, birth defects, neurological diseases and other horrific illnesses among friend and foe alike. U.S. nuclear testing has devastated both the American Southwest and the Marshall Islands of the South Pacific, and its 1,300 abandoned uranium mines continue to cause health problems for the Navajo people of Arizona and New Mexico.

Toxic burn pits, depleted uranium, Agent Orange, canisters of mustardgas dumped in the ocean — this is the “greatness” America’s military apologists tend not to talk about. Combine this with the legacy of the private industrial sector and its abandoned rust-belt cities and what we have is a nation in panic, gasping for breath.

“In truth,” Rosner and Markowitz write, “the United States has scores of ‘Flints’ awaiting their moments. Think of them as ticking toxic time bombs — just an austerity scheme or some official’s poor decision away from a public health disaster. Given this, it’s remarkable, even in the wake of Flint, how little attention or publicity such threats receive. Not surprisingly, then, there seems to be virtually no political will to ensure that future generations of children will not suffer the same fate as those in Flint.”

Certainly part of this lack of political will is racism — one more monstrous manifestation of it. Another part is no doubt the ongoing denial of our toxic legacy, creating a situation in which polluted regions do not exist — at least in the consciousness of politicians, military bureaucrats and corporate elitists — until the effects are so undeniable, as they are in Flint, that they have to be addressed in some minimal, face-saving way.

Meanwhile, we waste more than half our annual national budget developing weapons, preparing for and waging useless wars and, in the process, creating not just future enemies but environmental hell for millions of people.

This is “the way things are” but I don’t think it’s the way most people want them to be. How on earth do we find the “political will” to change — indeed, reverse — this situation?

The PR ploy of militarism is that it’s how we as a nation think and act in a big way. We uproot terrorists. We topple dictators. We bring democracy to Iraq. As a metaphor, “war” is our way of coping with drugs and cancer and crime. We confront evil and, in the process, become the good guys. We budget more than half a trillion dollars a year to maintain this illusion of ourselves.

What if we actually invested a serious portion of our budget in a cause that mattered? I don’t really believe we should pretend to go to war against toxic water. War is a limited — in my view, stupid — concept. We lose every war we fight. War always creates unintended consequences of monstrous proportions, which dwarf its strategic aims. But thinking big and standing up to a profound threat makes sense and has political cred.

What if we decided to rescue the children of Flint — indeed, rescue every child in this country — from the dangers of lead poison and industrial pollution and poverty? What if we stared directly at the ticking time bomb of climate change and environmental collapse and regrouped as a nation around a determination not to let this happen?

Instead of thoughtlessly budgeting our own demise, what if we found the political will to reprioritize the national budget and reclaim the future?

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.


Image:  Skull and Crossbones via Wikimedia. Public Domain.

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Cam Newton, the Super Bowl, and Racist Stereotypes Against a Black Quarterback

The NFL has made the Super Bowl into a week-long event, starting with “opening night” on Monday where the media are invited to ask questions to players. The event is largely playful as it “has become less about football and more about the eccentric in recent years, with costumes, props and bizarre questions filling the mass media availability session.”

But one question in particular dealt with race. This year’s Super Bowl pits one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, Peyton Manning, who happens to be white, against another quarterback who could become even greater than Manning, Cam Newton, who happens to be black.

Indeed, there are racial undertones heading into the Super Bowl. Newton has become a lightning rod for criticism. He has been criticized for smiling, dancing, and even wearing a towel over his head. White people have debated whether that criticism stems from racism or from Newton’s excessive celebration.

But here’s where the underlying racism came to the fore on Super Bowl’s opening night. The question reminded me that despite any excitement for the actual game, a shadow has been cast over this year’s Super Bowl. And that is the shadow of racism in the form of white superiority. One reporter asked Newton about his legacy as a black quarterback. He responded by saying,

I don’t want to even touch on the topic of black quarterback because I think this game is bigger than black, white, or even green … I don’t think I should be labeled as just a black quarterback because there are bigger things in this sport that need to be accomplished.

That answer wasn’t good enough for another reporter, who pressed the topic of Newton being a black quarterback.

Reporter: Why don’t you want to elaborate on it? It’s a big issue.

Newton: No it’s not.

Reporter: The stereotype that a mobile black quarterback cannot throw in the pocket effectively … you don’t think …

Newton: I think we shattered that a long time ago.

Reporter: You really believe that? Why don’t you back it up and say something?

Newton: Why should I back it up?

Reporter: Because you brought up the topic and it’s still an issue.

Newton: It’s not an issue. It’s an issue for you.

And with that comment, Cam Newton held up a mirror to white America and the racism that infects us.

Now, we might think this was just a crazy reporter, but his question points to the fact that the stereotype does exist. Let’s be clear, the question is not just a stereotypes; the question is based on racism that infects sports. The idea that black quarterbacks are valuable because they are mobile (which really means athletic), not because they can throw in the pocket (which really means skilled), is part of a much larger racist narrative in sports. It’s the same narrative that claims Serena Williams is a great tennis player because she is “powerful,” but is actually “less thoughtful” and “less strategic” than her white opponents. But like Cam Newton, Serena dominates her sport because she is powerful and smart.

Newton’s response to the reporter was brilliant. After all, the racist stereotype was shattered 26 years ago! In 1990 Randall Cunningham threw for 30 touchdowns, 3,466 yards, and ran for 942 yards – which combined for an NFL record until 2006.

But racist stereotypes are hard to break. A white reporter demanding that a black quarterback answer for white stereotypes against black quarterbacks points to the power structures of racism in American culture. Black people must answer for racism? Really?

Fortunately, Newton refused to play the game. That’s because he knows it’s not his issue. It was the reporter’s issue. It’s white America’s issue.

Underlying the hostility against Newton for his smile, his dancing, his success, and even the towel over his head is a deep sense of resentment. Resentment stems from a desire for what another person has. One such desire is for a sense of superiority.

Much of white America wants to know that we are superior. We become resentful when we lose that sense of superiority to another. This dynamic plays out on the football field like this – black athletes dominate the sport. For white people to maintain a sense of superiority, we want to believe that the most important position in American sports – the quarterback – belongs to us.

