Fifteen years ago, thousands of high school and college students at hundreds of campuses across the country went on strike—walking out of class against the looming war in Iraq, in a movement called Books not Bombs.
President George W. Bush, falsely declaring that the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was a terrorist threat, accused him of building weapons of mass destruction. Bush set his sights on invasion and occupation, to finish a war his father had started. In the US, we were still shocked and scared, reeling from the attacks of September 11th, planned and executed by Osama Bin Laden, who was closely connected to the Saudi royal family (U.S. troops had been stationed in Saudi Arabia since the first Gulf War). The U.S. media dutifully repeated Bush’s lies of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, whipping the public into hysteria and fear.
At the University of Chicago, we all walked out, streaming out of class and packing the historic Rockefeller Chapel to the pews. We walked out for our futures, to stop the barbarity and hate that we knew would only come back to hurt us all in a cycle of violence and retribution. Students left class and took action at over forty schools in the Chicago land area on March 5th, 2003. We held a massive rally on March 16th, with 20,000 youth filling Daley Plaza in Chicago. Students from another 50 schools walked out on March 20th, the day the US began bombing Baghdad.
We marched for peace then, and the youth are marching again for peace now. On March 14th, one month after latest school shooting in Parkland, Florida, students at over 3,000 high schools protested for peace and to learn in safety, walking out against gun violence, and the constant cycle of terror and counter-terror.
In 2004, we also marched. We gathered 1,500 signatures in a week calling on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to resign, delivering them to our senators in Chicago’s Federal Plaza. Students and faculty of the University of Chicago were overwhelmingly disgusted by the illegal and vicious torture and the sadistic pornographic violence that was unearthed in Abu Gharib. We witnessed a few of the least revolting pictures released; soldiers taking gruesome selfies in front of degraded Iraqi prisoners whom they forced to perform sex acts on each other, and whom they tortured psychologically and physically. That barbarity, that violence, that hate, and the pain that comes with it that the U.S. Government has unleashed overseas, has come back like a boomerang to our own country.
The demons unleashed through middle east wars have not only manifested in America through mass shootings. I remember in 2003 and 2004, soldiers came back from Afghanistan hooked on heroin. One man, at a party in Lincoln park, as he smoked a pipe of some opium, told me that they had methadone clinics on the flights back from Kabul to Germany where soldiers were treated for heroin withdraw. After the CIA supported drug lords, or warlords, who took control of Taliban territory with heavy air support in 2001, heroin poppy field cultivation increased dramatically in an Afghanistan no longer under Sharia law. US troops, unlike their European coalition counterparts, couldn’t even get any beer, much less hard liquor to calm their nerves, the veteran explained as he took another hit off the pipe. It wasn’t allowed at their mess hall meals on base, to take the edge off the stress and tension of war. All that was around was opium, Afghanis had plenty, and it was easy to get. These veterans returned, and the demand for that addictive drug returned with them. The violence in Chicago along the west side’s 290 expressway, called the “heroin highway,” the distribution center of the Midwest’s drug trade, is a casualty of that addiction. The ever-increasing prescription opium epidemic is another fallout.
The casualties of war aren’t always those dead on the battlefield. I remember in 2015, I was barbequing in Michigan City Indiana on Labor Day with veterans of a platoon of marines who had gone in on the first invasion of Iraq- the vanguard of the American force driving north from Kuwait to sack Baghdad. Three or four of the guys had PTSD, most had trouble keeping jobs.
Another friend of mine lost his job in the great recession in 2008. We went to college together; he was called up from the army reserves. He went to Afghanistan, then Iraq, then went back twice again with the military contractor KBR because mercenaries with Vice President Dick Cheney’s oil company, Haliburton, whose name was changed to KBR, made triple what US Army soldiers made doing the same work. When the great recession hit, and he lost his job, he was working in San Francisco in marketing. His rent was around $4,000 a month. He left the country he fought for; living unemployed was too expensive in the United States, he told me, so he moved to Asia with his savings, to “ball on a budget.”
Anyway, here we are again. School shootings and mass shooting events have increased dramatically in the United States. Police shoot innocent civilians, as if black lives don’t matter, and when citizens protest, they occupy the hood with armored personnel carriers and assault rifles, purchased for cheap from the Defense Department which procured them originally to occupy Iraqi cities. Rather than invest in education, jobs, and infrastructure, our tax dollars have gone to war abroad. Whole segments of the population are deemed disposable. They are shot mercilessly, like foster child Laquan McDonald, murdered by the police on video in plain sight, then the evidence covered up by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel until after his reelection.
