e-mail us


Who is our neighbor?


Retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf of Desert Storm fame had just received the Harry S. Truman Good Neighbor Award and a clutch of gifts from the Truman Foundation.

The 1991 New York ticker-tape parade and subsequent celebrity of the retired general aside, the war against Iraq has never really ended. Though Schwarzkopf was not here to talk about the war’s continuation, the point was forced by five activists in the audience.

As the retired general was about to begin his remarks, a woman stood up in the middle of the room and cried out: “Question! Question! Are not the children of Iraq our neighbors, too?”

There was murmuring, and police quickly moved to escort her from the Imperial Ballroom of the Muehlebach Towers in downtown Kansas City, Mo., where 600 had gathered May 8 to honor the general with the annual award.

The woman, Mary Knebel, dropped some leaflets on the table where she had been having lunch and began walking away between two police officers.

As the police were moving toward Knebel, Tom Sanger got up at another place in the hall and called out, “God forgive us for the sanctions that kill 5,000 children every month!”

As the police led him away, Sr. Frances Russell, rose and said, “God forgive us for being so comfortable with death and killing!”

As the police began to lead her away, Mary K. Meyer stood at the rear of the room and cried out: “God forgive us for being so comfortable with clean strikes by cruise missiles!”

All the while the general stood at the podium, silent. By now the crowd was booing louder and yelling for the demonstrators to get out.

“The exit’s that way,” said someone near my table. The guards began moving toward Meyer when a final voice rang out on the other side of the large room.

“God forgive us for putting oil interests above human beings!” said Sr. Marie de Paul Combo. Now the crowd was groaning. The boos swelled again. Another pair of police moved among the tables.

“Get them out of here!” said someone in the crowd. “We came to hear the general, not you!” yelled another.

The five repeated, as they were led from the ballroom: “Are not the people of Iraq our neighbors, too?” Largely unnoticed was the foreign student, one of a group invited by the Truman award foundation, who followed the protesters outside. Knebel said the student approached and thanked her for what she had done. The student, from the Middle East, said she knew about the Iraqi children.

When they all had been removed, Schwarzkopf cut through the tension that had interrupted the celebration. “I am always tempted to say at a time like this that it appalls me that some people feel that in the exercise of their constitutional rights of free speech they should trample on the rights of everyone else.” The place erupted in cheers.

“But I won’t say that.” The place exploded in laughter.

Of course, no one’s constitutional rights were in question. This was political theater -- intrusive, annoying, in the words of one of the protesters -- impolite -- but it hardly involved a constitutional question. One might argue, instead, that Schwarzkopf’s appearance, itself, was largely political theater, an extension of the script that the United States had imposed on a far different reality when we declared victory in Iraq in 1991 and came home.

The war never really ended. Saddam Hussein remains a thorn in the American side. Ten years after we declared victory we continue to bomb Iraq almost daily. Until recently, when there was a slight easing of the sanctions, we had insisted on maintaining, through the apparatus of the United Nations, the most thorough and unyielding boycott in modern history.

According to a United Nations report released last August, the deaths of 500,000 children under the age of five had been directly related to the U.S.-inspired economic sanctions. Since then, tens of thousands more can be added to the total -- an estimated 5,000 a month.

One is tempted at a moment like this to wonder how someone attains the status of war hero while leaving behind such a mess and such gruesome, ongoing consequences. But that is the way of war. It is never neat and tidy, as our imaginations would make it.

More than one right answer

During rather brief remarks following the disruption, the retired general said some things that led me to wonder if, apart from the clash of political theater, he and the protesters might have far more in common than the audience would suspect.

He mentioned, for instance, after acknowledging the foreign students, that he had lived as a teenager in a number of countries, including Iran, Germany and Italy. He said he believed whatever success he may have achieved in the international arena came from the experience he had “living in those countries and learning that there’s always more than one right answer, and all we have to do is look long enough and hard enough, and we can find mutual agreement on almost any subject.”

He also spoke of the need for character in leaders and how character came to the surface most clearly when confronting difficult decisions, not those we know will be popular or make us look good but the kind we sweat over and that keep us up nights pondering. He spoke of Truman’s decision to use nuclear weapons and his own military decisions to place life in jeopardy.

“I can tell you,” he said, “that none of us, absolutely none of us, go ahead and make a decision like that, when we know it’s going to cost even one human being their life, without the greatest of soul searching, without thinking and rethinking the ramifications of those decisions.”

He and the protesters might disagree on what constitutes the right decisions, but I think they might agree on searching for mutual agreement, and they might have a common understanding of the nighttime wrestling with decisions that leads one to act on unpopular convictions.

I also wonder if, offstage, many of those in attendance would not find the protestors’ petitions had merit.

