Catching Courage

John Malkin

For her work as co-founder of Voices in the Wilderness, a campaign to end the economic sanctions against the people of Iraq, Kathy Kelly has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Voices in the Wilderness delivers medicine and other supplies to Iraqis in defiance of the U.S. government sanctions. As a result, the group has faced tens of thousands of dollars in U.S. fines. John Malkin spoke with Kelly in January.

How many times have you been to Iraq, and what kind of supplies does Voices in the Wilderness deliver to the Iraqi people?

When I go this time, I think it will be my 18th trip. I was there once during the Gulf War and once after the Gulf War. We’ve sent 58 delegations and assisted in getting quite a few more groups over there. There are about fifteen people over there right now, called the Iraq Peace Team.

Mainly what we bring are medicines and medical relief supplies. Some school supplies. Medical textbooks on compact disks are quite valuable. What we bring is really a pittance in relation to the need. It is like a drop in the ocean. We are by no stretch of the imagination a medical relief group.

Since the Gulf War in 1991, the United States government has bombed Iraq many times and has imposed sanctions on that country. One could say that the Gulf War really never ended. What have you witnessed and experienced during your visits to Iraq?

When I first started to go in 1996, there was nothing that could prepare me and others for what we were seeing inside the hospitals. One friend of mine likened it to a Death Row for infants. The conditions were so bad that no matter how much the staff would try to keep the hospital sanitary, the first thing that would hit you when you walked in the door was the terrible stench. And there were children writhing in pain on blood stained mats without sheets. Without heat in the colder months, these little kids were not going to survive.

You simply can’t walk away from these situations of misery and poverty and children being punished to death, being brutalized in the process of being punished to death. I am going to use the word torture. I think I have seen children tortured, in front of their parents and in their parent’s arms. There are also many, many scenes of destruction and disaster that we visited, as a result of the bombing.

How based in faith or spirituality is Voices in the Wilderness, and how important is that for you personally?

It wouldn’t be correct to call us a faith-based organization because some people, quite honestly, don’t belong to any practicing religious group, and some would identify themselves as atheists or agnostics. But one common denominator that we all share, and I think it is faith-filled in a sense, is a passionate belief in nonviolence. Not an idea of any kind of passive acceptance of evils or wrongdoing, but rather nonviolence in the pro-active sense. We really do, as much as we can-and I don’t want to sound too pious-want to commit ourselves to simplicity and service and sharing of resources, and advocate civil disobedience when needed in order to challenge something that we believe is terribly wrongful.

It is the case, though, that because of the big fines that we knew we would likely face at some point, we were looking for people, basically, who didn’t have much to lose. You know, the old Janis Joplin song, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” So people who are already invulnerable to collection from the U.S. government were prime candidates. People who had simplified their lifestyles so much so that there just simply wasn’t anything to seize or take. And you find those kinds of people in the Catholic Worker homes and the networks of people who, in a faith-based capacity, have decided to be pretty countercultural. Also, we wanted people who wouldn’t be too intimidated by threats of going before a court and judge and possibly going to jail. So we’ve also drawn people from the Plowshares network, for instance. And from groups of people who have protested the School of the Americas and had perhaps done some time already.

I don’t think that people can maintain the momentum of trying to educate their friends and their family and coworkers and their neighborhoods and wider audiences about an issue which is so very, very loaded with remorse and regret, without having some interior strength to draw from that often is referred to as spirituality.

I know that you have fasted and been involved in direct action and civil disobedience. What is the importance of nonviolence and nonviolent resistance?

The mentor experience I had in nonviolence came very much from people who had been part of the Freedom Rides, who were very active in the civil rights movement, who became war tax refusers and went to jail frequently because of their beliefs, continuing throughout the effort to end the Vietnam War. I am speaking of Maurice McCracken and Ernest and Marion Bromley and Karl Meyer, to whom I was married for about 13 years. What I learned from them was the idea that courage is the ability to control your fear. There are many, many reasons, when you’re involved in the kinds of struggles that nonviolent direct action places you within, to perhaps be fearful. But you begin to catch courage from other people. And you begin to catch courage even from some of the people you read about. I have only to pick up Dave Dellinger’s From Yale to Jail and I will find myself emboldened. I love to read that book, really.

