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Right Livelihood

June 2, 2006

Earlier this month, I visited a center in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq which has, since it began in 1991, helped survivors of land mine detonations and other war related injuries gain a new lease on life. On the walls of the Emergency Rehabilitation Center are small photos of people whom the staff has treated, over the years, with surgery, physical therapy and prosthetics. Workshops train people in carpentry, tailoring, shoemaking and other skills so that people can return to their homes with a new vocation. Several of the therapists and technicians were maimed by weapons. They adamantly oppose war as a means to solve disputes. The staff’s dedication and the familial atmosphere at the center give many people hope in a dark time.

They gave hope to Ali, an 11 year old boy who was severely injured by accident. While he was climbing a high voltage tower, the power was turned on. Electricity surged through his body, leaving him armless. It seemed a miracle that he survived. He is bright, energetic, and thoroughly engaging. His mother, who is Kurdish, beamed with energy and pride as she helped Ali cope with physical therapy. She saved her tears until he was out of sight. Ali’s father, an Arab Iraqi, has taught Ali to speak both Arabic and Kurdish. Ali helped me practice my fledgling language skills over the course of a few days. But mostly, from Ali, I learned about courage.

One day, as technicians at the center showed me a video about one of their “success stories,” Ali walked into the room. He climbed up on the chair where I sat, and immediately grew curious about the 28 year old man, in the video, who was struggling to use his artificial limb, with a spoon inserted in the plastic hand, to feed himself. I glanced at Ali’s face several times, anxious that he might feel frightened or overwhelmed. First he was curious, and then clearly taken aback as he stared at the man’s repeated failures to bring the spoon to his mouth. Ali quickly realized that he would face this challenge. Suddenly he sat up straight, nodded his head eagerly, and then smiled with delight when the man on the video succeeded in feeding himself. The next day, Ali was fitted with an artificial limb. Within hours, he proudly posed for a picture that shows him putting a spoon in his mouth.

Just before I headed off to visit this Rehab center renowned for helping victims of war, I received a letter from Brian Willson, a U.S. Viet Nam veteran who, unlike Ali, received horrible wounds from direct military action. He received these wounds from the U.S. military, on American soil. Here is how he remembers September 1, 1987:

“In 1987, while peacefully blocking a military train at a U.S. Navy munitions base in California loaded with armaments headed for Central America, I received severe injuries and was almost murdered when the train chose not to stop. The Navy train crew and their supervisors knew in advance of our nonviolent three-member veterans’ blockade and had a clear, 650-foot view as the train approached us at high noon on a bright sunny day. Though expecting to be arrested and jailed by the nearby armed U.S. Marines and local police, we never imagined the conscious and criminal acceleration of the loaded train to more than three times its posted five-mile-an-hour legal speed limit. I lost both legs, suffered a fractured skull, multiple other injuries, and nearly lost my life as I was run over by the speeding train. One of the other veterans jumped high in the air to grab onto the cow catcher railing on the front of the locomotive just above the platform where the two government spotters stood. A military ambulance and crew quickly arrived on the scene but refused to transport me to a hospital, alleging that my limp, maimed body was not lying on military property. In the meantime, my wife, who was a midwife, and other friends at the scene, worked feverishly to stop my bleeding and to preserve my life energy while we awaited arrival of another ambulance 15 or 20 minutes later. Shockingly, unbeknown to us, we had been labeled “domestic terrorist suspects” by the FBI, explaining the orders given the crew that day to NOT stop the train to prevent what they feared was to be a ‘hijack.’ This case remains an illustrative example of the severe danger of the government using the ‘terrorist’ label for dissenters, both at home and abroad, so prevalent today.”

Ever since, Brian Willson has bravely “walked the talk,” although he must do it on two artificial legs, traveling all over the world to campaign against weapons and war and the voracious resource consumption, chiefly by Western nations, which spurs so many of the world’s conflicts. In more recent years, Brian has, with impeccable logic, started staying closer to home to avoid consuming more than his fair share of energy resources wasted in nonessential air travel.

