The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent


“At the root of all war is fear, not so much the fear men have of one another as the fear they have of everything.”-Thomas Merton
Fred A. Wilcox • 13 June 2004

Fall, 1970, and I’m wandering about Belfast, N. Ireland, looking, stupidly enough, for a youth hostel. I run smack into a squad of drunken British soldiers who, waving their rifles close to my nose, order me to hold my hands high and drop my backpack on the ground. One of my captors, a bantamweight with nose smashed sideways and several missing teeth, chants, “I want to kill the little people. I want to kill the fuggin’ little people.” I feel the old temper rising, but check myself from telling the man where he might shove his own ignorant head.

Meandering through occupied Belfast the next day, I enter a burned out neighborhood. Children’s toys lay scattered about, blackened doors and window frames, the stench of fire and fear. British soldiers race through the streets in armored cars, swiveling their guns my way, as if to say “come on now, nitwit, just make my day.” Young, heavily armed young men who, like their counterparts in Vietnam at this time, are terrified of dying and, therefore, extremely dangerous.

But why is that bantam boot boy hoping to kill Irish people? Why do those young British soldiers glare at me with such undisguised hatred? Who’s burning those wee houses, traumatizing children, driving families into the streets? And what might I do if a mob invades my neighborhood, burns my house, insults, beats and perhaps kills my friends and family? Would I turn the other cheek? Would I forgive those who trespassed against me, and would I refuse to strike back against them?

Had I been able to do so, I would have snatched that nasty British soldier’s gun from his hands and forced him to eat it, no mayonnaise. I would have happily yanked those frightened boys from their armored cars in Belfast and sent them straight across the Irish Sea in leaky lifeboats. I was well trained in violence, well schooled in the habit of hatred. A survivor of many homeless years on the streets of New York City, I was definitely not a pacifist.

Many years later I return to the North of Ireland as an international observer during the marching season, and then again as spokesperson for the observers during summer 2001. Since my last visit to the North, I have joined the movement against the Vietnam War, opposed the nuclear arms race, and lobbied against the U.S. government’s support for death squads in El Salvador, and for the Contras in Nicaragua. I’ve also had the opportunity to meet Philip Berrigan, World War II veteran and married priest turned pacifist. Together, we wrote his autobiography, Fighting the Lamb’s War: Skirmishes with the American Empire.

The armed struggle appears to be over in N. Ireland, but as I visit communities divided by high fences, as I pass sci-fi police fortresses squatting in the middle of neighborhoods, and attend numerous meetings with politicians, community workers, ex-prisoners, and others, I’m struck by the depth of pain and the level of suspicion and distrust in N. Ireland. How, I wonder, might people who have lived in constant fear for decades begin to reach across chasms of anger, sorrow, recrimination, and bitterness? Is it possible to deconstruct what one has learned about “the other,” about the enemy, and to begin to reach out to people who have harmed us?

On September 11, 2001, terrorists fly two commercial airliners into the World Trade Center Towers, crash one aircraft into the Pentagon, and plummet one plane filled with passengers into a field in Pennsylvania. My response is sheer rage. All day, hour after hour, I phone my children and friends in New York City. All day I weep and curse and wait. I want someone to pay for these terrible crimes, but have no idea who is responsible. My fear boils into hatred, a familiar old friend.

I volunteer to help with the relief efforts, and wind up working outside of the New York City Medical Examiner’s office. Every day, all day, flag-draped bodies are brought in from Ground Zero. Each time a body, or parts of a body, arrive we stop what we’re doing and stand at attention. My rage drains into a deep sadness for the victims of 911 and their families. Revenge seems pointless, hatred a form of self-indulgence.

At a memorial service in Yankee Stadium for the victims of 9/11, my son and I sit holding long stem roses as the New York police department’s Emerald Island Band plays “Over there” and “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Irish tenor Ronan Tynan belts out a song about immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. The stadium is only about one-third full when Oprah Winfrey welcomes the mayor of New York and the crowd leaps to its feet shouting “Rudy Rudy Rudy.” A naval officer in a gleaming white uniform steps up to the podium. Someone is going pay for this terrible crime, he declares. America will prevail. Terrorists will be defeated. Our enemies will be vanquished. Good will triumph over evil.

Brendan and I walk out. The subway is free. People clutch wilting roses. The so-called war on terrorism has begun. Soon, George W. Bush will send the mightiest army the world has ever known to attack poorly armed young religious fanatics in Afghanistan. Soon, Mr. Bush will commence an endless litany of lies to convince the American people that Saddam Hussein is responsible for 9/11, that Saddam is building weapons of mass destruction, and that Saddam intends to use these weapons on our towns and cities. Only a massive strike against Iraq will prevent this evil dictator from launching strikes that will make 9/11 look like a picnic.

Like all successful demagogues, George W. Bush, Collin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Dick Cheney understand how to manipulate frightened human beings. The trick is to channel fear into rage by creating targets (individuals, armies, entire nations) which if destroyed will diminish the terror people feel. The game is to dam people’s hatred behind promises of revenge, and then skillfully allow this hatred to explode over the evil enemy.

Politicians like Mr. Bush live within and simultaneously create universes of paranoia and distrust. Locked into mutually exclusive ideologies, these megalomaniacs engage in verbal jousting, rhetorical posing, recrimination, threats, and endless mind games. All successful autocrats know that human beings are fearful creatures, and that most of us will agree to believe, and even to do, the most outrageous things in order to diminish our fears.