When you begin to gain some of the insights and experiences that come one’s way in becoming active with nonviolence, things that one has treasured before, for instance scripture passages in the Old and the New Testament, become much more real. Much more evident. There are certain novels that you can read and understand much better, moving in the direction of following the precepts of people like Gandhi and King and Barbara Deming and Jesus and Dorothy Day. So that’s what I see with regard to nonviolence. It is often that you hear reference to the “beloved community.” Or as Barbara Deming put it, “We are all part of one another.” There is an opportunity to put one’s life on alignment with the most cherished and deep beliefs that one holds. And that is a gift. I don’t think you can ask much more from life than to know some truths and know them passionately, and have the ability to act on them.

Now, I am persuaded by pacifism. I have no idea in my life whether or not I could claim to be an absolute pacifist. Who knows what I might do tomorrow in a fit of temper or in a fit of rage. I don’t know. But I can keep on trying to be a biographical pacifist. To forswear any use of weapons and to try always to overcome, in my own life, that desire to use threat and force and coercion. Because of the kind of world that we live in; we live awfully well compared to the rest of the world, and much of our lifestyle is predicated, really, on the ability of our government to use threat and force and coercion so we can continue to have the lifestyle to which we have grown accustomed.

I think that people act nonviolently all of the time, but are just not aware of it.

I think that’s certainly true. Many parents raising their children learn terrific skills in nonviolent conflict resolution. I have been impressed by the way in which conflict resolution skills have been promoted in the business community and in many parts of leadership. But I would assert there hasn’t been that same demand that we use nonviolent means of negotiating and mediation and diplomacy, being willing to go the extra mile. Finding the carrot that would draw people to the negotiating table: We haven’t been willing to use that so much in our foreign policy and in the political life.

President Bush, Senior, said at an energy conference at Rio some years back, “The American way of life is a non-negotiable.” Meaning, we like the way we live and we’re going to keep it that way. That, I think, sets the agenda for much of what we have to do in nonviolent direct action. Change that way of life. Say, “Yes, we will negotiate it. It is not defensible and we don’t want to try to defend it.” We stand to lose as long as we keep convincing other people in other parts of the world that the only way you can really resolve a dispute is by having more weapon strength, more brute force.

What frightens me is that many people expect that whomever we elect and put in place in the leadership of this country is going to be somebody who is willing to use threat and force in order to preserve the status quo that Americans presently, by and large, enjoy. And that is a big, big danger, because for other people in other parts of the world, who look at the way we live and look at the way we treat people beyond our borders, who are so unfortunate as to find themselves on the “bad” or “wrong” side of U.S. policy, there is going to be seething antagonism and resentment.

Here in this country, I can defy U.S. laws, and I will be treated, by and large, with kid gloves. Even if I am put in prison, I am not going to experience the same kind of stigma or guilt that a lot of the prisoners feel. I did spend a year in prison, and I didn’t find that it was a really horrifying experience, although I am horrified by the criminal justice in this country. But people beyond the United States and people who are poor or people of color within the United States are not treated with kid gloves. In fact, there seems to be increasingly no mercy, very little forgiveness, within U.S. systems, when there is a decision to punish somebody in this country. Or to discriminate against somebody in this country. And beyond these borders: Think about the people who live in grinding poverty, who endure horrible daily humiliations and abuses, who cannot manage to protect and feed their children. Increasingly, many of those people look to the United States as the cause of their suffering. Eventually, that is going to come home to roost in ways that will be very unfortunate for people in this country.

I think that the two major reasons that the U.S. government is saying that it wants to attack Iraq are because there is some supposed connection between Iraq and the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and the idea that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. What do you make of those arguments?

