Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the anti-war group Code Pink, author of ten books, most recently “Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control,” in 2012, received the 2014 Gandhi Peace Award from Promoting Enduring Peace, the sister organization of this blog, Peacenews.org.
After interrupting U.S. President Barack Obama during a speech in 2013 at the National Defense University with questions about the U.S. policy of prisoner detainment at Guantanamo, Obama himself described Benjamin’s voice as “one that should be listened to.”
During her acceptance speech, Benjamin discussed drone warfare and other social justice issues around the world, from Guantanamo to Egypt, Bahrain and U.S. drone bases that are being built in Saudi Arabia that she said are making the U.S. less safe. Below is the video from Promoting Enduring Peace board member and TheStruggle.org founder Stanley Heller. Below that is Medea’s speech transcribed.
Medea Benjamin’s Gandhi Peace Award speech transcribed:
Medea Benjamin: Getting the award and when you listed those women, my gosh, I mean the feet that I would have to have to fit in their shoes would be enormous, and the work and the goals and the beauty of what Promoting Enduring Peace is about, I love the name. I love the reason for being, I even love the acronym PEP, because one must be peppy if you want to promote enduring peace.
I was asked to just give a little background about how I got into this work, and I think it’s important to say that many of us who do this work as our lives’ work, it’s not likely we went out seeking injustice in the world. It was more like our eyes were opened to what was happening in the world, and in my case, it was being in high school during the years of Vietnam War, and my sister’s boyfriend being sent off to Vietnam; six months later, sending her home an ear of a Viet Cong to wear as a necklace, and that changed my whole life.
That said to me, “Something is crazy about war. Something is crazy about sending our young people thousands of miles away where they don’t know where they’re going and why they’re going and when they feel that somebody’s body part is a souvenir.” I went out in the world as a young woman trying to do something to make the world better. I got a degree in Public Health and Nutrition and went to some of the poorest places in Africa, and then found US corporations and other multinationals … In the case of my first job in southern Africa, what I found was the baby formula companies going into the poorest villages in the entire world, bamboozling the poorest women in the entire world to stop breastfeeding their children and what I witnessed was babies dying in my arms because these women couldn’t afford to keep buying the baby milk, their breast milk dried up.
I thought, “How could it be that corporations are so uncaring that they would try to squeeze a couple of cents out of the poorest people in the world, knowing that the end result might be that their children would die?”
Then I went to work as a nutritionist in Central America, and came up against the fruit companies, United Fruit Company, Standard Fruit, that literally stole the lands of indigenous people who had been farming for generations and feeding themselves quite well for generations, destroying their farms, taking over their land to grow food for export for us, and I was supposed to teach them how to feed their children better?
I joined with them in trying to create unions in the fruit companies and to fight the companies to try to get their land back. I saw, when I was in Nigeria, and saw Shell Oil Company destroying the environment of local people, destroying local livelihoods, and then killing people to keep them away from the oil that belonged to them. I saw, when I traveled to Indonesia and worked for the UN, and there, companies like Nike, that were selling their shoes for $150, were treating their workers so poorly that their workers didn’t have enough money to feed themselves and their families. I saw it with Gap, going to the poorest places in the world like Bangladesh, and so mistreating their workers that they had them working in factories that were so dangerous, that when a fire would break out, hundreds of women would die.
That’s what’s beneath the clothes that we are wearing. I didn’t go out looking for injustice. I went out in the world and found the injustice. I also found something that was so disturbing to me as a young woman. What I found was that my government was supporting the companies. My government was overthrowing democratically elected governments that wanted to get the resources for their own people or wanted to protect local lives and local livelihoods and local environments. I found that my government was propping up repressive regimes with money paid by our tax dollars, weapons made by our corporations, to kill people who were merely trying to keep the land to feed their families.
I realized this was all part of something that I never read about and learned in my high school, and that was something called Empire. I look at Gandhi and his life, and we realize how much he dedicated his life as somebody who lived on the periphery of the empire, in that case, England, to try to get his country, India, outside the sphere of the empire, and yet here we live in the middle of the empire. We live in the heart of the empire. What is our job? Our job is to turn the empire into, as James was saying, a sustainable country, a country that walks humbly on the Earth, a country that lives humbly with other nations around the world, a country that doesn’t look at the rest of the world as if, “The nerve of them to have our resources in their lands.”
I’ve devoted my life, as many of you here have, to trying to undo the empire, because it’s not only for the good of people who are the victims of the empire overseas, but it’s for our good as well. Certainly, when you look at the crisis that we are facing in trying to provide our young people with an affordable education or trying to move our resources into addressing the real crisis in the planet, which is the climate crisis, where are we going to get the funds to do that if we do not reduce our empire?
