A second missive about the Iraq war has arrived from my artist-activist friend Cliff McReynolds (see my previous post on his first one, called "Pipe Dreams"), who requests that I air it on my blog. "The more people who get this message and apply it, the sooner it will start happening big time," he wrote me. Cliff has spent years revising and distilling his message, and he feels that now, finally, he has got it right: "Love Your Enemies."
When he first realized in 2002 that Bush was seriously intending to invade Iraq, Cliff says he felt compelled to try to "head off this impending nightmare." (I did, too, only I was able to read the handwriting on the wall, which was that GWB was not open to negotiation of any sort on the matter.) Being a superb painter of images, and convinced that violence only breeds more violence, Cliff imagined creating a gigantic billboard that would knock everybody who saw it senseless with the truth. An image of the World Trade Center at the moment when the second jet slammed into it would be surrounded by this killer circular logo, continuously repeating the phrases "What Goes Around Comes Around" "Love Your Enemies." The plan was to get other activist friends to help out with the financing, but the responses he got forced him to rethink his question about what to do about enemies "who hate our guts for invading and occupying their countries."
"Would seeing "Love Our Enemies" provoke a bomb-thrower to come after me and my family?" he wondered. "Am I taking myself a little too seriously? Do people think loving your enemies means lying down, letting maniacs break into your house, butcher your family? After all, even Gandhi considered that in certain circumstances, taking a life may be a duty."
Thus it was that my peace-driven friend spent the next four years revising and fine-tuning his message, searching for the one definitive statement about how to defeat terrorism. He describes himself during that time as positively bouncing off the walls to get the message just right. "When I finally dumped 'What Goes Around Comes Around' and replaced it with 'We Reap What We Sow,' it felt like I'd stumbled on the cure for cancer."
What followed was a kind of epiphanic insight into the violence of his own frustrated and angry responses, and how much they were in stark relief to the peaceful approach he was promoting. He realized he needed to stop trashing Bush and the others who were responsible for getting us into this war. "I didn't want to do that anymore. Loving your enemies, I realized, means I'm supposed to love not only terrorists, but even Republicans." (Sorry folks, but no, he doesn't provide any tips on how to do this.)
Having given up venting, Cliff turned instead to the nonviolent examples of Martin Luther King, Nelson
Mandela, and Gandhi, all of whom rejected the use of intimidation and violence as a way of seeking retribution. Even though they were ultimately killed or imprisoned for their efforts, their strategy of nonviolence worked. In the case of Gandhi, the result was a withdrawal by the British from their imperialistic ambitions in India. This is proof, according to Cliff, that a peaceful approach really works, it's just that nobody is willing to use it.
Something about a strategy that no one is willing to use demands deeper investigation into the deep structures of human nature, something my friend, for all his dedicated pursuit of the perfectly honed logo, has failed to undertake. Why, for instance, if nonviolence works so well, don't people choose it? (The examples, as he points out, are surely out there.) Why have we, over and over again since forever, refused to bow to its superiority? Is it possible that our warring tendencies are so deeply embedded in our DNA as to be unstoppable?
"Coincidentally," it just so happens that the past week was the 60th anniversary of the British "liberation" of India, and the story of what happened after the British left is being retold and reviewed. Britain's Indian Empire was subsequently divided into the nation-states of India and Pakistan. In case you are imagining the subcontinent rejoicing and celebrating their newly found independence, look again, because that's not the way things played out. India descended into horrible chaos in the months following the British withdrawal, with widespread sectarian riots and brutal enmity between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs--leading to twelve million people being uprooted and a million others murdered. Has anyone heard this song before?
As for Gandhi, he was reduced to despair when he could not prevent Hindus and Muslims from killing each other, until he was finally shot dead in January 1948 by a Hindu extremist.
So, play it again, Sam. Before I invest in any billboards, I need answers to some really sticky questions--like, why have we learned nothing from past experience, and reproduced instead a nearly identical situation all over again in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites? And in the face of our failure there, how is it that the best our government can come up with now is how to generate a similar headlong lunge into Iran? I'm looking for real answers here, and it may mean having to poke much harder into E. O. Wilson's not-so-subtle query: "Is humanity suicidal?"