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Dear Mr. President: Words of Resistance, Reason, and Peace

A Plea For Peace
by Chris Sovrin

September 21, 2001

"And violence is impractical, because the old eye for an eye philosophy ends up leaving everybody blind... It is immoral because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for everybody. Means and ends are inseparable. The means represent the ideal in the making; in the long run of history destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends." -Martin Luther King, Jr.


As I write this, I realize that you will probably never read it. But someone will. And perhaps that will matter enough to have an effect worth having. So I write this to you, but I write this for those who care enough to read it.

I watch you now in a delicate place, holding a possibility so fragile and so precious, and you look like a toddler who is grasping an ornament made of blown glass with all the same reverence that he reserves for his indestructible wooden blocks. But unlike the anxious parent, I can't rush across the room and take it from you, this possibility, this choice. I can only appeal to you and hope that you are easier to reason with than a toddler with something irresistibly shiny in his hand.

As a child of the Cold War, I used to wonder at the stupidity of adults. Peace seemed so obvious and so simple. But, I was assured, it only seemed simple to me because I was a na´ve child and would understand these complexities when I grew up. I was told that my idealism, while commendable, was not realistic. The peace I imagined simply was not possible, they insisted. Now that I am grown up, I realize that the adults who told me this were mistaken.


"In 1989, thirteen nations comprising 1,695,000 people experienced nonviolent revolutions that succeeded beyond anyone's wildest expectations . . . If we add all the countries touched by major nonviolent actions in our century (the Philippines, South Africa . . . the independence movement in India . . .) the figure reaches 3,337,400,000, a staggering 65% of humanity! All this in the teeth of the assertion, endlessly repeated, that nonviolence doesn't work in the 'real' world." -Walter Wink

Imagination is the single greatest power that human beings have. Other than our extraordinary cruelty, imagination seems to be the only thing that sets us apart from other animals. We can wonder. And despite the miracle of this ability - whether accidental or intended by some divine power - we have too often shunned the use of imagination, admonishing our children instead to keep their heads "out of the clouds" and focus on the important business of reality.

"We must face reality," we are told. "We must be realistic," we are cautioned.

It is interesting to take notice of what is considered realistic and what is not. When a child asks why we could not simply refrain from doing violence and making war, she will be told that this is not realistic. When an adult who lives in a big, white house says that we will succeed in wiping a form of violence from the earth by committing prolonged acts of violence against many people, there will be many other adults who will claim that this, truly, is realistic. Wiser children, meanwhile, will mostly scratch their heads in confusion and wonder if they, too, will be so stupid when they are older.

The simple truth is that reality is not some monolithic, objective thing outside of ourselves. We are reality. Every choice we make, every thought we think, everything that we dare to imagine - both the heinous and the sublime - all of this becomes our reality. We choose it. By imagination, we create it. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, "We must be the change we wish to see." This is not some two-bit metaphysical philosophy; it's just common sense. We carve reality out of ourselves by choosing what we will do, who we will be. The real world includes us, our thoughts, actions, emotions, and choices. This is an unavoidable truth and only those who face it courageously with all of its frightening implications are in a position to honestly call themselves realists.

So, Mr. President, if you wish to be realistic during this time of crisis and during this tender moment when truth is paramount, then you must take a moment to exercise the only faculty which can create the peaceful reality we all hope for. You must use your imagination.


"Wars are not acts of God. They are caused by man, by man-made institutions, by the way in which man has organized his society. What man has made, man can change." -Frederick Moore Vinson

Imagine that there are basically two kinds of worlds we can live in: a world of violence or a world of peace. Imagine that it really is just that simple. Imagine that violence, rather than being a faceless threat somewhere, or a threat with a limited number of faces which we can "hunt down" and destroy, is actually a choice made over and over. Imagine that the choice is made not by governments, organizations, political or religious groups, but by the individuals who comprise these entities, and by countless others, individually, one at a time. Imagine that it is each of these individual choices which create a world of violence, and nothing else. Imagine that when a person, any person, commits an act of violence, that person takes the world a step away from peace. Imagine that never, by violent means, will it be taken a step closer. Imagine that when a person, any person, chooses nonviolence, that person takes the world a step closer to peace.

I realize that right now, surrounded and saturated by the world of politics and government and public relations that you live in, it probably appears to you that you have no choice but to retaliate. When you think of the situation that you face, no doubt war seems the only real option, the only realistic option. Because, if not war, then what?

