Let’s Talk Ferguson — Chicago Symposium January 14

Urgent update:  We have just today, Jan 13, received word of a priceless opportunity occurring the evening of January 14 in Chicago.

The Yearly Meeting has joined with various Monthly Meetings in discussing the social issues raised by the events in Ferguson and elsewhere in the country.  There is a remarkably related event planned for January 14, as follows: Continue reading

Are we asking the wrong question? (Drones Part Two)

A query in search of words.

“My son is a soldier in Afghanistan. If a drone will protect my child from harm, so be it.”

​I listened and I trembled inside. The parent spoke at a public lecture critical of our government’s use of drones. For a few moments a stillness settled on the room. I do not take the parent’s statement as rebuttal to the speaker. Rather, I remember it as an implicit question: how do I reconcile my concern for my child with criticism of government behavior?

​For that moment we stood on common ground: the speaker, members of the audience, the parent, and myself. Discussion stopped. In the stillness I felt this common ground slipping from beneath us. And after a few heartbeats, the room was filled with words about legalities, disclosure, and accountability.

I continue to reflect on that moment, remembering that I have, as many of us have, witnessed similar moments since the days of Vietnam. During those five decades we have seen these moments repeated when shared concern, even skepticism, about a foreign venture is deflected. Whatever the defects in the policy, we hear that we need to support our children in uniform or that our security requires that certain prices be paid.

When the parent spoke, how might I have responded? I remain uncertain. While analytical arguments about political systems and cultural values and about complexities of effective dissent provide necessary perspective, that talk seems insufficient by itself to address this question in search of the right words. After all the talk about constitutional questions, this place may remain barely explored. The parent’s response silences criticism of state policy. And criticism of state behavior often evades the parent’s question. The answer lies somewhere beyond the question: do I stop the drones or do I support our loved ones?

And so I feel drawn to this still point in time. At once I empathize with the parent and remain no less convinced that the drones are wrong. Moreover as a parent I know that these killing machines kill children over there. Today a parent in Afghanistan may be saying that if it were not for the drone, he would be having dinner with his daughter.

Sometimes we tell ourselves that we are asking the wrong question. Today I do not know the words for my question. Yet I feel it necessary to continue searching. I feel so when I stand at my community’s Saturday peace vigil and meet neighbors who are friendly to the dream of peace but conditioned to be fearful for their security. Again, the problem is posed as a choice between either peace or war with little ground between. Repeatedly though in different ways, I feel common ground slip away. Perhaps a first step may be taken simply by taking a deep breath and not stepping out of that still place.

Good work is being done that may enable us to sit in that still place between seeming opposites or irreconcilables for a bit loner. Last year neighbors in my community gathered in groups to read and discuss Karen Armstrong’s “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life” and the Charter for Compassion project. That discussion continues in several forms including the Nonviolent Carbondale project. Parker Palmer comes to this place in his “Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit”. And Living Room Conversations works to bridge political division.

​I am imagining a long process of undoing deep habits of thought that we share and that stymie our imaginations. But the wars have been going on for a long time, so long that we may simply call it The War. Learning the facts and calling for disclosure of government behaviors informs the discussion. But I wonder. The facts alone about drones or other policies once disclosed may not mean that they bring us forward. Intellect helps, no doubt, to address recurring concerns. Yet intellect alone may remain stymied, as it was that evening, without union with compassion and listening. Perhaps then we can work with that parent.

Drones fulfill the dream that opposition at home will be deterred (Drones Part One)

If the United States government had drones during the Vietnam war, would it have stayed in Vietnam?

“​What-if” questions may cause us to roll our eyes with impatience. But this one offers perspective on the significance of the current controversy over the drones. The question leads to another: why did the United States abandon its Southeast Asian venture? One answer lies in the public protests that pressed our officials in Washington to bring the troops home. In some way protest was sparked by the draft and the steady increase in American dead. There were other reasons, but these are two good places to begin.

