"Another world is not only possible, she is on
her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."
-- Arundhati Roy (Porto Alegre, Brazil, World
Social Forum, 1/27/03)
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, IL from Chicago, where they work for
the FBI's National Security Service.
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 a moment.
His partner mentioned that they've already met with numerous Iraqi
Americans, none of whom had anything bad to say about Voices in the
"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 US 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 civilians.
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
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 over-reacting to "a few bad
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 world.
US 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 water-borne diseases; as the juices ran out of their bodies, they
appeared 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 and lethally punished to death.
Their pictures, each of their stories, had something to say to us. If
US people had seen their images, day after day, the economic sanctions
would never would never have lasted long enough to claim the lives of over ½
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 US 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 war marking.
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 US people no longer wanted to be identified with
Bull Connor and all that he represented.
"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.
Kathy Kelly is a co-founder of
Voices in the Wilderness.
She has thrice been nominated for a Nobel Prize. She began serving a four
month prison sentence at Pekin Federal Prison Camp in Illinois on April 6th
for civil disobedience activities at the School of the Americas, Fort
Benning, Georgia (Nov. 2003) and the ELF Base in Northern Wisconsin (May