An interview with Ira Harritt, Part 2

To listen to an expanded interview, go here. To read Part 1 of the interview, go here

KCOB: How did the world change for you after 9/11?

IH: We created a coalition to challenge relying on military might to respond to terrorism. We worked on the Justice Not Revenge Coalition. We worked to use it to tell people the answer is to terrorism is not invasions and rounding up Arab-looking people and doing these other things. That those things actually just feed more into the fears that individuals have and create more terrorists. In fact, Iraq has been documented to produce more terrorists and more terrorism in the world. There’s a recent report that (states) worldwide a 700 percent or more increase in terrorists acts. Outside of Iraq and Afghanistan it’s a 34 percent increase in terrorist acts. Instead of reducing the amount of terrorism in the world, it’s just fed it. It’s just confirmed the accusations against the west that we’re going to invade Muslim countries. … We work to educate people about another route, to get to the root causes of terror and to build cooperation and understanding. And to re-look at how we pursue our economic interests in the world and to beware of the victims of that.  And that many, many times we’ve supported this ruthless regime without the regard of the consequences it would have on the indigenous populations. So we used 9/11 because it was a fact of life, because it was a way to talk about these visions of the future that we have.

But I would have to admit personally that over a period of time, I suffered a dark night of the soul and struggled with keeping hopeful. And after a period of struggle, actually, I went on a retreat after the second election of George Bush. And I kind of thought, I’m going on this retreat and I’m going to need to take a break from this. And I was blessed with my spirit being lifted and it was okay.

KCOB: All in that retreat? So you didn’t have wait to for some signs that things were changing?

IH: It was nothing outside. George Bush had just been elected. In a way, it was good, because there was all this finger-pointing, analysis and breast-beating by progressives, post-election. But I was on retreat so I didn’t hear it for a week and a half. The retreat was at Shantivanam.

KCOB: When you first started doing your protests right after 9/11, was that some of the most negative push-back that you got?

IH: To be honest, I’m forgetting a little bit about Afghanistan, exactly what the climate was. But in terms of Iraq, there was building support, some very positive support against the war. Now, as soon as we launched the attack and as soon as we had US troops in harms way, people silenced, there was more flag-waving. The other dynamic since 9/11, that was a huge challenge, was that the media was totally co-opted. They became, instead of critical observers of the situation – when I say critical I mean objective observers of the situation – they were waving the flag and egging us on, uncritically, without any questioning and analysis. The information was there, which was being covered in other places to some degree, but didn’t reach the front pages of the Kansas City Star for the most part. So I think that’s a natural, whether it’s Kosovo or Iraq, you’ll have opposition before troops get on the ground. Once they get on the ground, some of that opposition to war ends.

And then I think also there’s a very active far-right network that mobilizes and demonizes and accuses. But I do think pro-war people, or however you want to describe them, were less able to define us as anti-troop people this time around. We aren’t opposed to the troops and, in fact, everyone that I know against the war wants to the troops to come home safe. And as long as we put them in harm’s way, in an immoral or ill-advised or un-winnable situation, there are certain ones of them that are going to come back traumatized, physically damaged or maimed or dead. …. The other side has not been able to frame us as being against the troops as easily. They still make the accusation and legislators are still very protective about not being able to be labeled with that.

So it’s part of the equation. We recently we met with aides to Claire McCaskill and one of the aides said that’s something’s she concerned about. She doesn’t want to be able to be framed as being – or accused of being – against the troops.

KCOB: I know that it has always been hard to get the media to deliver a message that isn’t well-funded. But the media have changed so much in the past 10 years. The word means something so much different than it did in 1997. Have you found it difficult to figure out this “New Media” or do you see opportunities that we didn’t have before? And along with that, are newspapers still your primary focus to get your message out or have you changed how you get your message out to the wider audience.

