When Some Lives Are Worth More than Others
Rachel Corrie and Jessica Lynch
by Naomi Klein
May 22, 2003
Jessica Lynch and Rachel Corrie could have passed for sisters. Two all-American blondes, two destinies forever changed in a Middle East war zone. Private Jessica Lynch, the soldier, was born in Palestine, W.Va. Rachel Corrie, the activist, died in Israeli-occupied Palestine.
Ms. Corrie was four years older than 19-year-old Pte. Lynch. Her body was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza seven days before Pte. Lynch was taken into Iraqi custody, on March 23.
Before she went to Iraq, Pte. Lynch organized a pen pal program with a local kindergarten. Before Ms. Corrie left for Gaza, she organized a pen pal program between kids in her hometown of Olympia, Wash., and children in Rafah.
Pte. Lynch went to Iraq as a soldier loyal to her government. Ms. Corrie went to Gaza to oppose the actions of her government. As a U.S. citizen, she believed she had a special responsibility to defend Palestinians against U.S.-built weapons, purchased with U.S. aid to Israel. In letters home, she described how fresh water was being diverted from Gaza to Israeli settlements, and how death was more normal than life.
Unlike Pte. Lynch, Ms. Corrie did not set out to engage in combat; she went to try to thwart it. Along with fellow members of the International Solidarity Movement, she believed that the Israeli military's incursions could be slowed by the presence of highly visible "internationals," that Israel would not want the diplomatic or media scandals that would result if it started shooting U.S. and British college students.
In a way, Ms. Corrie was harnessing the very thing she disliked most about her country -- the belief that American lives are worth more than any others -- and trying to use it to save a few Palestinian homes from demolition.
Believing her florescent orange jacket would serve as armour, that her bullhorn could repel bullets, she stood in front of bulldozers, slept beside wells, and escorted children to school. If suicide bombers turn their bodies into weapons of death, Ms. Corrie turned hers into a weapon of life, a "human shield."
When that Israeli bulldozer driver pressed the accelerator, her strategy failed. It turns out that the lives of some U.S. citizens -- even beautiful, young, white women -- are valued more than others. And nothing demonstrates this more starkly than the opposing responses to Ms. Corrie and Pte. Lynch.
When the Pentagon announced Pte. Lynch's rescue, she became an overnight hero, complete with "America loves Jessica" fridge magnets, stickers, T-shirts, mugs, country songs and a made-for-TV movie. According to White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush was "full of joy for Jessica Lynch." Her rescue, we were told, was a testament to a core American value. As Senator Jay Rockefeller said, "We take care of our people."
Do they? Ms. Corrie's death was met with almost total official silence, despite the fact that witnesses claim it was a deliberate act. Mr. Bush has said nothing about a U.S. citizen being killed by a U.S.-made bulldozer bought with U.S. tax dollars. A congressional resolution demanding an independent inquiry into Ms. Corrie's death has been buried in committee, leaving the Israeli military's investigation -- which conveniently cleared itself of any wrongdoing -- as the only official probe.
The ISM activists say this non-response sent a dangerous signal. According to Olivia Jackson, a 25-year-old British citizen still in Rafah, the Israeli military "waited for the response from the American government, and the response was pathetic. They have realized that they can get away with it, and it has encouraged them to keep on going."
On April 5, Brian Avery, a U.S. citizen, was shot in the face. On April 11, Tom Hurndall, a British ISM activist, was shot in the head and left brain dead. Next was James Miller, a British cameraman shot dead while wearing a vest that read "TV." Witnesses said the shooters in all three cases were Israeli soldiers.
There is something else Pte. Lynch and Ms. Corrie have in common: the military's distortion of their stories.
According to the Pentagon, Pte. Lynch was captured in a bloody gun battle, mistreated by sadistic Iraqi doctors, then rescued in another storm of bullets by heroic Navy SEALs. But another version has emerged: The Iraqi doctors who treated her found no evidence of battle wounds, and they donated their own blood to save her life. And witnesses have told the BBC that the SEALs already knew there were no Iraqi fighters in the area.
While Pte. Lynch's story has been distorted to make its protagonists appear more heroic, Ms. Corrie's has been twisted to make her and her fellow ISM activists appear sinister.
For months, the Israeli military had been looking for an excuse to get rid of the ISM "troublemakers." It found it in Asif Mohammed Hanif and Omar Khan Sharif, the two British suicide bombers. It turns out they had attended a memorial to Ms. Corrie in Rafah, a fact the Israeli military has seized on to link the ISM to terrorism. ISM members say that the memorial was open to the public, and that they knew nothing of the British visitors' intentions. The ISM says it is opposed to the targeting of civilians, whether by Israeli bulldozers or Palestinian bombers. And many ISMers believe their work can reduce terrorist incidents by demonstrating that there are ways to resist occupation other than the nihilistic revenge offered by suicide bombing.
No matter. In the past two weeks, half a dozen ISM activists have been arrested, several have been deported, and the organization's offices have been raided. The crackdown is now spreading to all "internationals." On Monday, the United Nations special co-ordinator for the Middle East peace process told the Security Council that dozens of UN aid workers had been prevented from getting in and out of Gaza.
On June 5, the 36th anniversary of the Israeli occupation, there will be an internationally co-ordinated day of action for Palestinian rights. One of the key demands is for the UN to send a monitoring force into the occupied territories. Until that happens, many activists are determined to continue Ms. Corrie's work. More than 40 students at Ms. Corrie's college, Evergreen State in Olympia, have already signed up to go to Gaza with the ISM this summer.
So who is a hero? During the war on Iraq, some of Ms. Corrie's friends e-mailed her picture to MSNBC asking that it be included on the station's "wall of heroes," along with Pte. Lynch. The station didn't comply, but Ms. Corrie is being honoured in other ways. Her family has received more than 10,000 letters of support, communities across the country have organized dozens of memorials, and children all over the occupied territories are being named Rachel. It's not a made-for-TV kind of tribute, but perhaps that's for the best.
Naomi Klein is a leading anti-sweatshop activist, and author of Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate? (Picador, 2002) and No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (Picador, 2000). Visit the No Logo website: www.nologo.org.