The students in professor Addison Bross’ freshman English seminar knew to expect a special speaker at a recent afternoon class, but seemed unprepared for the initial questions posed by noted peace activist and former Washington Post
columnist Colman McCarthy.
“Have any of you ever been shot at?” he asked, as he made eye contact with each student gathered around the table. “Have any of you ever been in a country where planes are flying overhead, dropping bombs on you and trying to kill you?”
Living with the threat of death and devastation is a daily occurrence for millions of people around the world, and the threat largely comes from the United States, McCarthy said.
“Look at the long list of countries we’ve bombed since the end of World War II,” he told the class. “And then ask yourself, ‘In how many of these instances did a government that is respectful of human rights result?’ Know the answer? None. Zero. Not one.
“So that’s the U.S. government,” he continued. “We drop bombs on people all over the world, and then 9-11 happens and we ask, ‘Why don’t they love us?’ We live in denial and delusion. Our motto is ‘Got a problem? Go bomb someone.’ That’s the way we deal with the world’s problems, and to what end? We’re less secure now than we’ve ever been.”
An active approach
McCarthy also engaged the students in an exercise to help them understand the actual cost of the defense department under the current Bush administration. With their help, McCarthy calculated that the abstract $355 billion price tag actually translates into $972 million a day, $40 million every hour, $660,000 every minute, and $11,000 every second.
“Think it’s a good use of our money?” he asked. “Think there’s something else we could do with all that to improve the world condition? Right now, there are about 40,000 people a day who die of hunger or preventable diseases all over the world, and what do we do? We bomb people who are probably already suffering from poverty, lack of good medical care, and other social ills.”
McCarthy spoke briefly before taking questions from the students, which touched upon the wisdom of pacifism in an increasingly dangerous world, to the ways in which small groups of concerned citizens can change public policy.
“Pacifism is not passivity,” he said in response to several questions. “It is actually a derivative of the Latin word which translates into ‘make peace.’ It’s an active approach of engagement, of getting along with people, not dominating them. That causes a natural resentment.”
McCarthy exhorted those interested in becoming more involved in a peace movement to begin with their own life.
“You can argue all you want about Iraq, but what are you doing in your personal life to solve conflicts without violence? We don’t even teach that very well in our own schools.
“In fact, if you start talking about it, people look at you like you’re a lunatic,” he said. “In reality, it is a sign of mental health to work through grief or anger or whatever primal emotion is propelling you to get to the point where you can look for practical or spiritual opportunities for pacifism.”
Agonize or organize
Despite the fact that McCarthy, a self-described “old ‘60s lefty,” sees little in the way of hope for highly evolved attitudes about peace among current leaders, he does find inspiration in the responses he gets from students as he lectures all over the country.
“Right now, there are about 50 million young people in colleges and universities, in high schools and in elementary schools,” he said. “By tapping into them, you’ve already got yourself a movement.
“Years from now, these people may be our leaders, and be in a position to bring sanity and rational thought to the decision-making process. Unless we teach our children peace, someone else will teach them violence."
He also advised students to begin lobbying for a peace studies program at Lehigh.
“You have three-and-a-half years to get something going here,” he said. “You can agonize or organize. I say, organize.”
Posted on Tuesday, February 24, 2004