So, for much of white America, when a black quarterback becomes successful, we become resentful. We start making excuses that confirm our superiority. Like the reporter, we assume Cam Newton isn’t successful because he’s actually good at being a quarterback. He’s not a “pure” quarterback like our boy Peyton Manning. He certainly can’t “pass in the pocket.” No, he’s successful because he is powerful, athletic, and aggressive!

Newton is right. That’s a false narrative that he doesn’t have to answer for. The truth is that Newton is powerful. He is skilled. He is an amazing quarterback. And any hatred or resentment against him is not his issue. He doesn’t have to answer for the racist stereotypes of white America that were shattered long ago. In fact, no answer he could give would be good enough to dismantle that stereotype.

ESPN commentator Bomani Jones stated that, “Cam can’t shatter the stereotype because every time somebody shatters the stereotype you put the damn thing back together … Cam is not responsible for shattering the stereotype. The people who put it out there, they are responsible.”

Jones is talking to white America. We are the ones who put the damn stereotype back together every time it’s shattered. That’s our issue to answer for, not Cam Newton’s issue. We are the ones responsible for shattering the racist stereotypes that infect not just football, but all of American culture.

Photo: Cam Newton at a press conference. Screenshot from YouTube.


Seeing Flight as a Non-violent Option: One Way to Change the Discourse about the World’s 60 Million Refugees

Editor’s Note: Kathy Kelly and her colleagues are peacemakers who travel to some of the world’s deadliest or most impoverished places. Kathy herself has been to prison numerous times for nonviolently resisting the United States Empire. While mimetic theory may not be mentioned explicitly in the articles that Kathy Kelly submits on behalf of herself and her friends, the articles she shares with the Raven Foundation give voice to the victims of the policies of the United States and her allies. Amplifying the voices of victims, exposing our entanglement with sacrificial systems of violence, and working for nonviolent resolution to conflict and reconciliation among all parties are among our primary goals at Raven, and we are honored to have Kathy and her colleagues share their stories of peacemaking and nonviolent advocacy for justice on our site.

This article, originally published by originally published by politicalviolenceataglance ( Political Violence at a Glance) on January 26, 2016, was written by By Erica Chenoweth and Hakim Young for Denver Dialogues.

In Brussels, more than 1,200 people protest against Europe’s unwillingness to do more about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, April 23rd, 2015. By Amnesty International.

Today, one in every 122 humans living on the planet is a refugee, an internally displaced person, or an asylum-seeker. In 2014, conflict and persecution forced a staggering 42,500 persons per day to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere, resulting in 59.5 million total refugees worldwide. According to the UN refugee agency’s 2014 Global Trends report (tellingly entitled World at War), developing countries hosted 86% of these refugees. Developed countries,  such as the U.S. and those in Europe, host only 14% of the world’s total share of refugees.

Yet public sentiment in the West has been tough on refugees lately. Resurgent populist and nationalist leaders routinely play to public anxieties about refugees as “lazy opportunists,” “burdens,” “criminals,” or “terrorists” in response to today’s refugee crisis. Mainstream parties aren’t immune to this rhetoric either, with politicians of all stripes calling for increased border controls, detention centers, and the temporary suspension of visa and asylum applications.

Importantly, none of these panicky characterizations of refugees is born out by systematic evidence.

Are Refugees Economic Opportunists?

The most reliable empirical studies of refugee movements suggest that the primary cause of flight is violence—not economic opportunity. Mainly, refugees are fleeing war in hopes of landing in a less violent situation. In conflicts where the government actively targets civilians in the context of genocide or politicide, most people choose to leave the country rather than seek out safe havens internally. Surveys bear out this reality in today’s crisis. In Syria, one of the world’s major producers of refugees in the last five years, survey results suggest that most civilians are fleeing because the country has simply become too dangerous or that government forces took over their towns, placing most of the blame on the horrific politicidal violence of Assad’s regime. (Only 13% say they fled because rebels took over their towns, suggesting that ISIS’s violence is not nearly as much a source of flight as some have suggested).

And refugees rarely choose their destinations based on economic opportunity; instead, 90% of refugees go to a country with a contiguous border (thus explaining the concentration of Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq). Those that do not stay in a neighboring country tend to flee to countries where they have existing social ties. Given that they are typically fleeing for their lives, the data suggest that most refugees think about economic opportunity as an afterthought rather than as a motivation for flight. That said, when they arrive at their destinations, refugees tend to be exceedingly industrious, with cross-national studies suggesting that they are rarely burdensome for national economies.

In today’s crisis, “Many of the people arriving by sea in southern Europe, particularly in Greece, come from countries affected by violence and conflict, such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan; they are in need of international protection and they are often physically exhausted and psychologically traumatized, ” states World at War.

Who’s Afraid of the “Big Bad Refugee”?

In terms of security threats, refugees are far less likely to commit crimes than natural-born citizens. In fact, writing in the Wall Street Journal, Jason Riley evaluates data on the link between immigration and crime in the United States and calls the correlation a “myth.” Even in Germany, which has absorbed the highest number of refugees since 2011, crime rates by refugees have not increased. Violent attacks on refugees, on the other hand, have doubled. This suggests that refugees do not post a problem for security; instead, they require protection against violent threats themselves. Moreover, refugees (or those who claim to be refugees) are highly unlikely to plan terror attacks. And given that at least 51% of current refugees are children, like Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee who famously drowned in the Mediterranean sea last summer, it is probably premature to preordain them as fanatics, troublemakers, or social rejects.

Moreover, refugee-vetting processes are exceedingly stringent in many countries—with the U.S. having among the most stringent refugee policies in the world—thereby precluding many of the adverse outcomes feared by critics of status quo refugee policies. Although such processes do not guarantee that all potential threats are excluded, they mitigate the risk considerably, as demonstrated by the paucity of violent crimes and terror attacks committed by refugees in the past thirty years.

A Broken System or A Broken Narrative?

Speaking about the current refugee crisis in Europe, Jan Egeland, the former UN Humanitarian Envoy who now heads the Norwegian Refugee Council, said, “The system is totally broken…We cannot continue this way.” But the system probably won’t mend as long as broken narratives dominate the discourse. What if we introduced a fresh discourse, which dispels the myths about refugees and equips the public to contest existing discourse with a more compassionate narrative about the way one becomes a refugee in the first place?