​The Vietnam catastrophe taught government leaders important lessons. First, avoid a draft. Second, avoid foreign adventures that disturb voters to ask provocative questions and that undermine support for their leaders. Thus the government fights in the Middle East without a draft and with volunteers. Large sectors of the public are not affected directly. Yet the volunteers do die. And public concern remains as long as young Americans return home in coffins. And so at first the government attempted to prevent photography of the coffins.

​If policy makers pursue overseas adventures that require shedding blood and wish at the same time to shield Americans from the human consequences, then mechanized warfare is the answer. Machines do the fighting. American soldiers are less likely to be put in danger. Thus the deterrent to pursuing a violent foreign policy is diminished. The military in Vietnam invested in technologies for this end but did not succeed. Drones represent the fulfillment of that dream.

​Today’s discussion of the drones is, however, distracted by attention to questions of transparency and accountability. These are important questions. But if demands for transparency and for accountability were satisfied, even completely, would we be addressing underlying questions: should our government use such instruments of death so that it can meddle in the lives of other peoples and do its meddling by violence?

Such questions were being asked during the Vietnam War. To tell the story of the anti-war movement by focusing on the draft and dying Americans is to tell a portion of the story. Consciences were pricked by the photograph of the little girl running naked, screaming in terror from her village that had been turned to a blazing inferno by American forces. They were numbed by the photographs of the dead women and children at My Lai. And this rousing of conscience was also part of the story that roused an opposition.

Questions about the drones that focus on constitutional issues of accountability, while important, do not yet bring us to the human costs that are daily being paid by families in the Middle East. We do not yet see the photographs. Perhaps we do not because of the nature of this war. But we know enough to know that children and parents live in daily terror of these unknown instruments that descend from the sky. They see the mangled bodies.

And so there are continuities between Vietnam and Afghanistan. The continuities are traced easily when we look at the objectives of policy makers to wage wars that appear bloodless. Other continuities seem less obvious but are implicit and call for revived attention. These are the moral questions that guided a significant portion of the opponents of the Vietnam carnage. They focus on the children like that Vietnamese child fleeing her village in terror. How then will we address these enduring questions? This task will require far more sensitivity and wisdom than is needed to answer the constitutional questions. The answers will not emerge from documents pried from government agencies. They may come as we look within ourselves and learn to talk with our neighbors.

Next: Part Two – ways that meetings might attend to this issue.

Building bridges across political divides

Parker Palmer writes (on Facebook):

Joan Blades is co-founder and co-chair of the well-known political organization MoveOn, which promotes liberal and progressive causes. Some people (and I’m one of them) are grateful for MoveOn. Some are not. But this post is not about taking political sides. It’s about building bridges across political divides.

Joan has launched a new project I’m excited about. Called “Living Room Conversations”, its purpose is to foster civil discourse between folks who differ politically and help them make common cause.

Want to see something hopeful? Check out the conversation. You’ll see and hear a dialogue between Joan and Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots: two people who are poles apart politically, but who found overlapping concerns and mutual respect through this project.

The site is full of resources for starting your own Living Room Conversations with family members, neighbors, colleagues and friends. This kind of conversation can help “We the People” overcome our divisions and become a political power again—the power on which American democracy depends.

Joan and her colleagues are “putting wheels” on some of the things I wrote about in “Healing the Heart of Democracy”. So I’m very grateful for Joan’s endorsement of the book, which you can learn more about at the site below:

“Can we keep our sights on the vision of what we aspire to be while working constructively to transform realities that do not yet fulfill that vision? How do we remain ‘open hearted’ so that we can engage creatively with citizens who hold different views of the challenges we face? ‘Healing the Heart of Democracy’ asks these necessary questions and inspires us to answer.” — Joan Blades

Testing our students for military service

The Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) is the military’s entrance exam that is given to fresh recruits to determine their aptitude for various military occupations. The test is also used as a recruiting tool in 12,000 high schools across the country.

The four hour test is used by military recruiting services to gain sensitive, personal information on more than 660,000 high school students across the country every year, the vast majority of whom are under the age of 18. Students typically are given the test at school without parental knowledge or consent.

The National Coalition to Protect Student Privacy is working to prohibit the automatic release of student information to military recruiting services gathered through the administration of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) Career Exploration Program in high schools across the country.

