"Sir, you are an idiot."
Wow, an insult wrapped in such old-fashioned politeness. I let the words hover and reach, as I always do, for peace: that is to say, for clarity, connection, common humanity.
Last week I raised the idea of unarmed policing, as practiced in half a dozen countries around the world. I wasn't calling for immediate gun surrender but, rather, the diversion of human energy away from short-sighted, violent responses to conflict situations - at pretty much every level of society, from interpersonal to geopolitical - and to the complex, courageous, creative task of building a culture of peace.
Being called an idiot for making such a plea is to be expected, of course - it happens all the time, and I relish it because it means my words have reached people on the other side of the great political divide. That's what building peace is all about.
But I also felt a tug of deep frustration, which seldom finds resolution. We emailed back and forth, "idiot" morphed into "nave" and, seemingly, that was that. I was left with the same quandary as ever: How will things ever change? How will human society let go of violence - "good violence," which is the most seductive and most destructive of all - when its utterly crucial necessity permeates the media, permeates collective thought? Good violence is so simple, so "surgical." You take out only the problem situation and innocent people everywhere are instantly safer. Then you close your eyes and refuse to see what happens next.
"I know that sounds woefully nave, as the question of how to stop aggression without counter-aggression always arises," Lindsey Paris-Lopez wrote recently at the Raven Foundation website. "And the truth is, we cannot guarantee that nonviolent actions will stop any particular aggressor. But there will always be more aggressors, and violent action is guaranteed to spur further violence from those who are not stopped. . . . Considering that the evidence for this is the very cycle of violence that has waxed and waned since the foundation of the world, the notion that 'good' violence can stop (rather than merely postpone or simply continue to fuel) 'bad' violence is the true naivet."
The larger problem, I would add, is that this naivet is so enormously profitable - for the few, who can commandeer so much political power.
As violent conflict runs wild in the Middle East, the result, the New York Times glibly and mindlessly informs us, "is a boom for American defense contractors looking for foreign business in an era of shrinking Pentagon budgets."
The article also explains: "Saudi Arabia spent more than $80 billion on weaponry last year - the most ever, and more than either France or Britain - and has become the world's fourth-largest defense market."
And: "Qatar, another gulf country with bulging coffers and a desire to assert its influence around the Middle East, is on a shopping spree. Last year, Qatar signed an $11 billion deal with the Pentagon to purchase Apache attack helicopters and Patriot and Javelin air-defense systems. Now the tiny nation is hoping to make a large purchase of Boeing F-15 fighters to replace its aging fleet of French Mirage jets. Qatari officials are expected to present the Obama administration with a wish list of advanced weapons before they come to Washington next month for meetings with other gulf nations.
"American defense firms are following the money. . . ."
Wow, gosh, a "shopping spree" - so reminiscent of George Bush's injunction to the American public to go shopping as the War on Terror was being launched. What the Times article fails to mention, however, as Qatar and Saudi Arabia and other anti-Iran U.S. allies go shopping for state-of-the-art weaponry, is that hellish conflict zones all over the planet - aflame with violence catered by U.S. and other Western defense contractors - are not merely killing innocent people directly but wrecking life-sustaining social structures and causing the displacement of millions of people, who are left without the means to live.
These conflict zones include Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Ukraine, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, according to Thalif Deen, writing for Inter Press Service.
And the United Nations, charged with the task of assisting the displaced, is overwhelmed.
"In 2014, the U.N. appealed for assistance for 81 million people, including displaced persons and others affected by protracted situations of conflict and natural disaster," Deen wrote.
". . . The United Nations says it needs about $16 billion to meet humanitarian needs, including food, shelter and medicine, for over 55 million refugees worldwide" - but, to no one's surprise, "virtually all of the U.N.'s emergency operations are," in the measured words of a U.N. spokesman, "underfunded."
The spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, added: "We need more support and more financial help. But, most importantly, we need political solutions."
Political solutions aren't on the horizon, as far as I can tell. But then I checked my email and saw there was another reply from my correspondent:
"Please accept my heart-felt apology. You seem to be a genuine nice guy, which is a very rare virtue. I which we could live in the world that you visualize. Unfortunately, I do not hold the potential of mankind with the same optimism that you do. Good luck and best wishes."
Maybe I'm an idiot, but for a moment I saw something moving on the horizon. Was it a political solution? Was it a new world?
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 koehlercwgmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.
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