Consider the choice to flee instead of stay and fight or stay and die. Many of the 59.5 million refugees left in the crossfires between states and other armed actors—such as the Syrian government’s politicide and violence among a wide variety of rebel groups operating within Syria; Syria, Russia, Iraq, Iran, and NATO’s war against ISIS; Afghanistan and Pakistan’s wars against the Taliban; the on-going U.S. campaign against Al Qaeda; Turkey’s wars against Kurdish militias; and a multitude of other violent contexts around the world.

Given the choice between staying and fighting, staying and dying, or fleeing and surviving, today’s refugees fled—meaning that, by definition, they actively and purposefully chose a non-violent option in the context of mass violence raging all around them.

In other words, today’s global landscape of 59.5 million refugees is mainly a collection of people who have chosen the only available non-violent pathway out of their conflict environments. In many respects, today’s 60 million refugees have said no to violence, no to victimization, and no to helplessness at the same time. The decision to flee to strange and (often hostile) foreign lands as a refugee is not a light one. It involves taking significant risks, including the risk of death. For example, the UNHCR estimated that 3,735 refugees were dead or missing at sea while seeking refuge in Europe in 2015. Contrary to contemporary discourse, being a refugee ought to be synonymous with non-violence, courage, and agency.

Of course, an individual’s non-violent choice at one time does not necessarily predetermine that individual’s non-violent choice at a later juncture. And like many large mass assemblages, it is inevitable that a handful of people will cynically exploit the global movement of refugees to pursue their own criminal, political, social, or ideological aims on the fringes—either by concealing themselves in the masses to cross borders to commit violent acts abroad, by taking advantage of the political polarization of migration politics to promote their own agendas, or by extorting these people for their own criminal purposes. Among any population this size, there will be criminal activity here and there, refugee or not.

But in today’s crisis, it will be essential for people of good faith everywhere to resist the urge to ascribe nefarious motivations to the millions of people seeking haven in their countries, because of the violent or criminal actions of a few. The latter group does not represent the general statistics on refugees identified above, nor do they negate the fact that refugees are generally people who, in the context of truly dislocating violence, made a life-altering, non-violent choice to act for themselves in a way that cast them and their families into uncertain futures. Once they arrive, on average the threat of violence against the refugee is much greater than the threat of violence by the refugee. Shunning them, detaining them as if they were criminals, or deporting them to war-torn environments sends a message that non-violent choices are punished—and that submitting to victimization or turning to violence are the only choices left. This is a situation that calls for policies that embody compassion, respect, protection, and welcome—not fear, dehumanization, exclusion, or revulsion.

Seeing flight as a non-violent option will better equip the informed public to contest exclusionary rhetoric and policies, elevate a new discourse that empowers more moderate politicians, and widen the range of policy options available to respond to the current crisis.

Hakim Young (Dr. Teck Young, Wee) is a medical doctor from Singapore who has done humanitarian and social enterprise work in Afghanistan for the past 10 years, including being a mentor to the Afghan Peace Volunteers, an inter-ethnic group of young Afghans dedicated to building non-violent alternatives to war.


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Nonviolent Resistance in the South Hebron Hills

Editor’s Note: This article, written by Cassandra Dixon, was submitted via contributing Raven author Kathy Kelly.

The worst worries of a child’s school day should be homework. Maybe a lost book, or an argument with a friend. No child’s walk to school should routinely involve armed soldiers and fear of sometimes being chased and assaulted by angry adults. But for the Palestinian children who live with their families in the small rural villages that make up the South Hebron Hills, this is how the school day begins. Illegal settlements and outposts isolate and separate their villages and soldiers are a constant in their lives.

Once, the trip from the tiny hamlet of Tuba to the school in the village of Tuwani was a calm and beautiful walk along a quiet road connecting the two villages. During the l980s Israeli settlers built a settlement on privately owned Palestinian land, which had been used to graze sheep and goats. Following construction of the settlement, the settlers established an illegal outpost. Now, industrial chicken barns sit astride the road that once served children walking to school, farmers taking livestock to town, and families traveling to Tuwani, or the larger town of Yatta for health care, shopping, and higher education.

Between the settlement and the outpost, what remains of the road is closed to Palestinians. With one exception, – children walk behind an Israeli military jeep to reach their school. Their parents are not allowed to walk with them.

The twenty or so children who make this trip start their school day in an unprotected field, anxiously waiting for the Israeli soldiers who will oversee their walk to school. Villagers had built shelters in which the children could await the soldiers, but Israeli authorities have dismantled every shelter. If it is raining, the children get soaked. Some days the soldiers are the same soldiers who chased or arrested shepherds the day before – shepherds who may be the brothers or fathers of these children.  Some days the soldiers are late, leaving the group of children waiting, vulnerable to attack and within easy reach of the outpost.  Some days the military escort does not arrive at all, and the children make the trip to school with international volunteers along a longer path, which also lies alongside the settlement.

About 1,000 people live in the neighboring villages, an estimated half of whom are children. Nevertheless, because the villages lie inside of Israeli Firing Zone 918, the military uses the land for military training.

Amazingly, despite all of this, it is almost unheard of for children to miss a day of school. Parents are determined that their children will be educated. When I began volunteering in Tuwani, the school reached only to third grade. Now thanks to the community’s determination to provide their children with education, students can complete high school in the village, and although facing a continued threat of demolition by Israeli military bulldozers, villagers have built and staffed primary schools for children who live in 8 nearby villages.

This is what nonviolent resistance to military occupation looks like.

I’m grateful that I can spend a portion of this year in Palestine. For many years children in these villages have taught me about nonviolence. Sometimes, the presence of international human rights workers holding cameras has some small positive effect on their days.

U.S. people bear some responsibility for the interruption of their childhoods. The U. S. subsidizes about 25% of Israel’s military budget, at a cost to U.S. taxpayers conservatively estimated at $3.1 billion a year.

I’m working with the Italian organization Operation Dove.

They support Palestinians who resist the Israeli occupation, standing with families in their commitment to remain on their land.  This includes accompanying school children and farm families as they walk to school, graze their animals and tend their crops. Operation Dove helps document the harassment, intimidation, arrests, detentions, home demolitions, checkpoints, road closures, military training exercises, and settler attacks. Villagers also report to Operation Dove when they endure theft and when their crops and property are destroyed.