IH: Well, I think we could learn more about how to do it. But I’ll start by saying that when I started working with AFSC 20 years ago, we didn’t have a computer, we didn’t have the Internet, so things have changed a lot. Now we do little mailing, 90 percent or more of our communication is through e-mail. We send out a weekly peace and justice letter to over 1,000 people. The Iraq Task Force has another listserv of hundreds of people. So there’s that communication. The other side of it is that we’re not limited by the Kansas City Star for sources of news. We can find the Guardian in London or the LA Times, or some other paper somewhere else that covered the story that didn’t appear locally. Or this report that was issued by this research group and discusses world opinion and documents that people around the world think that we are causing more harm than good in the Middle East by our presence in Iraq. So we can find out all that information that prior to the Internet was not available and we can send that out to people.

Now the back side of the Internet, it’s undermined the stability of newspapers, so newspapers have become more focused on entertainment and less invested in the infrastructure to report the news, to have correspondents around the world. And the bottom line is what kind of profits they are producing. …. Another part of the reality is, aside from the last ten years, the last forty or fifty years, there’s been a concerted effort by people on the right to shift the “liberal media” and to create radio talk shows, extreme right media. To create think-tanks and right-wing groups and positions in universities that reflect their position. And the general public has shifted. So what was center twenty or thirty years ago is much more to the right. The corporate influence, or the right-wing slant on things, has shifted the world view of many in the public.

KCOB: Because there is one newspaper in town that seems to reach all the different points of view, I guess there’s a danger that the Internet could divvy up that point of view and people only go to the sources they want to hear from, so they keep hearing the message they want to believe.

IH: Whether it’s true or not. And there certainly are people that are sure that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq and that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda were in bed together. All of which has been refuted by the administration itself.

KCOB: Do you think that progressives are going to have to get into this business of framing? Are we going to have to get as good at it? Or is that something to resist?

IH: I think we have to get good at. It’s not that everybody has to speak in lockstep, but unfortunately most people don’t have PhDs in economics or political science, they haven’t analyzed the systemic causes that drive the way our economy and political systems work. So somehow we have to communicate to them how it is working. So we have to find ways of making it simple enough.

Part of the framing discussion is that you have to tell a story, sort of this allegory or myth, about how the world works or what we want in the world or where it’s going. The Bush administration has been very successful at doing that.  A lot of their story has to do with fear and defending ourselves against this axis of evil. It’s almost a Biblical morality play. So, while I believe we need to be absolutely honest, we have to evoke some of those same kinds of (techniques). Why are we doing this? Why are we fighting for justice? What does a just society look like? So when we talk about the minimum wage or health care or choosing investments in military instead of in education and infrastructure and job creation. It all fits into that context and can be understood in that context. Things have to change, and be made appropriate for the times, but I think we have to reestablish what a society based on compassion and mutual security and common security looks like. Somehow we have to make people understand that we’re all in this together.

KCOB: So where do you see protest fitting into that movement?

IH: I believe in multiple strategies. I know that we’d still be going down this track of more war, more troops, unless there was protest and forums and conferences and letter-writing and lobbying and all those things. I think we shifted from a Congress that supported the President’s mission in Iraq to one that’s now skeptical of it because of all the protest that has gone on. Whether mass demonstration is the answer or Internet blogs, or something else, I think we have to do it all.

I must admit that I haven’t gone to Washington in a long time, but I think it’s really important for some people to do that. I think it’s important for people to assemble here in Kansas City, but if that’s all they do, it’s not enough. They need to write their congressperson and call their senator, write letters to the editor and call their newspaper and call into talk shows and talk to their neighbors and talk to their family and volunteer at soup kitchens. Some people will do one slice of all of those things, but I think we need slices of all of those things in everyone’s life who believes in a different way and a world where we can live for the common good. And I think that’s where our future security is going to come from. Another thing that drives me is a belief that we could be headed for very dark times if we continue to invest and put our faith in weapons. Each generation of weapons become stronger and stronger, but the old generations become more and more available to more and more people. And there’s going to be a point where some disgruntled individual or small group will be very capable of unleashing a biological or chemical or some other kind of attack. And that likelihood becomes less if we put our faith – instead of in more weapons – in the common good.




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