None of the cities or states with ILYM meetings seem to be currently addressing this issue, but you can learn more about how school districts elsewhere in the country are:

Is your Meeting working to address the privacy of students mandated to take the ASVAB?

Earlier this Spring, The National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth reported on the work of the Texas organization, Peaceful Vocations, who presented to the Texas State Board making the request that “Option 8” be the choice for all Texas schools when administering the ASVAB. Since students and parents may not currently determine how test information is released, if a school chooses “Option 8” it will allow for a parent to decide: they may still give permission for the test results to be released to military recruiters, but with this policy change the decision rests with the parent, not the school.

Learn more about the work of The National Coalition to Protect Student Privacy and The National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth to explore what you and your Meeting can do to address this issue.

It has been reported that there was local activity several years ago up in the Chicago region under the name “Chicagoland Coalition Opposed to Militarization of Youth” who gained attention in 2006 for their efforts (read article here). Might anyone know if their work continues?

Is American Nonviolence Possible?

From The New York Times:

Is American Nonviolence Possible?

“This past week was of course a searing reminder: Monday’s bombing at the Boston Marathon and the ensuing manhunt that ended on Friday with the death of one suspect and the capture of another, his brother, dominated the news. But there were other troubling, if less traumatic reminders, too. On Tuesday, a 577-page report by the Constitution Project concluded that the United States had engaged in torture after the Sept. 11 attacks. On Wednesday, a turning point in the heated national debate on gun control was reached when the United States Senate dropped consideration of some minimal restrictions on the sale and distribution of guns. Looming above all this is the painful memory of the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Now is as good a time as any to reflect on our responses to the many recent horrors that seem to have engulfed us, and to consider whether we can hope to move from an ethos of violence to one nonviolence…”

Click here to read the full article:

Post-Traumatic Stress – A Natural Response to War

Watch a video interview of Nao Rozi, an Afghan National Army veteran who is now a member of the Afghan Peace Volunteers. When Dr. Hakim reflected on this interview for a postscript, he shared “my thinking about war trauma transformed in the few minutes that I was interviewing… Nao Rozi, an Afghan National Army veteran. War related post-traumatic stress is a natural order, not a disorder.”

Click here to read the transcript and additional after-thoughts from Dr. Hakim, published by Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Ex-Virginia executioner becomes opponent of death penalty

Jerry Givens’ improbable journey to the death chamber and back did not come easily or quickly for the 60-year-old from Richmond. A searing murder spurred his interest in the work, but it was the innocent life he nearly took that led him to question the system. And he was changed for good when he found himself behind bars.

His story helps explain how a state closely associated with the death penalty for decades has entered a new era.

“From the 62 lives I took, I learned a lot,” Givens said.

Click here to read the full article.

What next? Tamms is closed.

What next?  Tamms is closed.  Now how do we attend to the climate of opinion that permitted, indeed endorsed, the construction of this institution?  Specifically, what steps can we take to reverse the programs and policies that characterize this nation’s penal systems?

Wrestling with the “what next” question has been far more difficult than coming to a position on closing Tamms.  I think my difficulty is one shared by others in my Meeting and in the general public.  And that is why I write.  I also write so that I may call attention to some responses to the “what next” question that are emerging as I listen to discussions among Friends in southern Illinois.

Shaping a Minute in support of closing Tamms drew attention to the larger and more complicated dimensions to this subject.  As I recall the process, many Friends expressed concerns that the discussion was being framed by Springfield’s concerns for budgets.  What about the penal system at large?  How is it that we pay our taxes to support systems of punishment rather than programs for rehabilitation?   By addressing the debate on closing Tamms, are we distracted from the grim statistics that point to the continuing presence of race and class in the sentencing process?   And so, after a month of careful listening, the Meeting did come to a minute supporting closure but with the provision that a second Minute be composed that addressed the larger contexts.

Lest we forget the thousands of prisoners in countless prisons, we have been working on that second Minute.  We are not done.  We work slowly not simply because of Quaker process but because of the complexity and the immensity of the subject.