Protective presence provided by activists is not a large-scale solution to the violence that intrudes into childrens’ lives in Palestine. But many years of visits with these families persuades me that it’s important and necessary to support and participate in the villagers’ nonviolent efforts. Families that confront militarism and occupation help us move beyond our addiction to militarism and violence.

The children I met early on are grown now. Some have gone on to college, and some have families of their own. These young people have every reason to be angry. Their childhoods included fear, intimidation, demolitions, arrests and isolation. But they have also grown up witnessing their community’s steadfast commitment to nonviolently resist injustice. Their families have supported them well, including them in the community’s struggle for dignity. Against  all odds they are growing up with humor and tenacity instead of anger and bitterness.  They are living proof to the rest of us that love wins.

To read more about Operation Dove’s work in the South Hebron Hills, visit http://www.operazionecolomba.it/togetherattuwani

Cassandra Dixon lives at Mary House of Hospitality, a small catholic worker house which offers hospitality to families visiting the federal prison at Oxford, WI, and works as a carpenter in Madison.


Photo Credit:  Cassandra Dixon

Caption:  This little girl was injured by two masked settlers who attacked her with stones as she gathered herbs with a friend on the path between Tuba and Tuwani. She and her siblings make the same trip on foot each school day. She is an amazingly smart and tough young girl – insistent that the many odd volunteers that pass through her life should learn her name and visit her family’s home. She needed four stitches in a head wound after the attack.

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Evolution: The Candidate

“And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?”

The president asked the right question in his State of the Union address last week. What if he’d actually answered it – or at least addressed it honestly?

Oh, torn heart, torn citizenship.

I find myself disconnecting from national politics in a profound way, even as the 2016 presidential race continues to transcend the media-controlled same old, same old charade of races past. The Republican presidential free-for-all is a suicidally End Times-esque spectacle the likes of which I’ve never seen. And on the other side of the divide, the Dems, thanks to Bernie Sanders, are daring to wade ankle-deep into progressive values. But it’s not enough. It’s not enough.

I simply can no longer tolerate our political inability to face the obsolescence of war and refuse to keep coddling the military-industrial profiteers and true believers.

“Priority number one,” Obama said in his address, “is protecting the American people and going after terrorist networks. . . .

“We just need to call them what they are – killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed. And that’s exactly what we’re doing. . . . With nearly 10,000 air strikes, we’re taking out their leadership, their oil, their training camps, their weapons. We’re training, arming, and supporting forces who are steadily reclaiming territory in Iraq and Syria.”

The transition is so smooth: from moral condemnation of what “they” do to a moral justification of what we do . . . no matter that what we do – my God, 10,000 air strikes, and that’s just in the last year and a half – can only be called collateral slaughter. And it doesn’t even accomplish its stated ends. The “war on terror” we’ve been waging for most of the 21st century is an unmitigated disaster, destabilizing vast regions of the world, killing and displacing millions of people, expanding terrorist organizations, but our political leaders have to keep extolling the war’s glory and moral rectitude.

Something is terribly amiss here. Everything we value in our day-to-day lives – every behavioral proscription that makes society possible, beginning with “thou shalt not kill” – transforms into its opposite on the way to becoming national policy. Maybe the problem is nationalism itself. The nation-state, as currently conceived, manifests humanity’s shadow: our hunger to dominate, to control, to act aggressively without consequence. What would be called pompous stupidity at the level of social reality becomes “greatness” at the altar of nationalism.

For instance: “. . .Washington’s war on terror strategy has already sent at least $1.6 trillion down the drain, left thousands of American troops and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Muslims dead,” Peter Van Buren writes at TomDispatch. “Along the way we lost precious freedoms to the ever-expanding national security state.”

How is it that such (relatively conservative) War on Terror data doesn’t come up in presidential debates or State of the Union addresses? How is it that, in the land of the free, in the world’s greatest democracy, so little military-industrial behavior is officially challenged? Almost no one even expects it to be challenged, even though, as Van Buren notes:

“The sum of all this activity, 14-plus years of it, has been ever more failed states and ungoverned spaces.”

Isn’t there something better we could be doing with this enormous corralling of potential called the United States of America? What we call leadership is mostly just public relations – for the military-industrial matrix, as I think of it: this secret collusion of profit and desire that is committed to nothing so much as endless war, which is mostly endless (and endlessly profitable) carnage and failure dressed up as glory.

Are we past the point where presidential candidates are allowed to stand up to war? Is the American public so frightened by the non-threat of terrorism that it would not tolerate a candidate who refuses to acquiesce to its alleged demand for multi-trillion-dollar, existential “protection”?

I don’t think so.

As the Republican Party careens (let us hope) toward permanent marginalization, perhaps the American – and global – political process will yield to a higher form of human organization.

David Korten, writing almost a decade ago in Yes! Magazine, put it this way:  “We face a defining choice between two contrasting models for organizing human affairs.” One of them, humanity’s political template for the last 5,000 or so years, he called “Empire.” The other, he called “Earth Community.”

“Empire,” he wrote, “organizes by domination at all levels, from relations among nations to relations among family members. Empire brings fortune to the few, condemns the majority to misery and servitude, suppresses the creative potential of all, and appropriates much of the wealth of human societies to maintain the institutions of domination.

“Earth Community, by contrast, organizes by partnership, unleashes the human potential for creative co-operation, and shares resources and surpluses for the good of all. Supporting evidence for the possibilities of Earth Community comes from the findings of quantum physics, evolutionary biology, developmental psychology, anthropology, archaeology, and religious mysticism. It was the human way before Empire; we must make a choice to relearn how to live by its principles.”

Is it too much to ask the American political process to participate in something larger than itself – something the size, perhaps, of human or planetary evolution? Perhaps this question is the starting point of the future.

Robert Koehler is an award—winning, Chicago—based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.


Image: Screenshot from Youtube, 2016 State of the Union by PBS NewsHour.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. – Justice, Love, and the New Jim Crow

In 1955, Martin Luther King found himself as the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a movement that would start a revolution in the United States.

