Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On
a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.
Porto Alegre, Brazil, World Social Forum, January 27, 2003
"Kathleen Kelly, report to Admin." I was routinely
cleaning toilets in my dorm at Pekin Federal Prison Camp when the loudspeaker
summoned me to the Administration Building. "You're going next door," said the
guard on duty. "Someone wants to talk with you." During a five-minute ride to
the adjacent medium-security men's prison, I quickly organized some thoughts
about civil disobedience and prison terms, expecting to meet a journalist. Instead,
two well-dressed men stood to greet me and then flashed their FBI badges. They
had driven to Pekin, Ill., from Chicago, where they work for the FBI's National
Both men were congenial. They assured me that their visit had nothing to do
with Voices in the Wilderness violations of
federal law in numerous trips to Iraq, where we regularly delivered medicines
and medical relief supplies. Nor had they come to talk about why I'm currently imprisoned
for protesting the US Army's military combat training school in Fort Benning,
Ga. What they proposed was "a conversation," since they had information which
they felt would help me and Voices teams in Iraq, both now and in the future.
Likewise, I could help them, and perhaps improve national security, by answering
some of their questions.
I said I'd prefer not to talk with them without a lawyer present. The more
talkative agent quickly nodded and suggested a follow-up visit with a lawyer. He
spoke further about his favorable impressions of Voices in the Wilderness and
how useful it would be for our travelers to better understand some of the people
whom the Iraqi government, under Saddam Hussein, had assigned to work with us as
"minders" during our past trips. He said he had information about "bad things"
they had done or had planned to do. Having this conversation would benefit
Voices in its travel to other countries as well. (Voices has focused solely on
Iraq, although some of us have visited other countries with other groups).
At that point, I decided not to talk with them at all. "I don't want to
accuse either of you of any wrongdoing," I said, wanting to be polite, "but your
organization has used methods that I don't support, and sometimes your job
requires you to lie."
Still amiable and interested in some kind of conversation, albeit one-sided,
they let me know that they had carefully read our website. "We saw the pictures
of the children," said the less talkative agent. The three of us were silent for
His partner mentioned that they've already met with numerous Iraqi Americans,
none of whom had anything bad to say about Voices in the Wilderness.
"Do you have any questions for us?" they asked several times. "Is there
anything you want to say?"
"Well, yes," I said, finally. "I do want to say something. I don't mean this
disrespectfully, but I do encourage you to resign." Smiling broadly, they told
me they'd placed a bet about whether or not I'd talk to them, but hadn't
anticipated being asked to resign.
"Sorry, my wife wouldn't like it," said one. "I've got a pension to collect,"
said the other.
Several times, they advised me not to publicize the visit. "You know the Arab
mind," one advised. "If you tell people we visited you in prison, they'll never
believe you didn't talk with us, and you won't be trusted when you go to other
countries." There's no such thing as a monolithic Arab point of view, and what
intelligence agencies have done to undermine trust in Iraq and the surrounding
region is a chapter unto itself, but I bit my tongue.
I think these men came to see me because they were responding to inquiries
from their colleagues in Iraq. Perhaps someone, whom I've known, in Iraq, is
being "vetted" for a position within the U.S. occupation, or perhaps an Iraqi
under investigation for wrongdoing named me as one who could vouch for his or
her decency. I don't see how I could tell anything about my personal experience
that would have been harmful to another person, and maybe I could have been
helpful in showing that someone I know was genuinely concerned for innocent
I'm ambivalent – maybe I should have talked with them. But mainly I feel sad, a
bit weary, and somehow responsible because the most crucial "information" Voices
in the Wilderness can and should offer seldom reaches the general public, much
less officialdom. We tried hard to inform people that hundreds of thousands of
Iraqi children died as a direct result of economic sanctions. But it was as
though we were part of a defective Jeopardy! quiz game. We had answers to
questions that would never be asked.
The agents who visited me asked me about "bad apples" in Iraq. On Capitol
Hill, panels of civilians and military leaders want to punish the few "bad
apples" responsible for torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners. When we clamor for
closure of the military combat training school in Fort Benning, Ga., a school
whose graduates have
massacred, tortured, assassinated and disappeared many thousands of people in
Latin America, public relations spokespeople for the base say that we are
overreacting to "a few bad apples."
Suppose we set aside the bushels of "bad apples." Military, prison, and
intelligence-gathering structures routinely and inherently involve dehumanizing
actions (my encounter was, I think, exceptionally benign). Instead of searching
for blameworthy bad apples as though we are blind children trying to pin the
tail on the donkey, why not carefully acknowledge our collective, passive
responsibility for systems predicated on threat, force, and violence? When
money, talent, and resources are poured into military systems and prison
systems, while health, education, and welfare systems compete for inadequate
budget allotments, we can expect constant warfare abroad and the quadrupling of
prisoner populations which occurred in the US over the last 25 years.
