Open the Washington Post to its editorial pages the day after the September 11 attacks, and war talk dominates.
“Destroy the Network.”
“We Must Fight This War.”
“To War, Not to Court.”
William S. Cohen:
“American Holy War.”
There is no column by Colman McCarthy talking peace.
From 1969 to 1997, McCarthy wrote a column for the Washington Post. He was let go because the column, he was told, wasn’t making enough money for the company. “The market has spoken,” was the way Robert Kaiser, the managing editor at the Post, put it at the time.
McCarthy is a pacifist: “I’m opposed to any kind of violence—economic, political, military, domestic.” But he’s not surprised by the war talk now coming from the Post. He has just completed an analysis of 430 opinion pieces that ran in the Washington Post in June, July and August 2001. Of the 430 opinion pieces, 420 were written by right-wingers or centrists. Only 10 were written by columnists one might consider left.
Nor is he surprised by the initial response of the American people to the horrific attacks on innocent civilians. According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll (9/11/01), nine of ten people supported taking military action against the groups or nations responsible for the attacks “even if it led to war.” “In the flush of emotions, that is the common reaction,” McCarthy says. “But is it a rational and sane reaction?”
So, how should we respond? “We forgive you. Please forgive us.” Forgive us for what? “Please forgive us for being the most violent government on earth,” McCarthy says. “Martin Luther King said this on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York. He said, ‘My government is the world’s leading purveyor of violence.’ In the past 20 years, we have bombed Libya, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq and Yugoslavia. There are two things about those countries—all are poor countries, and the majority are people of dark colored skin.”
Are you saying that we should just turn the other cheek? “No, that’s passivity,” McCarthy says. “Pacifism is not passivity. Pacifism is direct action, direct resistance, refusing to cooperate with violence. That takes a lot of bravery. It takes much more courage than to use a gun or drop a bomb.”
Since leaving the Post, McCarthy has dedicated his life to teaching peace. He has created the Center for Teaching Peace, which he runs out of his home in Northwest Washington. He teaches peace and nonviolence at six area universities and at a number of public secondary and high schools. But he’s up against a system that systematically teaches violence, from that all-pervasive teacher of children—television—to the president of the United States.
“In 1999, the day after the Columbine shootings, Bill Clinton went to a high school in Alexandria, Virginia and gave a speech to the school’s Peer Mediation Club,” McCarthy says. “Clinton said, ‘We must teach our children to express their anger and resolve their conflicts with words not weapons.’ It was a great speech, but he went back that same night and ordered up the most intense bombing of Belgrade
since that war began four weeks before.” Message to children: Kids’ violence is bad, but America’s violence is good.
McCarthy says we should teach our children forgiveness, not to demonize people who have a grievance. “When you hit your child, or beat up the person you are living with, you are saying, ‘I want you to change the way you think or behave and I’m going to use physical force to make you change your way or your mind,’” he says. “In fact, violence is rarely effective. If violence was effective, we would have had a peaceful planet eons ago.”
How to break the cycle of violence? “The same way you break the cycle of ignorance: Educate people,” McCarthy responds. “Kids walk in the school with no idea that two plus two equals four. They are ignorant. We repeat over and over: Billy, two plus two equals four. And Billy leaves school knowing two plus two equals four. But he doesn’t leave school knowing that an eye for an eye means we all go blind.”
Of the 3,100 colleges and universities in the country, only about 70 have degree programs in peace studies, and most are underfunded. Instead of bombing, we should start teaching peace. “We are graduating students as peace illiterates who have only heard of the side of violence,” McCarthy laments. “If we don’t teach our children peace, somebody else will teach them violence.”