Rosa Parks ignited the Civil Rights movement when stood up to the segregation laws of Jim Crow that demonized black people and forced them to live in conditions there were inferior to white people. Parks was arrested after she claimed her inherent dignity by refusing to move to the back of a bus. Just a few days after her arrest, King, who had recently moved to Montgomery, was elected to be the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

For weeks after his election, King received threatening phone calls from anonymous voices. The phone rang throughout the night and as King picked it up he heard voices saying things like, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you; before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery!” (The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., 77.)

They were only threats, until one night. King was away from his home at a meeting for the boycott. His wife Coretta and their newborn baby girl were home. At about 9:30 pm Coretta heard a loud explosion that rocked their house. It was a bomb.

Word of the bombing reached the meeting. King saw people whispering secrets, as if they were trying to keep something from him. He went to three of his best friends and urged them to tell him what happened. His closest ally delivered the tragic news, “Your house has been bombed.”

The threats of violence suddenly became very real to King and his family. And he would deal with those threats throughout his life. He instructed those at the meeting to stay calm, go straight home, and adhere to their philosophy of nonviolence as they sought justice in the face of systemic racism.

King rushed to his house and found Coretta and their baby uninjured. Coretta was remarkably calm, all the more remarkable because the police commissioner, the mayor, and many white reporters had already made their way into King’s dining room. And a crowd already formed outside of their house to support the Kings and protest the bombing. Police were also in their yard, attempting to disperse the crowd, which, in turn, had begun to threaten the police with violence.

King knew that his love for nonviolence as a means to seek justice was at stake. He walked outside to his porch and calmed down the crowd. Then he delivered one of his many powerful impromptu speeches, saying to the crowd,

We believe in law and order. Don’t get panicky … Don’t get your weapons. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that’s what God said. We are not advocating violence … I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them.

I did not start this boycott. I was asked by you to serve as your spokesman. I want it known the length and breadth of this land that if I am stopped this movement will not stop. … For what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just. And God is with us. (Autobiography, 80.)

This scene from Martin Luther King’s life tells us so much about the man. In the face of violent injustice, this great American hero set forth a vision of justice and love that was radical for his day, and his vision remains radical in ours.

King taught us that Justice and love go together. We often think that these two concepts are opposed to one another. That there’s a tension between justice and love. Love is nice, so this thought goes, but there are times when we need justice. Here, justice is seen as a form of punishment, as in a penal justice system.

This idea also affects our understanding of God. For instance, there’s an idea out there that there is a tension between the love and justice of God. My friend Michael Hardin says that if God is tense, then God should see a therapist.

But Martin Luther King resolved that tension. For him, God’s justice, true justice, didn’t mean punishing enemies. Rather, justice for him as he followed Jesus, was about reconciliation. Today we call it “restorative justice.” It’s a justice that restores individuals to themselves and it restores our relationships with one another. King wanted the persecuted and the persecutor to find healing. When we live into this justice that seeks restoration, healing, and reconciliation, King said that we live into the “Beloved Community.”

King also changed our understanding of love. For King, love wasn’t primarily an emotion. It wasn’t based on positive or romantic feelings for another. This isn’t a Valentine’s Day love. Rather, love is an action. Love is a verb. Love is a doing. Love refuses to imitate the hatred of our enemies, but shows the world an alternative way of being. When we live into that alternative, we know that we are living into a just love, what King called the Beloved Community.

I don’t know about you, but this form of justice and love is not easy for me to live into. And it wasn’t easy for Martin Luther King, either. He challenged America’s original sin of racism and when he did that the powers and principalities fought back. That’s because the violent oppression of racism was embedded in our nation from the beginning.

Fortunately, slavery ended in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation. But unfortunately, the abolition of slavery didn’t abolish the sin of racism that continues to infect the United States with unjust social policies against African Americans.

In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander explains the pattern of racist structures that are still alive in our country. That pattern looks like this: we started with slavery, then moved to the segregation of Jim Crow, and now we have the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration.

The War on Drugs, started by Ronald Regan, targets African American men. Millions of black people have been incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes that many of them didn’t even commit. Once imprisoned, they become felons and, like the old Jim Crow laws, are denied basic civil and human rights.

The racism of mass incarceration is made more obvious by the fact that white people sell and use drugs at a higher rate than black people. And yet it is African Americans who suffer the unjust effects of mass incarceration. As the Huffington Post explains, “White America does the crime, black America does the time.”

Why? Michelle Alexander says it’s because of a political system that pits police against African Americans. When Regan waged the War on Drugs, drug use was actually on the decline in the United States. Police didn’t want to fight a War on Drugs because drug use wasn’t a major problem and was actually a distraction from more violent crimes.

But Regan was determined, so he provided financial incentives for police departments to arrest drug offenders. The federal government payed police departments for every drug arrest the police would make, but “Non-drug-related policing brought no federal dollars, not even for violent crimes.” (New Jim Crow, 77). Regan got his drug war, and every president since has continued the demonic War on Drugs. The police aren’t bad in this scenario; they are caught up in an evil system, in the powers and principalities of the world that need to be transformed in the name of justice.

Why the emphasis on African Americans? Because they don’t have a defender. Tragically, that’s what continues to make African Americans easy scapegoats in the American social system. Imagine if millions of white people were incarcerated at the same rate as black people for nonviolent drug crimes that they may not have even committed. Because white people have social power, the white community wouldn’t stand for it. But the black community, which has been marginalized, disenfranchised, and demonized from the very beginning of American history, doesn’t have that kind of power.

Now, it’s easy for white people of good will to start feeling guilty or powerless or fall into denial when it comes to the massive racist systems of the United States. But those feelings aren’t helpful. What is helpful is to find ways to work for justice.

There is hope because there are things we can do. Stand up against the powers and principalities that lead to oppression. Name the forces of evil, including the War on Drugs and the prison industrial complex. Seek friendships with our African American brothers and sisters as we share our lives together and walk hand in hand, seeking a more just America. Listen to their stories without becoming defensive when we hear the truth about racism. Read African American authors, particularly Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and James Cone’s book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.”

We can stop racist jokes and comments when we hear them. We can keep talking about how racism infects our culture, especially as we continue in this presidential campaign that has been charged with racism against African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims. We can confront gentrification and redistricting that benefits white people and pushes black people further to the margins of American society. We can participate in political campaigns and vote in ways that confront racist policies of our past and of our present. We can claim that black lives matter because for too much of our history we’ve claimed that black lives don’t matter.