Military and prisoner structures don't train recruits to view "the enemy" or
"the inmate" as precious and valuable humans deserving forgiveness, mercy, and
respect if they have trespassed against us. These systems don't foster the
notion that we ourselves could be mistaken, that we might seek forgiveness, or
that we might, together with presumed outcasts, create a better world. Look to
Scriptures for such views – they're there – but don't expect love of enemy and the
Golden Rule to guide military, prison, or intelligence systems anywhere in the
U.S. history abounds with remarkable achievements and noble endeavors – the
movements to abolish slavery, attain women's suffrage, build unions, and
establish civil rights, to name but a few. But no country can ever achieve
political maturity without willingly looking into the mirror and acknowledging
all of its history. The US must come to grips with having been, since World War
II (when, under the shadow of the mushroom cloud, we ushered the world into the
nuclear age), a nation constantly at war: Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, El
Salvador, Grenada, Panama, the first Gulf War, Kosovo, Columbia, Afghanistan,
the ongoing war in Iraq. We've waged hot war after hot war, and undergirding all
these wars is the continuing war of Western culture against the biodiversity of
our planet. To preserve our pleasures and privileges, we become the most
dangerous warlike culture in human history.
A few bad apples? Not a chance.
As more pictures of beleaguered Iraqi prisoners emerge, prolonging and
swelling a horrid scandal, I can't help but wonder why the pictures of suffering
Iraqi children never raised equivalent concern or indignation in the US or
elsewhere in the world.
I won't forget that one of the FBI agents mentioned seeing pictures of Iraqi
children on the VitW website. I'm grateful to him for remembering them. I feel
haunted by the infants, the toddlers, the young teens, and their heartbroken
mothers and fathers whom we met at bedside after bedside in Iraqi hospitals.
Walking on the oval track, here in prison, I whisper the names and recall the
sweet faces of the little ones I grew to know, fleetingly. All of them were
condemned to death. None of them were bad apples. They were fine fruits of
loving families. Hundreds of thousands died – some after many days of writhing
pain on bloodstained mats, without pain relievers. Some died quickly, wasted by
waterborne diseases; as the juices ran out of their bodies, they looked like
withered, spoiled fruits. But no, they weren't bad apples. They could have
lived, certainly should have lived – and laughed and danced, and run and
played – but somehow – honestly, I don't understand it – somehow they were sacrificed,
brutally punished to death.
Their pictures, each of their stories, had something to say to us. If
Americans had seen their images, day after day, the economic sanctions would
never have lasted long enough to claim the lives of as many as half a million
children under age five. These Iraqi children who couldn't survive abysmally
failed foreign policies still have something to say to us.
"Please call me by true name," wrote Thich Nhat Hanh, a monk and poet who
led the Buddhist non-aligned movement during the Vietnam War. He wants us to
fully understand who we are.
We have an extraordinary challenge, now, as the American people clearly don't
want to be aligned with or represented by disgraceful and bullying behavior. We
must resist being misled by finger-pointing at "a few bad apples." We should
acknowledge that all of us are called upon to be change agents, by changing our
over-consumptive and wasteful lifestyles. We must look for every sign of a
"climate change" that will help us overcome our unfortunate addiction to
This may be a pivotal time. Consider the early stages of the Civil Rights
movement. Participants must have wondered how many beatings, how many lynchings,
how many Jim Crow indignities would be heaped on communities before opponents of
civil rights would say they were tired of being the bully. In that movement, a
pivotal point was reached when Bull Connor ordered
police to train fire hoses on peaceful protesters, including children.
Frustrated onlookers around the world were horrified. And increasing numbers of
Americans no longer wanted to be identified with Bull Connor and all that he
"Injustice must be exposed to the light of human conscience," said the Rev.
Dr. Martin Luther King, "and to the air of national opinion before it can be
I feel sure that numerous members of the armed services, the intelligence
agencies, and various other federal government bureaus, including the bureau of
prison employees, understand very; well why we need radical change in the US. I
feel sure that an era of reform and a climate conducive to progressive
humanitarian measures will recycle into our history.
But all of us need to take advantage of our own opportunities to be agents of
change. For some it may mean walking away from cruel, wrongful, or dishonest
work. For others it may mean becoming whistle-blowers. Still others can announce
the truth as they see it in spite of risks to their pensions or job security.
When we're willing to call ourselves by all of our names, change can happen.
Change is coming. Light as the breath of excruciatingly beautiful Iraqi
children nearing their deaths, demanding as the imploring eyes of their mothers
who asked us why, you can feel it coming.