By living simply, while working hard for justice, he aims to attain what he calls “right livelihood.” Brian and his community are striving to consume services and goods that originate in their own local bioregion. Voluntary simplicity, for them, includes refusing to pay taxes, even if that requires living under the taxable income level. They work toward dramatic reduction in use of petroleum for transportation, and they increase their use of solar energy for hot water and electricity. The community is experimenting with creating its own internal currency and has formed a local “peak- oil” action group to alert others to the dire and permanent energy crisis expected when oil reserves start to be exhausted.

Now Brian, at age 65, is in training for a 1200-mile-round-trip journey from his northern California home to the national Veterans for Peace conference this August in Seattle. He’s going to use a hand-pedaled recumbent tricycle. “I don’t know whether I can do it,” he writes. “I’ll let you know when I get there.”

But his main purpose in writing to me concerned my capacity to “walk the talk.” Brian quoted from an article I recently wrote urging U.S. people to slow down and think about where our country is going, to feel remorse for suffering caused in Iraq, to try and stop the flow of funds for the war, and to demand that the U.S. pay reparations to Iraq. Brian urged me to “jack up” my prescription for what people can do in response to the reckless direction in which our country is headed.

Brian is right.

We can’t control the U.S. government. It is every bit as reckless as the train which ran over Brian Willson. (This train was believed to be carrying white phosphorus -something like powdered napalm-for use in the dirty wars in or own hemisphere). But we can control our personal budgets. Brian suggested asking people to stop fuelling “the train.” If we can’t control our own government, can we at least stop actively helping it? For most of us who have entered into adulthood, the U.S. government doesn’t want our bodies fighting in the war; they don’t even care very much about our consent. They do want our labor, and our money. What right do we have to keep giving it to them?

Often, if I’m invited to speak with a group in the U.S., either my host or I will mention that I haven’t paid federal income taxes since 1981. Generally, audiences applaud. Almost always, a questioner will ask: “How do you avoid paying taxes?”

I advise people to visit the National War Tax Refusal Coordinating Committee website, www.nwtrcc.org, and to order the fifteen dollar manual called “A Guide to War Tax Refusal.” I urge them to study the manual and then download four pamphlets that offer a practical guide to war tax refusal. I insist they must get in touch with the nearest war tax refusal counselor before embarking on what is, admittedly, a difficult route.

But I also hold that if we oppose the U.S. government by refusing to fund U.S. war making, the risks are not that high. For several years now, the U.S. has stood on the precipice of all out devastation-of itself and of the world. Throughout modern history people faced far more dire personal circumstances to resist injustices and calamities like those we are tacitly helping our leaders foment. They faced dreadful risks to resist oppression in Nazi Germany, in apartheid South Africa, and in the Jim Crow South of the U.S. (and its horribly segregated Northern counterpart). The risks we face for nonviolent resistance are comparatively trivial. If we refuse to pay our taxes for imperial war, we won’t be disappeared by a death squad. We won’t be lynched or shot. Our families won’t be massacred. People ruthlessly crushed by U.S. foreign policies, beyond our borders, faces such risks. For us, the risk of continued collaboration with the reckless group of warmongers currently leading the U.S. is, however, extremely high.

We fear terrorism. And yet, with our ongoing, unlimited war of U.S. “wholesale” terror against reactive “retail” terror we are creating new, more committed, more dangerous terrorists much faster than we can kill them. But the greatest terror we face is the danger caused by what we’re doing to our own environment. We pour pollutants into the air, water and ground, seed the planet with festering hatred and relentlessly deplete irreplaceable natural resources.

In his letter to me, Brian Willson recommends calling for massive and permanent presence of people in particular locations who will not move until the war ends and money is redirected to social needs at home and reparations in Iraq, similar to Martin Luther King’s prescription for a permanent “Resurrection City” in Washington, D.C. Many are now planning or enacting such projects, and yet we must become many more than we are now.

It’s easy to feel daunted by the tasks ahead. But Ali’s responses to extraordinary challenges could guide us: straighten up, smile eagerly, catch courage from one another, and use our gifts to start over, to gain a new lease on life.

Kathy Kelly co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence www.vcnv.org.