And in all of these things that we can do, let us work together to follow in the spirit of Christ that breaks down the hostile barriers that divide us against one another. And let us heal that divide with the bridge of love and justice that is called the Kingdom of God, what Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community.

Image: Flickr, United States Mission Geneva photo stream, Martin Luther King Day, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

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Afghan Blimp

Surveillance and Surveys in Kabul

In Kabul, where the Afghan Peace Volunteers have hosted me in their community, the U.S. military maintains a huge blimp equipped with cameras and computers to supply 24 hour surveillance of the city. Remotely piloted drones, operated by Air Force and Air National Guard personnel in U.S. bases, also fly over Afghanistan, feeding U.S. military analysts miles of camera footage, every day. Billions of dollars have been invested in a variety of blimps which various vendors, such as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, and Aeros have shipped to Afghanistan. All of this surveillance purportedly helps establish “patterns of life” in Afghanistan and bring security to people living here. But this sort of “intelligence” discloses very little about experiences of poverty, chaos, hunger, child labor, homelessness, and unemployment which afflict families across Afghanistan.

This morning, Zarghuna listed for me the survey questions that she and her young colleagues ask when they visit families in Kabul. The family visits help them choose participants in the Borderfree Street Kids School and the Duvet Project. The survey teams also help with plans for a “Food Bank” that the Afghan Peace Volunteers hope to open sometime in the coming year.

The questions Zarghuna and the survey team use may seem simple.

How many times a week does your family have a serving of beans? Do you rent your home? Can anyone in your family read and write? Child laborers are asked to tell about what type of work they do in the streets, how many hours they work each day and how much money they earn.

But the answers open up excruciatingly painful situations as many family members explain that they never have adequate food, that the only person earning an income is one of the children, that once they pay rent for the mud home in which they live, they have no remaining funds for food, blankets, fuel or clean water.

I’ve watched the young volunteers work hard to develop useful survey questions and discuss ways to be sensitive as they visit families and try to build trust. Sometimes very difficult arguments erupt over which families are most needy.

As the Pentagon decides about investments in aerial, remotely controlled surveillance capacities, disagreements over which proposals to support have arisen within the various military forces. Defense companies pay handsome salaries to former military leaders who will advocate for one or another program. Afghanistan has become a “proving ground” where different “protective” systems have been tested, including successive generations of Predator and Reaper drones and the aerostat “blimps.”

In Afghanistan, an October 11, 2015 accident involving a U.S. military blimp cost the lives of five people. The Intercept reported that “a British military helicopter was coming in for a landing at NATO headquarters, where the blimp is moored. According to an eyewitness who spoke to the BBC, the helicopter hit the tether, which then wrapped itself around the rotors. The helicopter crashed, killing five people –two U.S. service members, two British service members, and a French contract civilian—and injuring five more.”

Among opponents of continued funding for blimp surveillance, blimp accidents are but one of many criticisms raised. Some Army leaders argue that even a fully functioning blimp borne air defense system would be irrelevant in terms of the kinds of attacks that threaten U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Los Angeles Times notes that “the weapons that were killing and maiming U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were crude rockets, artillery and improvised explosive devices.”

Other real and life-threatening threats afflict many Afghan people, especially the 40% of the population who live beneath the poverty level. These threats are invisible to surveillance carried on by blimps or drones.

A UN Human Development Report recently revealed that Afghanistan has slipped to 171st of 173 countries in terms of development.

The UN report says that an Afghan person can, on average, expect to live 60 years. According to the CIA World Fact Book, the average life span here is 50 years.

In 2015, 1.2 million Afghans were internally displaced and about 160,000 people fled to Europe.

The U.S. military continues to invest billions of dollars in the “surveys” accomplished by blimps and drones. Certainly poverty and desperation cause people to fight against foreigners who have invaded and occupied their country.

If U.S. resources spent on unproductive military surveillance of Afghans were dedicated to assessments of both U.S. and Afghan people burdened by poverty, unemployment, hunger, disease and climate change, today’s U.S. generations would be less willing to feed their tax money to the insatiable appetite of the “defense” corporations and their illusions of omniscient security.

Kathy Kelly (Kathy@vcnv.org) co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org) While in Kabul, she is a guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers (ourjourneytosmile.com)

Image: Screenshot from Youtube. Surveillance Blimp Crashes to Ground in Afghanistan via ODN.


Taking On The Nuclear Goliath

“Just as we stood for freedom in the 20th century, we must stand together for the right of people everywhere to live free from fear in the 21st century. And . . . as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it.

“So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Uh . . .

These words, the core of President Obama’s first major foreign policy speech, delivered in Prague in April 2009, now resonate with nothing so much as toxic irony — these pretty words, these words of false hope, which disappeared into Washington’s military-industrial consensus and failed to materialize into action or policy.

James Carroll, writing at Mother Jones in 2013, describes what happened in the wake of this extraordinary policy declaration:

“In order to get the votes of Senate Republicans to ratify the START treaty, Obama made what turned out to be a devil’s bargain. He agreed to lay the groundwork for a vast ‘modernization’ of the US nuclear arsenal, which, in the name of updating an aged system, is already morphing into a full-blown reinvention of the arms cache at an estimated future cost of more than a trillion dollars. In the process, the Navy wants, and may get, 12 new strategic submarines; the Air Force wants, and may get, a new long-range strike bomber force. Bombers and submarines would, of course, both be outfitted with next-generation missiles, and we’d be off to the races. The arms races.”

And the cause of global nuclear disarmament, once a dream with geopolitical cred, may wind up entombed in eternal apathy. As Carroll put it: “Nuclear abolition itself is being abolished.”

But I refuse to believe that. What I do believe is that change of such magnitude simply cannot emerge from the actions of top-down leadership, even sentimentally sympathetic leadership like Obama’s, until a counterforce for disarmament is able to stand eyeball to eyeball with world decision makers and the military-industrial matrix in which they operate.

Say hello to the Marshall Islands, the tiny, heroic island nation in Micronesia, with a population just over 70,000. This former U.S. territory, which still bears the terrible scars of 67 above-ground nuclear blasts between 1946 and 1958, when this country used it as an expendable nuclear test site, has engaged the United States — and, indeed, all nine nations that possess nuclear weapons — in lawsuits demanding that they comply with the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and begin the process of negotiating global nuclear disarmament.