“Who is our neighbor?” is an ancient and disturbing question. If we take Jesus’ lead and answer everyone, the avenues of action are quickly defined -- and massive violence fades as an option. In theory, that is, and until oil and tyrants and “national interests” get tossed into the mix and the concept of neighbor is squeezed into ever-narrower categories.

In real world political theater, the war story always gets the biggest parts and the brightest lights. The activists here were trying to poke through the assumptions that the war story and the narrow view of neighbor are the only options.

I know those involved. They are friends, and I was tipped off to the action. I bought my ticket to see what they would do.

For more than a month of Wednesdays before the luncheon they had met to pray and to discuss the action. These are not impetuous firebrands or malcontents seeking publicity.

Knebel, mother of five and grandmother of seven, knows the ache of watching a child with an incurable condition. One of her daughters was paralyzed in an auto accident at age 16. She died when she was 35. Knebel said through that experience she has a deep sympathy for the mothers in Iraq whose children are dying for lack of medicine and equipment from maladies that prior to the sanctions would have easily been remedied.

At 67, she is retired from a 19-year-career at Hallmark Cards, which is headquartered here. “You know something else?” she asked during an interview before the protest. “When you get as old as I am, there’s a whole sense of freedom to go ahead and do what has to be done. I don’t have any responsibilities, except the ones I choose -- and this is one of them,” she said about opposing the sanctions.

So when Mary K. Meyer, the organizer of the protest, came knocking, Mary Knebel didn’t hesitate to say yes.

Meyer is 70 years old and long ago dedicated her life to God and the work of peace and reconciliation. A deeply prayerful woman, her life is a constant demonstration of reverence for all life. She runs the Shalom Catholic Worker House, which provides food for up to 25 homeless men in one of the poorest sections of Kansas City, Kans.

Sensing that this is obscene

A year ago, she traveled with a delegation of Catholic Workers on a trip to Iraq sponsored by the Chicago-based Voices in the Wilderness. She saw the dying children, the helpless mothers, the disintegrating culture, the results of the bombs of 10 years ago and the bombs that have fallen since.

When she read the small article announcing that Schwarzkopf was to receive the Good Neighbor Award, “I had a gut sense -- that’s where it came from -- that this is obscene,” she said. “This is not what good neighbors do, not how good neighbors act. Good neighbors help one another,” she said.

“When we were in Iraq, so many times we were asked, ‘Would Americans do this if they knew how we were suffering?’ and I would always say, ‘No, they wouldn’t,’ ” said Meyer. “Now another year’s gone by, 60,000 more [children] have died, and it still goes on.” So she went and she sat with God, as she calls it, and she had “really good prayer,” as she does each day, and she decided to do something “to try to poke through the complacency.” She called on a small circle of friends to join her.

Russell, 68, and Combo, 76, have been friends and members of the same order for years. Today they both work on social justice issues for the order, and Russell also teaches English as a second language. A veteran of “actions” taken on behalf of a host of issues, Russell was quick to agree to join in Meyer’s effort.

So was Sanger, a pastoral associate at Guardian Angels Parish in Kansas City, Mo., who has taken his place with a group of local Catholic Workers and others who for years have kept a regular presence opposing the war and the sanctions at a prominent corner in Kansas City’s Plaza area.

Combo was not so quick to sign on. A Sister of Charity of Leavenworth for 52 years and social justice coordinator for the order for the past 13 years, she is familiar with the world of political realities, of give and take. She has joined protests and actions in the past, the kind that are organized and signaled ahead of time, so everyone knows what’s going on. But she also has spent a fair amount of time in the corridors of power and with legislators who help fashion national policies, understanding the pressures they work under and figuring out how best to lobby on behalf of the order’s issues.

Surprising those attending the award luncheon “is not the kind of thing that I would choose to do,” she said, “because I think it is disruptive. I don’t mind crossing lines and getting arrested, but this seems so impolite. But then you think about how impolite our treatment of the people of Iraq is and you can’t ignore that.”

She prayed about it, took up the issue with her spiritual director, and decided to join the protest. She saw it as “an opportunity to speak for the people of Iraq to people who may not know all of what is going on there.”

She prayed about it some more, alone and with her friends, for the people of Iraq, for the people who would be at the luncheon and she eventually felt confident that the group had been “drawn by the Spirit together to do this.”

Almost as quickly as the protest began, it was over. The diners’ most common assessment, heard in the lobby on the way out, apart from disagreement with the sentiment of the protesters, was that the tactic was all wrong. “Did they really think they would get us to listen by doing that?”

Meyer, days before the protest, had given the answer. “This little episode,” she said, “is not going to let all the American people know, but on this day here it will be a few people who will hear and who will have to think about it. It’s just something that needs to be done, and then let God take it where he will.”

Tom Roberts is NCR’s managing editor. He can be reached at troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2000