We have glorified and become desensitized to violence. Sandy Hook, Parkland, San Bernardino, Las Vegas; there are too many mass shootings to count. The rhetoric of hate, militarism, then denunciation of terrorists, the celebration of waterboarding; the calls to bomb other countries in the name of freedom, the troops calling civilians sand niggers, and all sorts of other racial slurs and insults, the covered-up massacres, rapes, and tortures, the senseless violence and disregard for human life; it has all come back to us to haunt us.
As we waged war overseas, the US military trained a generation of teenagers to prepare for drone warfare and dispassionate murder. The Defense Department and Silicon Valley venture capitalists funded and produced hyper-real, first person, three-dimensional video games, where teenage boys spent hours killing monsters, zombies, and terrorists. Shows like the walking dead and others in the zombie apocalypse dramas have infected the popular psyche, and their message has become all pervasive. It is OK to shoot people, they are just zombies, lifeless masses of flesh, doing what they are told, commuting to work, or school, and to their next class when the school bell rings. They are only zombies; they aren’t real people with emotions, dreams, feelings, and aspirations. The Arab civilian, the black male, the young student. We have been programmed to believe they aren’t people. Their lives don’t matter. There are no consequences for their deaths.
It is time for a new generation to take up the torch of peace and liberty, to walk out and demand justice. And a new generation is answering that call. People are doing more now to rise and resist the barbarity. We’ve had massive rallies against gun violence and massive protests.
The women’s march; there were half a million women in the streets. The women’s march now is like immigrant rights protests more than a decade, now 12 years ago, when through Spanish language radio, the entire community took to the streets. Over half a million people took to the streets in Chicago, over a million in Los Angeles. The women’s march today also is a protest for peace and against the glorified sexualized violence of masculinity, money, and power manifested through rape, sadistic bondage, domination, and sadomasochism. This image of the powerful masculine sexually virulent male is touted as an ideal by the nation’s president and the media. For example, pornography website pornhub, with its streaming videos that celebrate the degradation of women, including gagging, torture, and gang rape, is the 15th most popular website in the United States according to a company that tracks internet traffic. CNN is the 25th most popular by contrast; millions of men jerk off to fetishized violence daily.
This desensitization of human life, this replacement of the fetish of violence and domination for love and compassion, has corrupted the nation’s psyche. We knew 15 years ago when we organized walkouts against Bush’s wars, marches against government condoned sadistic sexualized torture, that the terror our tax dollars unleashed would one day come back to haunt us.
There have been no major terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since, that is true. But we have been corrupted by the violence overseas, and are turning on each other here at home, a new school shooting every week, high profile celebrities and CEOs exposed as serial rapists, a president separating refugee children from their mothers’ arms and calling them gang members, and animals.
But though Obama did not deliver a change we could believe in, have we given up hope? Have they broken our spirits? No, they have not. They will not. It has been a long slog these years.
President Trump is on TV, dismissing our trauma and pain, denigrating whole ethnic groups, celebrating American military might, its potential for violence, and his sexual prowess. The stock market is soaring since congress enacted his corporate tax cuts, he proclaims, things couldn’t be better now that President Trump is Making America Great Again. But what is not on TV, everyone knows; all the new jobs since the great recession are now temp gigs and freelance work with low pay and no benefits. There is skyrocketing rent, and skyrocketing homelessness. We have been robbed of our futures, crushed under stagnant wages and high interest student loans. We can’t afford to buy a home, much less start a family. Youth are living with their parents longer and longer. The news says the economy couldn’t be better, we are in the longest economic expansion ever, and the stock market is soaring. But good jobs haven’t come back, and the factories in Cleveland, Ohio, Detroit, Michigan, Racine, Wisconsin, Rockford, Illinois, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania continue to decay and rust. Is this the best we will ever get?
No, it is not. We can do better than this.
So, this Memorial Day, we honor the casualties of war, and we salute the youth who have lost their fear. With courage and determination, they speak truth to power; they demand a future. Again they are taking to the streets. They now walk out of class for Books not Bullets, just as we did 15 years before for Books not Bombs.