I look at how we, as a nation, can move away from war and towards promoting enduring peace. In the lead up to coming here, I was interviewed by a radio station. This is not the wonderful radio station of Scott Harris (WPKN). I did that interview too, but this was another radio station, and it kind of threw me through a loop because the interviewer said, “Well, it’s nice that your organization is trying to move us into an era of diplomacy, but what about other countries that don’t play by the rules? What about other countries, like Russia right now, that is so heavy handed in invading another country? They don’t play by the rules.”
I thought, “Oh my God, how am I going to answer this one?” (laughter)
Do I start with the founding of our nation and the genocide against the Native American people? Do I start with those rules? Maybe do I talk about the rules of slavery, which so destroyed the lives of so many people, and continues to wreak havoc today? Do I talk about the rules of this country, where we went to a place like Vietnam, so many thousands of miles away, to kill two million people, to leave them with the legacy of Agent Orange that is leaving their children with enormous deformities, and will do so for generations to come?
Do I talk about the rules of the U.S. propping up dictatorships for decades, including today with our good friends in countries like Saudi Arabia, a monarchy where we have the largest arms deal ever in the history of the world? Do I talk about the rules of propping up other dictatorships, like Bahrain, where the people are rising up but are being crushed, and the U.S. is supporting the crushing of those people because we happen to have our Fifth Fleet based in their country? Do I talk about the rules of how we propped up the regime in Egypt under Mubarak for decades? The havoc that is being played out in Egypt today is in part due to the billions of dollars that we put into the Mubarak regime.
Do I talk about the rules of Israel? The rules that the Israeli government plays by? Do I talk about the killing of Yusef a-Shawamreh, a 14-year-old who was killed on March 19 because he crossed the separation fence, a gap in the fence that had existed for the last two years, to pick some wild, edible vegetables? Do I talk about those rules? The rules of building settlements upon settlements upon settlements, in defiance of all international law, are those the rules? The rules that allows Israel to close off the people of Gaza so they don’t have a way to get in and out of their country by air, by boat or by land? Are those the rules of the games that we’re talking about?
Maybe I should start out with just post-9/11. Maybe I should talk about the rules that allowed us to invade Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, a country that was suffering from the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, and now people look back and say, “Ahh, for the days of Saddam Hussein,” because now, it’s a country that’s totally destroyed, with bomb blasts going off every single day, with millions of people who have been killed with the sectarian violence that didn’t exist before. A woman from Iraq who I saw last week told me, “What the Americans taught us in Iraq was how to hate each other.” That’s the legacy. Those rules?
Should I talk about the rules in Afghanistan, where we went there to liberate the woman and talk still today as if we have liberated the women. With the billions and billions and billions of dollars that we spent in Afghanistan, how come it’s still the worst place in the world for women to give birth? How come 1 out of 11 Afghan women dies in childbirth? Is that the liberation that we have given to the Afghan women?
Do I talk about the rules of Guantanamo, where we still have over 150 people kept in indefinite detention, where we kept people for over a decade without charging them, without trying them? Are those the rules that I should talk about? How about the rules of torture? The rules that are in the 6,000-plus pages of the report that the Senate Intelligence Committee has done, but we still have not seen. The summary of it has just been passed out of committee, not because the committee members really believe the American people deserve to see that, because they got mad that they found out that the CIA was spying on the Intelligence Committee, and they’ve passed it now, not only to the desk of President Obama, but to the CIA itself, who will redact that study before we, the American people, get to see it.
The very people who committed the atrocities will get to take their marker to the summary of this report. Are those the rules that this talk show host was talking about? Perhaps it’s the rules of the NSA, where our government lied to us about it spying on every single one of us, where the government lied to the rest of the world until Edward Snowden gave us the truth, and we know that our government not only has been violating the privacy of its own citizens but has the nerve to violate the privacy of other heads of states of allied countries, like Angela Merkel in Germany or Dilma Rousseff in Brazil.
Should I talk about the rules where the whistleblowers, the ones who tell us the truth, Edward Snowden, exile; Chelsea Manning, 35 years in prison; John Kiriakou, exposing the torture, a former CIA agent in prison today, while those who actually perpetrated the crimes, the Dick Cheneys, the Donald Rumsfelds, the Condoleeza Rices, traveled the country with their book tours, get $150,000 for giving a speech, or President Bush, who lives a bucolic life painting puppies. (laughter) Are those the rules of the global community?
Maybe I should talk just about President Obama and his rules of killing people by remote control, without giving them a chance to surrender, without giving them a chance for a trial, playing the role of prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. Perhaps I should just stick to issues at home, where the drone lobby, so powerful, has passed legislation that will bring drones into our skies by next year, to allow them to spy on us, perhaps even to kill us. Are those the rules?