Specifically, the lawsuits — filed both in the International Court of Justice in the Hague and U.S. federal court — are demanding compliance with Article VI of the treaty, signed by the U.S. signed in 1970, which reads: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

General and complete disarmament . . .

Do these words actually have meaning? Right now the Marshall Islands stand alone among the nations of Planet Earth in believing that they do.

The U.S. suit was filed in the April 2014 and dismissed as “speculative.” This ruling was appealed, the appeal was contested, and last month the attorneys for the Marshall Islands filed their reply brief, challenging, among other things, the U.S. government’s contention that an international treaty is the province of the Executive Branch to comply with (or ignore) as it chooses.

The brief is demanding that the Judicial Branch assert itself in this matter and rule on the island nation’s claims that A) as a signatory to the treaty, it is owed U.S. compliance to negotiate disarmament in good faith and dismantle its own nuclear weapons cache rather than upgrade it; and B) U.S. failure to do so creates a “measurable increased risk of nuclear danger” for the Marshall Island (and, of course, everyone else on the planet).

There’s no clear time frame for what will happen next, but at some point a three-judge panel in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will either uphold the case’s dismissal or call for oral arguments to proceed.

“Under the treaty they are obligated to do what they said they were going to do,” David Krieger, president of Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, which is working with the Marshall Islands on its case, said to me. The case alerts the public to how its interests are “being jeopardized by the failure of nuclear-armed countries to fulfill their obligations.”

Today, as I write this, North Korea is claiming that it has successfully tested a hydrogen bomb; if true, this is seriously disheartening news for the rest of the planet, and the claim is reaping universal condemnation. But the nuclear-armed nations aren’t condemning themselves for doing the same thing. Clearly, such enormous power is difficult — if not impossible — to give up on one’s own.

Is there a force for peace that can break this impasse? A tiny, wounded nation, which is still reaping the consequences of being forced to serve as a nuclear testing ground, says yes there is. The challenge is real, not symbolic. It’s also unprecedented. Multiply their effort by the hopes of almost everyone on the planet and maybe we could produce a leader who means what he says:

“So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Robert Koehler is an award—winning, Chicago—based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.


Image: Map of Marshall Islands by Holger Behr via Wikimedia. Public Domain.

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Domestic Terrorism: My Take On The Militia Takeover Of A Federal Building In Oregon

I am going to put forth a scenario. As you read, imagine how each story would be told, should the following characters be white, black, or Muslim.

A group of people, upset with the federal government, take over a federal building. All of the members of the group are armed and although they state that they do not intend to use force, they also state they will defend themselves if provoked and that they plan on illegally occupying this building indefinitely. Since the takeover, one of their leaders has called upon others to join them and asked that they “come prepared.”

In case you have not heard, within the past few days, a militia comprised of primarily white Christians[1] actually did this very thing. What has been interesting—nay, disturbing—is the relatively benign language used to describe this group (as contrasted with other groups who perform similar actions). Rather than being labeled “terrorists,” which, by definition, they are, this group has been called “occupiers” by the Washington Post and “armed activists” by the New York Times.[2] Now, with the above story in mind, let us consider the following question: what would a group of black protestors or Muslims be called? Occupiers? Armed activists? Or rather, black thugs, or radicalized Jihadists and Islamic terrorists? A moment of honesty should offer clarity into a correct answer.

I mention this, not to scapegoat the writers of the Washington Post and New York Times, but to simply point out and explain how the use of language can really be a subtly (and often not so subtly) powerful tool humans use to manipulate the hearts and minds of others. In this case, particular euphemistic language is used in order to downplay the behaviors of people due to their skin color (white) and religious background (Christian)—not surprising given the fact that we live in a supposed “Christian nation [sic]” and have a history of white elitism in this country (See Slavery, Jim Crow Laws, etc.). And just so you don’t think I am picking on Americans or Christians, traditionally Muslim countries do the same thing when they label terrorists as “freedom fighters” and terms similar. This is not an American thing or a Christian thing or an Iranian thing or a Muslim thing. It is a human thing.

So, why are we doing this?

Well, as it currently stands in the US, the word terrorist is generally reserved for Muslims. That sounds crass but it’s pretty much true. Should that word then be used to describe Christians—like devout and zealous “Christian,” Charleston, SC gunman Dylann Roof for instance—then the influence we have over the term will not be as powerful as it currently is. Our ability to use it for our scapegoating purposes just may not be there any longer and as such, part of our identity would be lost. That is to say, if “Christians” can now be classified as “terrorists,” then we may find ourselves not knowing us from them. In fact, perhaps Christians would then be seen as potential terrorists, much like how many in the states view all Muslims. We may get to a place where we don’t know who to point the collective accusatory finger at any longer and cohesion could be lost. In fact, we are seeing this play out before our very eyes in 2016 America.

So how can we change?

First, we must be careful with our language. Even in subtle ways, it can be used to perpetuate scapegoating. When a culture uses dissimilar language to define similar behaviors between different ethnic and religious groups, then that is a tell-tale sign that it is in the midst of scapegoating. Labeling a group as “occupiers” and “armed activists” sends a very different message than “thugs” and “terrorists.” It seems we like using the former for good ole white Christians while reserving the latter for blacks and Muslims.

Second, and piggybacking off of the first, we must refrain from defining “us” and “them.” This involves our language but includes much more. It includes our posture toward pretty much everything, which is a day by day, minute by minute walk because, like I said a paragraph earlier, we often scapegoat in subtle ways. Now, I realize that viewing everyone as “us” can be a challenge, as many of us are a challenge to begin with, but it is actually quite liberating. That is, freedom is discovered when you are able to untangle yourself from the exhausting task of clinging on to the desire to have enemy others. At least it was for me and everyone I’ve known who has made a concerted effort to try and do this.

So what can be done about the state of affairs in Oregon?

Honestly, probably not much. Whether this standoff ends violently or peacefully, unless we awaken to the ways in which we structure our cultures, our civilizations, as well as our “in groups” and “out groups,” then true change won’t occur. I don’t mean to say that the way in which this issue is handled isn’t important because it is. But it is a symptom of something much worse, much more engrained into the fabric of society and until we address that, another similar instance will shortly spring up elsewhere. Albert Einstein stated: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” I fully agree with him. This problem won’t be solved with guns and grenades but the real underlying problem won’t be solved by a simple de-escalation of this situation either. It will take a global awakening; a higher level of consciousness.

