A week or two after the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, I made a trip to NYC for a few days to attend a film market. During that trip I found myself in a small peace demonstration near NYU. Honestly, I was there to meet a friend who was asked to provide music for the demonstration. The protesters were made up of students and a few non-students, mostly Latino, American Indian, White American.
In my gut of guts, I knew the U.S. was going to war in Afghanistan. I knew there was going to be a little something-something in response. Just a few months earlier the Taliban were blowing up 2,000 year old Buddhas to purify the landscape for a fundamentalist Islamic state, and human rights violations were committed against Afghan women. My concern regarding military action was whether President Bush, Cheney, and the other “deciders” were absolutely certain, without a doubt, Afghanistan was the hub of the 9-11 attacks. Was Afghanistan the smoking gun? Have we tried everything else? Was this a just war?
Our demonstration circled the park a few times then went inside to talk about what it all meant. I was struck by the surprise and shock of the demonstrators who were just getting their first taste of racial profiling for being Arab, Muslim or resembling one or the other. I was surprised by their surprise. I thought, “Welcome to my world.” It seemed profiling was the loss of innocence for people who thought not bringing attention to your cultural, ethnic, racial, religious self, kept you out of trouble here in America (maybe not elsewhere).
For some reason, I imagine President Barack Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech having a similar impact on the Nobel committee — a message from a leader who is actively engaged in a war and accepts his role in it as well as the prize. If there is surprise, there shouldn’t be. Neither should there be surprise from candidate Obama’s so-called “disillusioned” supporters who are responding as if they are hearing his position on Afghanistan for the first time. Candidate Obama was always clear about his intentions for Afghanistan, Pakistan and that region. Willful ignorance or wishful thinking doesn’t preserve one’s perceived “innocence” or purity.
Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech was one for the grown ups — people who have lived through the rising and setting tides of life and have accepted that there is no “either/or” kind of existence more both/and. I’m not pro-war. But I have not been directly in contact with one either, so I’m sitting in a cozy spot to mull this one over. Still, anyone who loves war, needs to be on a big comfy couch. I get a pain of anxiety every time there’s a major military something. At the same time, I’m behind the men and women who serve. I don’t want these men and women sent on a fool’s errand when it comes to war. I’m for the removal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell so all who want to serve can serve. All I expect of the men and women who join the military is to be totally clear about what they are committing their lives to. War may be part of the job.
Another thing I’ve come to realize is that peace activism and pacifism are not one and the same. Yes, in peace or anti-war marches there are staunch pacifists in the crowd who aren’t Amish or MLK, Jr., but there are also people in the group who support liberation movements; and in some cases those movements turn violent. Even in American history, peaceful abolitionists invited John Brown to their dinner tables, and raised money. John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry is now considered an impetus for the Civil War and the emancipation of enslaved African Americans (after nearly 200 years). But it’s hard to grow a movement if you hold fast to the belief that the U.S. doesn’t do anything for good especially outside its own borders. And with this premise, as E-Notes writes, these opinions do not acknowledge the real threat of terrorism or bring an alternative to the table to stop it in its tracks.
President Obama’s Nobel speech deserves a discussion guide. The speech includes some tough talk to digest about war. But as he pointed out, Gandhi and King reminded us to always keep our eye on the North Star. Harriet Tubman looked to the North Star to lead runaway African American slaves to freedom; and if anyone lost their way and wanted to turn back, she was very clear and willing to use the last resort with the warning, “Dead men tell no tales.”
Obama’s Nobel speech left me with the desire to go into a seminar and break out rooms to sift through the political, philosophical, ethical, moral, and practical elements of war and peace minus Tolstoy. If there was any surprise for me it was the word “love” mentioned twice. “Love” is a word rarely used in political discourse and certainly not from a “war President.” And, in true Obama fashion, there’s that benediction-like flourish at the end.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who received the Nobel prize in 1964, never ran for office (I doubt he ever would). And the inevitable scrutiny of his character and intentions was cut short by his assassination in 1968. Any expectations of a King moment from Barack Obama this week in Oslo was both unrealistic and unfair.
The Nobel Prize is not a perfect prize or solution for a perfect peace. The planet still spins when Oslo welcomes its prize winners each year in December. When all is said and done, it is the Nobel prize winners who struggle with the questions and decisions of war and peace, freedom and oppression when they resume their lives and responsibilities in the real world.
Barack Obama’s Peace Prize lecture/acceptance text. YouTube video.