You can see the dilemma I face because it was only a 5-minute interview. I had nowhere to start because I had nowhere to stop. There was a Gallup Poll that came out last week. I don’t know if any of you had a chance to see it, but the headlines in the paper about it were, “The Top Countries that Hate America.” Raise your hand if you saw that. It wasn’t widely disseminated. Well, if you read it a little deeper, it wasn’t really countries that hate America. It was countries that opposed our policies. The way it was framed was that these countries hate America like the way terrorists hate us because we have freedom, and they hate us because they have some irrational idea of what America is.
Well, among those top countries that “hated” America is Iran. How many here have ever been to Iran? Did you find that people hate Americans in Iran? It’s just the opposite. They love the Americans in Iran. I’ve been to Iran several times. They just love Americans. You know what they hate? They hate our policy? They hate a policy that has imposed sanctions against them because we say they are trying to develop nuclear weapons, while our good friends in Israel have hundreds of nuclear weapons, have never signed on to the non-proliferation treaty, don’t allow any inspections, and while we of course have thousands of nuclear weapons.
If we wanted the Iranian people to love us, perhaps we shouldn’t be hypocrites and we should say, “We don’t want any country to have nuclear weapons and we will get rid of our own nuclear weapons.” They also hate us because of the sanctions that we have imposed that are destroying the lives of ordinary people. Another country that was on the list is Egypt, as Chelsea mentioned, I was just sort of in Egypt. I mean I didn’t get past the airport so I don’t know if it counts, but people in Egypt, no matter what side they are on, pro-Muslim Brotherhood, anti-Muslim Brotherhood, pro the overthrowing of the Muslim Brotherhood, against it, they have something in common.
They think the United States was behind everything, no matter what happened. Well there might be a little extra paranoia in there, but the truth of the matter is United States is behind a lot of what goes on in Egypt, and instead of saying after Morsi was elected, and then overthrown in a coup, instead of saying, “A ha, that was a coup.”, we’ve been very wishy-washy about it, because the fact of the matter is, the U.S. didn’t like the Muslim Brotherhood. You know what, I don’t particularly like the Muslim Brotherhood.
I was just yesterday at a conference that was put on by people who support the Muslim Brotherhood, and I got up there and I said, “I am a secular Jewish feminist. If I were Egyptian, I’m sorry, you all, but I would not have voted for the Muslim Brotherhood, but I will stand by you and do whatever I can to support your rights because there was a free and fair election in Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood won that election, and the Muslim Brotherhood is being crushed right now, called a terrorist organization, and over 1,000 people have been killed for their political beliefs, over 16,000 of them in prisons right now.
I don’t know if you’ve heard the court system in Egypt that recently sentenced to death 529 people for the alleged killing of one policeman in a trial that lasted 2 days, an hour session each day. The second session, the lawyers for the defendants weren’t even allowed inside, a total sham. I think it’s important whether or not we like the Muslim Brotherhood, we stand up for their rights. If we want the people of Egypt to not “hate” us, we should be consistent in the way we support human rights.
Other countries that were on that list were Pakistan and Yemen. Well, you want them to like us better? Stop killing them with drones. You want the Yemenis to like us better? Close Guantanamo and return those families back to their families. I admit there are people who hate America and who would like to kill us, and some of them are members of Al-Qaeda, but what we’re doing in this perpetual war on terror is to create more enemies. Every drone strike creates more enemies. Every time we shall disrespect for the rule of law, and especially for the lives of Muslim people, we create more enemies.
What do we do about the policies of this administration? Well, certainly we can’t leave it to the courts to find the answers for us. Unfortunately, we have courts these days like the Supreme Court that believes that it’s okay for corporations and individuals to throw as much money into our political system as they would like, and it’s very difficult for us to hold our hands up high around the world and say that we are a functioning Democracy. I think it was former President Jimmy Carter who said we are no longer a functioning Democracy.
Our courts are not going to give us the redress. International courts won’t either, because the US is not party to the International Criminal Court. We have another branch of government that we should be able to look towards, and that’s Congress. Some people are laughing in the audience, laughing. It would be funny were it not so tragic. The tragedy is if Congress is really pretty much only concerned about their own reelections. That’s what they spend their time doing, and that is in large extent because of all the money now that they need to raise every two years to get reelected. What a crazy system we have?
Members of Congress have turned a blind eye to the spying, to the lying, to the torture, they have continued year after year to give more money for the occupation of Afghanistan, for the drone program, for this vast spying network that has so violated the very tenets of what is supposed to be our Democracy. Unfortunately, I think we would have had better luck in addressing some of these issues if there had been a Republican in the White House, because then at least we would have some Democrats who would stand up and say, “You can’t kill people life by remote control. You can’t do these targeted assassinations in countries that are our allies, violating their sovereignty. That’s against international law.”