[1] Just a few days before the insurrection, the militia’s leader, Ammon Bundy, posted the following to his Facebook page: “The Hammond’s [sic] need our prayers. Please take the time and get on your knees as soon as possible and pray to our Father above for the Hammond’s [sic]. They need our sincere prayers. They need the Spirit of the Lord to be upon them that they may have strength and knowledge.” On December 31, he posted a YouTube video claiming his actions are due to a “heart-felt conversation with the Lord.”

[2] Ross, Janell. “Why aren’t we calling the Oregon occupiers ‘terrorists’?” Washington Post. Para 1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/01/03/why-arent-we-calling-the-oregon-militia-terrorists/.

Image: Screen shot from Youtube. “How Media Covered Oregon Militia Takeover” by The Young Turks. Cartoon by Carlos Latuff at LatuffCartoons.


Law, Order, And Social Suicide

Want a ringside seat for the war on crime? Go to killedbypolice.net. A few hours ago (as I write this), the site had listed 1,191 police killings in the U.S. this year. I just looked again.

The total is up one.

This, about killing number 1,192, is from the Fresno Bee, which the site links to:

“Authorities have identified the woman fatally shot by a deputy early Tuesday as a 50-year-old military veteran.

“According to Merced County Sheriff’s Sgt. Delray Shelton, Siolosega Velega-Nuufolau was shot after waving a kitchen knife ‘in a threatening and aggressive manner’ at the deputy.

“Authorities were called to the scene in the 29000 block of Del Sol Court (in Santa Nella, Calif.) by a neighbor, who reported that Velega-Nuufolau was in the neighbor’s driveway, screaming for someone to call 911 at about 12:30 a.m. It is not clear why she wanted authorities called.”

Mentally disturbed woman with a knife, police officer fires, another one dead — and it just happened, reaching public attention while I was shuffling papers in my office, ambling downstairs for coffee. Something about this feels so raw, so . . . personal. Indeed, as personal as a heartbeat. And the “wrong” that I felt pulsing as I read about the shooting — and, justified or unjustified, police killings have been happening this year at the rate of almost three a day — had nothing to do with procedure or legality: whether the shooting was “justified.” The wrong felt so much bigger. We deal with social dysfunction by discharging bullets into it, over and over and over.

We’re killing ourselves.

This is the outcome of a punishment-based conception of social order. And because it’s mixed with racism and classism, the toxicity is compounded exponentially.

We live under the illusion that social order is sustained by law . . . I mean, ahem, The Law, a collection of rules allegedly grounded in some godlike moral sensibility located in state and national legislatures and enforced — lethally, if necessary — by a system of justice almost completely conceived as a mechanism to dole out punishment for disobedience. Not only are many of the rules that have attained, over the years, the moral stature of Law unbelievably stupid — “whites only” restrooms, drinking fountains and lunch counters come to mind — even the sensible laws, against, for instance, robbery and murder, are permeated with exceptions that protect the socially powerful.

Human society is not a linear mechanism held together by the enforcement — bang, bang, bang — of rules, but an organism as complex and paradoxical as life itself.

This is why the national discussion about police killings, which has finally gotten underway, must occur in a state of open, up-reaching consciousness too often missing from most media accounts. Questions of order, safety and security need to be addressed in a context bigger than the flawed system allegedly responsible for their maintenance.

We — meaning the police, meaning all of us — don’t maintain order so much as create it, day by day, moment by moment. How do we disarm this creation process and realign it with healing, growth and love, indeed, with the evolution of who we are?


“Within two seconds of the car’s arrival, Officer Loehmann shot Tamir in the abdomen from point-blank range, raising doubts that he could have warned the boy three times to raise his hands, as the police later claimed. And when Tamir’s 14-year-old sister came running up minutes later, the officers, who are white, tackled her to the ground and put her in handcuffs, intensifying later public outrage about the boy’s death. When his distraught mother arrived, the officers also threatened to arrest her unless she calmed down, the mother, Samaria Rice, said.”

This is from a recent article by Dani McClain in The Nation, revisiting the shooting a year ago of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, in the wake of the news that no charges will be brought against the officers involved.

The outrage I feel as I read this is only peripherally about the behavior of individual officers and the justice I want is by no means limited to their criminal convictions. Their actions occur so clearly in a context that is national in scope: Our police are warriors. That’s how they’re trained and that’s how they think of themselves.

For instance, a Wall Street Journal article from last summer notes: “The majority of cadets at the nation’s 648 law-enforcement academies in 2006 were trained at academies with a military-style regimen, which included paramilitary drills and intense physical demands. . . .

“So-called soft skills have gotten less attention. Police recruits spend eight hours on de-escalation training, compared with 58 hours on firearms and 49 hours on defensive tactics, according to a 2015 survey of 281 law-enforcement agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based police research and policy organization.”

Here’s the thing. While the concept of the warrior, or soldier, is glory-saturated, and while the physical and emotional intensity of the training is enormous, and while the macho appeal of being a warrior is understandable, the focal point of this training is the existence of The Enemy and how to defeat it — which primarily means how to kill it. And as many people have pointed out, training to kill The Enemy involves deliberately dehumanizing the population in question. This is why war always involves horrific moral backlash.

And this is the nature of militarized policing, which is the opposite of community policing. The cops are warriors, and when they enter the zone of the enemy — when they see themselves as belonging to an occupying army rather than to the community they’re “protecting” — they are likely to dehumanize those they encounter, especially if the encounter is antagonistic.

Thus in Tamir Rice’s shooting, the officers were clearly acting like they were in a war zone, surrounded by The Enemy. The boy with the pellet gun is quickly taken out. A teenage girl, screaming in shock and grief, is tackled and cuffed. The dead boy’s mother is warned that if she doesn’t calm down, she’ll be arrested.

This is worse than two officers acting illegally. This is two officers doing their jobs. And the system they serve has exonerated them.

By the way, at killedbypolice.net, the death toll has gone up to 1,194.

Robert Koehler is an award—winning, Chicago—based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.


Image: Copyright: Oregon Department of Transportation via Wikimedia Commons. Available via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.