I live in a nation bristling with atomic weapons, a country whose leadership appears to lack the intelligence or the imagination to stop preparing for war and to start creating peace. It would be convenient to believe that Mr. Bush and company are evil, but I’m convinced that, except for the power they hold, they are no different from the rest of us. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear someone say how much they hate the resident in the White House. We hate him because he insists on cutting down our beautiful forests, he wants to poison our rivers and lakes, he intends to kill our oceans, he burns Iraqi and Afghani children in their beds.

We hate him because it appears that he hates Mother Earth, and because it feels very much like he hates us.

I’ve come to realize that none of are saints. We are that little prizefighter who couldn’t wait to murder innocent people. We are those enraged soldiers who walked into My Lai one morning looking for the Viet Cong, and walked out after killing every man, woman, child, and beast in that village. We are those furious British teenagers roaring through the streets of Belfast, hoping to return home before someone put a bullet through their heads. We are George W. Bush and all of the idiots who strut and fret their hours upon the stage, telling us that if we just hate long and hard enough, the world will be a better place, our children will experience peace and prosperity, no one will ever fly another plane into a tall building, no one will ever plant a pipe bomb on our doorstep or blow us to pieces in our car to prove a point.

After a lifetime of struggling to come to term s with my own hatred, I’m now convinced that the only hope for people in the Middle East, the United States, Iraq, Afghanistan, Columbia, N. Ireland, is to walk into the streets together, stare into one another’s eyes, and admit that we’re terrified of giving up our anger, our prejudices, our hatreds. We’re frightened of becoming children again, because deep down we know that once upon a time we loved unconditionally. We know how beautiful that felt, and that’s why we are so frightened of returning there. Anyone with a modicum of good sense knows that children should be running this world, but that’s impossible because kids don’t know how to hate and, therefore, they would make terrible world leaders.

“Except you become a child again, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Yes indeed, but who wants to go to heaven if, in order to enter that paradise, one must leave all hatred at the door. “ I know that all this might sound like New Age nonsense. But I also know that calls to hate, the calls for revenge, the calls to war, the calls to killing, always come from those who have no intention of risking their lives for a basket full of rhetoric.

War will be the answer when, and only when, George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and all of the wannabe warriors of the world mount stallions and fight it out, hand to hand, while we the people cheer from high up in the stands. I’ve had my fill of hate. Time and terrible time again. I’m just not willing to die, or to have my children, or the children of the world die, in order to prove that the ultimate form of love is state-sponsored and church-sanctified bigotry.

“We must learn to love one another or die,” wrote W.H. Auden. How to actually do that is the ten million dollar question. Philip Berrrigan spent more than eleven years of his life in prison for his opposition to war. Phil lived in voluntary poverty in one of America’s toughest urban neighborhoods. He did time in America’s hard rock prisons. As a young soldier he had been a “skilled killer, trained in the use of small arms, clever with the bayonet, good with a submachine gun and automatic Browning rifle.”

Phil enjoyed a glass of whiskey and good craic. He was the kindest, most generous, toughest and most courageous man I’ve ever met. Not simply because he stood up to and constantly challenged the American empire, year after year, decade after decade, but because no matter how brutally the empire’s minions treated him, in spite of the many ways that the courts, the prisons, and the police tried to break his spirit, Phil Berrigan absolutely refused to succumb to the practice of hate.

Philip Berrigan believed that love is the answer. No armchair revolutionary, he inspired people throughout the world to speak truth to power, even when that means arrest, kangaroo trials, and long prison terms. On his deathbed, Phil called for renewed resistance to atomic weapons. Unlike Mr. Bush and company, Phil had walked through the ruins of allied bombing raids, smelled decaying flesh, seen men die, killed the enemy. He understood that hate is circular. It always boomerangs back to strike us when we least expect it to happen.

I would like to sit down with the people who live on opposite sides of “peace walls” in the North of Ireland. I would to talk about the roll fear and hatred have played in my own life, and to share the hope that ordinary people all over the world might find ways to lay down our swords and shields and live together, if not as friends, at least not as enemies.

Meanwhile, our fearless leaders here in the U.S.A. tell us that our nation will soon be attacked again. This time, they say, it will be much worse. We must be vigilant. We must be prepared for large numbers of people to die. Our enemies are legion. They want to poison our cities, burn our lungs with chemical gases. No one ever talks about why people might want to attack the United States of America. We presume, we insist, that we are innocent, even while the Central Intelligence Agency is open for business, while we eulogize war criminals like Ronald Reagan as great humanitarians, while we support the Israeli government’s killing machine in the occupied territories, and while we send more troops to kill and die in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Whenever I return from the North of Ireland, people ask me why there’s so much hatred in that part of the world. I explain that I feel safer in Belfast than New York City, and they give me that “What does he know about hate?” smile.

Lots, I could answer. Too much, I could say. More than, even after so many years of hard work, I would really care to admit.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent


All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

11 June 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

An Open Letter to the Leadership of the Irish Republican Army
Paul Fitzsimmons

Fred Wilcox

Something rotten at the core of US body politic
Mick Hall

Father Mc Manus Replies to Mrs. O'Loan, Urges Proof in Abundance
Father Sean Mc Manus

The Armed Peace
Anthony McIntyre

An Irish Wake for Ronnie Reagan
Radio Free Eireann

Gareth McConnell

Venezuela: terrorist snipers, their media allies and defence of democracy
Toni Solo

7 June 2004

US Nationwide Irish American Group Holds 2004 Convention in Belfast
Sean Mc Aughey

The Chen Case @ the European Court of Justice - Money Talks and a Government Lies
John Meehan

A Left Vote for the Right Person
Anthony McIntyre

John Martin

Response to:
"Irish Americans"

Peter Urban

Sri Lanka: up country with the Tamil Tigers
Cedric Gouverneur

The Letters page has been updated.


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