Unfortunately, those people are quiet now because it’s being done by a Democratic administration. What does that leave us with? It leaves us with us. It leaves it with people power. Let me lay out some of the things that we, as a people, need to do, and one of them is to not leave ourselves with the kind of talk that I’ve been doing so far, which is the doomsday, cynical, ain’t it awful, because, you know, I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t inspire me to get up in the morning with a lot of pep and vigor and vim to fight for human rights and justice and environmental future of the planet.
We have to have a positive attitude, and one of the quotes that I like to read is a Gandhi quote, “You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean. If a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.” The other is to have a sense that we can make a difference, that these efforts we do are not in vain. Some of them see fruits in the short term. Some of them see fruits in the long term, but we have to believe that we can make change, and there is another Gandhi quote, “First, they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” I always like that quote when they’re beating me up because I think we’re right next to the winning stage.
Don’t hitch our movement on an individual, whether it’s the enthusiasm we have for the first black President or the enthusiasm people might have for the first woman President, we can’t hitch our movements on individuals. We can’t hitch our movement on political parties. There are other things to hitch our movement to, and that is to each other, that is to the other movements, the environmental movement, the movement of human rights, be it the rights of gays and lesbians, the rights of minorities in this country, fair immigration policies, civil liberties, gun control, stopping corporate personhood, stopping mass incarceration.
These are some of the other movements that we should hitch on to, because it’s only by making those connections will we have the kind of energy, the force to make the changes we want to see. One of the things we have to understand is that people really want to see an economy that will provide for jobs for young people, and there we have the answers, which is: the military is not the way to provide those jobs. In fact, the military is the worst way to try to create jobs. Study after study shows if you throw $1 million into creating jobs, you’ll get 11 jobs in the military. You throw that same amount of money into education, you’ll get over twice as many jobs. Healthcare, almost twice as many jobs. Clean energy, almost twice as many jobs. The military is the worst way to create new jobs.
We also have to build on the American people’s sense that after 12 years of war, they’re tired. This was in that video clip that you had of me saying that it’s not just the war weariness, it’s the war wiseness, and I really do believe that, because I travel around and I talk to all kinds of people, and I hear people say, “War is not the answer.”
People have never said that before. People who were members of the Tea Party, people who were libertarians, people who are right-wing Republicans. It’s a broad swath of people right now who look back at the last 12 years and say, “We have squandered trillions of dollars. We have not helped the countries that we were supposed to help. We have lost the lives of thousands of our soldiers. War is not the answer.”
Well, that’s an amazing thing in our lifetime, to have the majority of the American people think that war is not the answer. We saw that when President Obama wanted to drag us into the war in Syria. We saw it when the lobby group APAC continues to try to drag us into a war with Iran. The American people are saying, “We don’t want that.” Now, we have people who are trying to drag us into a war with Ukraine. We need to continue to emphasize that war is not the answer.
One of the things that’s perhaps the hardest to do is change the culture of war and the glorification of the military. We see this in so many ways in our everyday lives, how the military is glorified, whether it’s the statues in our parks, statues to war, whether it’s a simple thing like getting on to the plane as I did yesterday on US Airways, and they get on the microphone and they say, “First Class come up first and anybody in the U.S. Military, we want to thank you for your service.”
The other day when I heard that, I got up in the waiting room and I said, “Are there any teachers in the room? Please go ahead and board right now. We would like to thank you for your service.” And we should say, “Are there any healthcare workers in the room? We would like to thank you for your service. Please go ahead and board right now.” Or we should say, “Are there any firefighters in the room? Are there any farmers? Any foreign workers? Any cooks, any waiters, any waitresses? Any socially responsible business people? Any environmentalists? Any activists? Any peacemakers? Please, we would like to thank you for your service.”
We have to build a movement that takes on the arrogance and power, the tyranny of greed, the politics of hypocrisy, the idolatry of national security, the cancer of hatred, racism, sexism, the hysteria of nationalism, the sin of torture, the crisis of the environment, the madness of war, and turn that all into a culture, a country, that shows love, compassion, caring for the planet, and with that, we have to lift the voices of the peacemakers, and I would say particularly of the women peacemakers.
I want to end with two quotes, and these are one: from Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the Women’s Proclamation that is supposed to be the basis of Mother’s Day, written back in 1865, when she said, “Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all we have been able to teach them, of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
Chelsea (Faria, in the audience), you remember when we were in Pakistan with the Pakistani women and we held hands, and we said in English and in Urdu those very words of the Women’s Day Proclamation, and how powerful it was to do that together with Pakistani women.
The other I would like to close with is the anthem of the U.S. Pacifist Movement prior to World War I, and a piece of it. It was called “I Didn’t Raise My Boy” … today we should add Girl … to be a Soldier. It says, “In her lovely years, I heard a mother murmur through her tears, ‘I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier. I brought him up to be my pride and joy. Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder, to shoot some other mother’s darling boy?’ Let nations arbitrate their future troubles. It’s time to lay the sword and gun away, there be no war today. As mothers all would say, ‘I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier.”