I was really kind of amazed, and again dismayed, by a Knight Ridder poll that was covered in the Miami Herald a few days ago. It showed that one out of every two Americans believes that two of the people who were accused of being al-Qaeda operatives in the 9/11 tragedy were Iraqi citizens. Well, that is not a fact. It is completely untrue. Not one of them was an Iraqi. And there has been no proven connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda. There have been speculations and rumors, but there is no proven connection that would ever hold up in a court of law. So it is troubling when the government still persists with putting out misleading information that they can’t back up with proof. That is very, very troubling, because it can lead the country into a war that will have catastrophic consequences. They are talking about 500,000 Iraqi civilians dying if this new war goes forward.

With regard to weapons of mass destruction, I want to say that the greatest weapon of mass destruction in Iraq has been the economic sanctions. We have seen how the lives of hundreds of thousands of children were destroyed. And that’s not even beginning to talk about children over age 5. And the adults and the many, many people who have suffered abysmally because of the economic sanctions.

The scientific language focuses on particulars of biological and chemical and nuclear weaponry. But I think there is nothing that Iraq could possess today that is even a tiny fraction of what the United States can hurl at a moment’s notice. The United States almost forced a lot of countries in the region to buy our weaponry. We have sold weapons all around that area. People don’t seem to recognize that Israel has 200 to 400 thermonuclear weapons and an industrial park outside of Tel Aviv that has vast components of the materials needed for biological and chemical weaponry. There is a terrific double standard going on there.

Does Saddam Hussein possess weapons of mass destruction? I don’t know. I hope that the weapons inspection process will continue. I’d like to see that kind of weapon inspection process continue all throughout Middle Eastern countries and in the United Sates as well. But does Iraq pose a threat to the United States, such that we have to act in self-defense? That is patently absurd. Even if Iraq did possess components for mass destruction, there is no way that they would have the means for delivery. Even to their nearest neighbors. If we think about it, if Iraq poses a threat to its immediate neighbors, then why are Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Syria and Egypt all begging the United States not to go forward with this war?

I think that the United States wants another client state in the region. Saudi Arabia has been a client state for the United States for a long time. It may be that the United States wants not a regime change in Iraq, but a leadership change, sufficient that the United States can put someone in power who will control that country and keep it in line with U.S. aims and provide a buffer state against Iran. To be assured that Iraq would never be a strong country that might threaten Israel in the future. And make sure that the United States will have full control over the pricing and the sales of oil that would be eventually pulled out of Iraq’s soil.

What more do you think can be done?

You know, realtors say, “Location, location, location.” I think we need to say, “Education, education, education.” The mass rallies are very important. Then, we need to keep the momentum going and try as best we can to get the word out to the U.S. public that the issues in Iraq have not been sufficiently examined by our own mass media. We haven’t been given sufficient information by our own government. Then, we have to keep on exploring further, ourselves, for more understanding of the issues and more awareness of what has been happening in Iraq the past 12 years under sanctions and what some of the aims of the United States might be as it tries to move forward into war.

Tell me about your plans to return to Iraq. Will Voices in the Wilderness delegates remain in Iraq if the United States government starts a full-fledged war?

Well, it is our intention to be there and to be alongside people whom we’ve gotten to know. For instance, every morning some members of our team go to an orphanage run by the Missionary Sisters of Charity. And the kids in this orphanage are physically disabled, mentally challenged, living in small cribs. If bombing happened, these kids wouldn’t be able to get up and run or move. So, some of our team members are very committed, saying, “If the bombing happens, we’re going to be there with those children.” We simply can’t imagine saying, “Well, it’s getting a lot rougher now, we’ve got an access out of here, so we’re going to take off now. Good luck.” So, we will certainly stay.

We hope that we can be voices for the ordinary people who have befriended us and given us so much hospitality, by continuing to write and send messages out through e-mail, as long as the electricity is up. And we don’t count on that being very long, quite honestly. We hope to have a satellite phone and be able to do radio shows and call-outs to individuals within our support community. And if all else fails, we will sit there with pen and paper and write down our notes. If we are able to get those out at some point, we will do so.

That is my plan. To go over there with an open-ended ticket, and if the United States does go to war, if the war cannot be delayed or postponed and averted, as some think might be the case, then I will certainly remain there.

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Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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