But imagine still further that you are a human being, like every other on earth, who has a clear choice: violence or peace. Imagine that the choice is real, and that you will be equally as responsible for the violence, should you choose it, as are those who killed so many on American soil September 11, 2001, and that many, if not most of the victims will be as innocent as those who died in the recent attacks.


"When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?" -Eleanor Roosevelt

Continue imagining, Mr. President, that through the sorrow of this terrible violence that has befallen us, you have been given one of the most potent gifts in history: the possibility for change. You are not the first leader to receive it, but you could become one of the few ever to truly recognize it for what it is and make use of it. The gift that you hold is that delicate glass bubble of possibility I mentioned before, and I only hope you have the wisdom to realize that you have not quite shattered it yet (though you are coming dangerously close).

Now imagine the United States through the eyes of the rest of the world. The U.S. has been violently attacked. America's proclivity towards war and violence is known throughout the globe. Those who committed this act of violence knew, with absolute certainty, that the U.S. would retaliate violently. Few would be foolish enough to argue otherwise. So now the people of the world, both U.S. allies and enemies, are holding their breath waiting to see what we will do, how severe it will be, how long it will last, how it will affect them and those they love. Right now, they, along with American citizens, are feeling fear and anxiety as the global political climate escalates towards panic-inducing possibilities.

Imagine their reactions when, instead of retaliating and declaring war, the United States announces that it will not allow these unconscionable crimes to draw it into an ever-escalating cycle of violence. Imagine the reaction when the U.S. commits itself to bringing the perpetrators to justice without resorting to violence. Imagine the reaction when the U.S. pledges itself to understanding the roots of terrorism and peacefully leveling the mountains of injustice upon which this and all violence has grown. Imagine the reaction when the U.S. makes a real commitment to understanding and combating its own role in oppression and violence throughout the world and within its own borders. Imagine the stunned reactions of the terrorists when the U.S. takes the one action they weren't prepared for: a move towards peace without violence. Imagine how the people of the world, including Americans, would feel if such an announcement were made: less fearful, more hopeful, and more united under a cause we can all care about.


"Violence produces only something resembling justice, but it distances people from the possibility of living justly, without violence." -Leo Tolstoy

You have spoken of "justice" and of holding the perpetrators of the attacks "accountable" for their actions. You and I - and apparently most of the people of our world - are in agreement about the importance of justice and accountability for these crimes against humanity. Where we differ is in the meanings of those words.

You have not, as I've yet heard, defined justice and accountability, so I can only draw conclusions based on everything else you've said. It would seem - from your declaration of war, and your many comments about "hunting" people down "dead or alive" - that you believe justice and accountability to be nothing more than killing those you believe to be responsible. But neither of these words entails killing or violence of any kind.

If something is just or embodies justice, it is fair and ethical. The word, used properly, summons ethics, not violence. So a world of justice is, ostensibly, a world that is fair and ethical. Therefore, if one seeks justice, one seeks to make the world a fair and ethical place. The deaths of innocent people (both U.S. military personnel and the people who they will be compelled to kill, as well as U.S. civilians) that are certain to ensue if we follow through on your proposed course of violence will not be fair. They will not be ethical.

And so, if it is justice you truly seek, you are, without a doubt, far off course. Real justice withers as war approaches. A military action with a name like "Operation Infinite Justice" is an oxymoron. Real justice germinates only in the soil of non-violence. Additionally, "infinite justice" would necessarily include the U.S. taking responsibility for its own crimes and injustices committed throughout the world, both past and present. When I was a child saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag, I always thought that the phrase "and justice for all" referred to everyone, whether they were American or not. But your present course of action makes me embarrassed and ashamed of my country because it seems that we only seek justice for ourselves or when it suits our own interests.

As for accountability, I will say this: The meaning of this word begins with the idea of giving an account of something, which usually means to explain one's actions, to give one's reasons. The meaning of the word continues in the idea of accepting responsibility for wrong-doing, for acknowledging one's misdeeds, and seeking to repair damage in whatever ways are possible, as well as working to ensure that the wrong-doing is not repeated. The implication ought to be obvious, but doubtless has escaped your attention:

It is impossible to be accountable if one is dead.

And so, if it is accountability you truly seek, you are, once again, gravely misguided. Killing people is the surest way to prevent their accountability. Violence will quite obviously not achieve the goals of justice and accountability that you claim to pursue.


