Antiwar activists were quick to claim Rachel Corrie as their patron saint. But do they have the guts to emulate her?
"Rachel Corrie was an incredibly good person," writes Peter Bohmer, a member of the faculty at Evergreen State College, where Corrie was a student. "Justice for the Palestinian people was one of many issues Rachel felt deeply about. She opposed the Israeli occupation. For Rachel, feeling deeply always meant also doing something."
And a few words from Corrie herself:
"I am in Rafah," Corrie wrote in an e-mail, "a city of about 140,000 people, approximately 60 percent of whom are refugees.... Rafah existed prior to 1948, but most of the people here are themselves or descendents of people who were relocated here from their homes in historic Palestine--now Israel."
Corrie died in Rafah five weeks after sending that e-mail to her family back in Olympia, Washington. A 23-year-old student at Evergreen, Corrie had joined the International Solidarity Movement, a group that opposes the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip--the two tiny chunks of real estate that may one day become a Palestinian state. Corrie's death was the only story that wasn't about Iraq that made the national newscasts on Sunday night--and the front pages of U.S. newspapers on Monday morning. Hundreds of people attended a candlelight vigil for peace in memory of Corrie on Sunday night in Olympia.
Corrie's death was horrific. In an attempt to stop the Israeli Army from bulldozing houses in the refugee camps--the Israeli military routinely demolishes houses used to plan or stage terrorists attacks against Israeli civilians-- Corrie physically placed herself between an Israeli bulldozer and a Palestinian home, or "ground zero" of the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict.
She was a human shield--a human shield wearing a bright orange vest and shouting into a bullhorn. Pictures taken moments before her death make it difficult to believe the soldier driving the bulldozer couldn't see her. While the actions of the Israeli military have to be viewed in the context of an ongoing Palestinian terrorist campaign that targets Israeli civilians (how about some human shields in Tel Aviv's pizza parlors and on its buses?), the death of Rachel Corrie was an outrage. It also offers a lesson.
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The same day that Rachel Corrie placed herself between an Israeli bulldozer and a house, Sound Nonviolent Opponents of War (SNOW) staged a demonstration in Green Lake. Four thousand protesters placed themselves between Green Lake... and... well, Green Lake. Like SNOW's snowflake-speckled website, SNOW's demonstrations have a serious case of the "cutes," something Rachel Corrie's death (which antiwar protesters latched on to the next day) threw into high relief. SNOW's demonstrations are, by and large, larks--a day in the park, a potluck supper, a chance for neighbors to reach out and connect. It all sounds terribly uplifting but it doesn't sound terribly effective. SNOW's demonstrations have all the symbolic weight and gravitas of a conga line. If the local peace movement wants to be taken seriously as we go to war, then it's time for the local peace movement to get serious.
In an illuminating e-mail exchange, two local peace activists challenged each other on SNOW's website.
"Our only hope of averting war now," wrote a SNOW member, "is the resource we mobilized on Sunday [at Green Lake]--spirit of togetherness, community, and connection.... Let's try begging for divine/extraterrestrial intervention. Let us join hands, give voice to our fear, and release our hope.... Let us pray as we've never prayed before."
In disgust, an antiwar activist affiliated with Not in Our Name (NION) responded with a call for mass civil disobedience. "While I appreciate the sense of desperation that leads to calls for divine intervention," the second activist wrote, "I believe we can do other things now. For example, we can blockade military bases around Seattle. We can blockade arms and troop shipments from our ports."
There are tensions in the local antiwar movement. Younger people involved with NION--like the NIONer who responded to the "extraterrestrial" SNOW e-mail--want to take more direct, meaningful, and powerfully symbolic actions to stop the war. The predominantly older activists involved with SNOW want to keep hosting potlucks and cutesy demonstrations.
What the NIONer is on to is this: If you're serious about opposing Bush's war on Iraq, you need to put yourself between the U.S. war machine and the Middle East--just as Rachel Corrie put herself between the bulldozer and the house. News to SNOW: There are no aircraft carriers shipping out of Green Lake bound for the Persian Gulf. Certainly, everyone who's against the war shouldn't be expected to confront the law or get arrested. But demos need to shine the light on the war effort in palpable ways, and in some instances take risks that stem from the convictions of the cause. MLK sat down at segregated lunch counters. Anti-Vietnam activists shut down campus ROTCs. And Rachel Corrie went to the occupied territories.
Local peace activists with guts and courage could surround a Navy destroyer with small boats, à la Greenpeace; kneel in front of the gates to McChord Air Force Base and attempt to prevent anyone from getting in or out, à la the peace activists who routinely got arrested during the 1980s protesting the Reagan arms buildup. NION did stop traffic on 520 for a few hours one morning, which was a step in the right direction. But why aren't local peace activists stopping traffic into and out of McChord?
The war machine is right here, in Puget Sound. But it isn't based at Green Lake. Local peace activists who wish to emulate Rachel Corrie need to symbolically place themselves between the bulldozer and the house. Rachel Corrie had the courage of her convictions. Are local peace activists--who quickly began claiming her as a martyr and a symbol on Monday morning--made of the same stuff? Surely some of the thousands who demonstrated at Green Lake last weekend are willing to head over to McChord or Fort Lewis or Bangor or Bremerton or Whidbey Island and stand directly in the way of the war effort shipping out of local Navy, Army, and Air Force bases.