Immensity and complexity seemed to numb imagination at the point of addressing the “what next” question.   To speak to the strident voices of retribution and to counter the political clout of the prison industry looms up as a labor of Herculean proportions.  Many of us have asked ourselves what talents we may offer or how much time and energy we are able to devote to such an undertaking.   As I listen, I sense that the discussion is shaped in part by images of a hero peacemaker who comes to task with extraordinary energies and focused devotion.  But have we been measuring ourselves by impossible standards?  Are we handicapped by such an ideal of the peacemaker that causes many of us to feel inadequate to the task?   In various ways, we are asking that question and coming to recognize such models of peacemaker are as likely to discourage as they are to inspire.  We seem to be asking another question: Who amongst us is not a peacemaker?  As we come to recognize the varieties of peacemakers in our small circle, we may be finding ways to help one another to move from faith and principle to practice.

Meanwhile, we are beginning to recognize specific works that are appropriate to this meeting’s size.  The Carbondale chapter of the The Three R’s Project—Reading Reduces Recidivism (www.3rsproject.org)—has been working to acquire books and transport them to regional prisons.  The handful of volunteers needs more people to collect, catalog, and move books to prisoners.  As Friends listened to a 3Rs organizer, they awakened to a path leading out of the shadow of doubt.  We are still aware of our limited abilities.  But we are exploring connections with other community groups.

Seeking for connections opens other answers to the  “what next” question.  By participating in the movement to close Tamms, we came to appreciate at a personal level how many others were concerned.   We were entering into a larger community of compassion.  With Tamms behind us, we are also learning more about the good work performed by Friends elsewhere who are addressing the prison system.  Farther north in Illinois, Quakers have been visiting prisons and bringing books.  The example and the guidance of Friends in Champaign may be helpful not only for practical reasons but, equally important, for renewing faith that we are not alone in our resolve to meet the immense and complex challenge of the prison system.

The times tremble with possibility.  If we listen carefully, we can hear a growing chorus of voices echoing our concern.  Look for a moment at Friends Journal and the recent issue (March 2012) devoted to our prisons.  If we look beyond our Meeting, we see that we are part of a larger awakening.  Consider for a moment Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  This thorough and impassioned analysis has been praised for stimulating awareness of this long-festering disease.  And it has stimulated.  But by giving credit to Alexander’s work, do we forget that before the book appeared so many people were prepared to attend to her voice and to buy her book?  Alexander was not crying in the wilderness.  There were people ready to listen.  The buyers and the readers testify to the books significance.

What next?  I can only begin to imagine how the growing number of awakened souls in the nation will turn their concerns into practice.  But I think my experience in a small community at the very bottom of Illinois can inform.  While southern Illinoisans deliberated on Tamms, all the action seemed to be happening far north, 150 miles north in Springfield or another 150 miles farther north in Chicago.  I often felt as if we were on the periphery.  When asking the “what next” question, we might turn attention from the centers of power and attend to ways to support uncounted others who live in seeming isolation.  Lest such communities lose heart in the face of enormity and complexity, we might consider creating organization and  communication networks to sustain us all.  The struggle will be a long one.  This we all understand.  We will need to keep faith.  And we will need to organize our scattered communities into concerted energy.  What next?  This may be the emerging task of such groups as the ILYM Peace Resources Committee.

Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Michael T. McPhearson is a former Executive Director of Veterans For Peace and a current board member. His volunteer social and economic justice activist work includes membership in Veterans For Peace, the Newark based People’s Organization for Progress, Military Families Speak Out, the American Civil Liberties Union and the former coordinating committee member for the Bring Them Home Now campaign against the U.S. occupation of Iraq. He is Secretary of the Saint Louis Branch of the NAACP and the founder of ReclaimtheDream.org.

Last week, Michael published an article exploring how we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. –

I am a veteran. Sitting in the sands of Iraq in 1991, I remember how wonderful it felt to receive expressions of support from home. I once received a letter from an elementary school class and it made me feel good to know that people back home cared about me, and wanted me to safely return home. Citizens coming together to think about service members and take action to support them is a good thing, but not in the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Click here to read the full article.