"If it were proved to me that in making war, my ideal had a chance of being realized, I would still say "No" to war. For one does not create human society on mounds of corpses." -Louis Lecoin

If you still believe that Americans committed to justice should kill those who commit such horrible crimes as brutally killing perhaps as many as six thousand innocent Americans, then consider this:

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 1976 and 1999, more than 117,200 women were victims of homicide. (That's an average of nearly 5,100 per year.) Only 2.4 percent of the women killed were killed by other women, which means that 97.6 percent of the women killed were killed by men.

So between 1976 and 1999, American men killed more than 114,400 American women. According to the FBI "Crime in the United States: Uniform Crime Reports," more than one-third of female homicide victims are killed by their husbands or boyfriends. That means that between 1976 and 1999, more than 38,100 women were killed by their boyfriends or husbands. If you consider only the short period of five years between 1995 and 1999, American men still managed to kill over 20,000 American women.

These horrifying and sobering numbers of violent crime committed by men against women in the U.S. do not even include the still more horrifying and sobering statistics on sexual assault. According to the "Rape in America" report to the nation in 1992, prepared by the National Victim Center and Crime Victims Research Center, it is estimated that a woman is raped in the U.S. every 1.3 minutes. And this is to say nothing of the towering numbers of women who are battered daily by American men, or the numerous other social injustices based on sexism (poverty, etc.).

If women of the U.S. were to follow your proposed brand of "justice" and "accountability" then we would take up arms and begin systematically to "hunt down" the perpetrators of these crimes: thousands upon thousands of American men. If our consciences and thirst for justice drove us in the same directions as yours seem to drive you, then we, too, would opt for pre-emptive self-defense - we would declare war on the broad face of sexism, as you have on terrorism, and we would kill sexist men and all those who "harbor, encourage, house, comfort, or feed them."

It is perhaps easy to scoff at such a war on sexism. But if the current fury fueling the drive towards war is a result of the violent loss over possibly six thousand American lives, then surely an equal fury with its own declaration of war is no less ridiculous when the lives lost here are no less staggering and the cruelty and remorselessness no less barbaric. And sexism is just one of many broad oppressions that could have been chosen to illustrate this point. Racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia are only a few other examples that would have worked just as well.

If the idea of women taking up arms against men to fight sexism, or people of color taking up arms against white people to fight racism (and so on) makes you uneasy, then ask yourself why the people of the world should feel comfortable with your war on terrorism. It is unreasonable and will fail for the same reasons.

The most obvious reason that wars such as these are doomed to failure is that they only kill the perpetrators; they do not dismantle the conditions which create them. Imagine for a moment a possible future scenario in which American women have succeeded in killing every man responsible for sexism in this country. Will they have won the war on sexism? Of course not. The culture of sexism will remain and their own sons will turn against them. In order to truly win a "war" on sexism, we must work diligently, men and women alike, to dismantle the conditions which allow sexism to flourish. The same is true of any oppression, any violence.

Just as sexism cannot be ended by killing sexists, terrorism cannot be ended by killing terrorists. The war that you foment is no less ridiculous, self-defeating, impractical, and foolish than the wars I've described.


"There is nothing that war has ever achieved that we could not better achieve without it." -Havelock Ellis

You have said that you have "universal support" for retaliation. This is false. People from all walks of life in countries all over the world, including the U.S., have spoken out against the violence you propose to pursue. I object to it. Countless friends, loved ones, and strangers object to it. Many of your own allies object to it. You have nothing even resembling "universal support" for the bloody course that you are now charting. Even now, it is not too late to choose differently. You can bring the warplanes back before they strike.

There are alternatives to violence, to this ludicrous war. Find them. And if you cannot find alternatives, then create them. If you cannot find them or create them, then find people who can. And if, finally, Mr. President, you cannot do even this, then please step aside and kindly make room for those who can. Any president could lead us to war. What Americans and all citizens of our planet now need - desperately need - is a president who can lead us to peace. You possess both the power and the possibility to do this.

I hope - with the most tiny, timid, flickering flame of a hope - that future history books will tell our progeny that you also possessed the imagination, the creativity, the wisdom, and the courage to create peace out of our tragedy.

Respectfully Yours In Hope and Good Faith,

Chris Sovrin

"It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell." -William Tecumseh Sherman

"In fact aggression and revenge are deliberately incited to fuel war. Every war is backed by political and military propaganda which fires anger, hatred and impulses to attack and retaliate. This serves at least two purposes: it allows armies to believe in what they're doing, and seduces people into supporting their leaders' war policies." -Peace Pledge Union


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