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Standing with Cindy Sheehan (and learning why Jesus wept)
Standing with Cindy Sheehan (and learning why Jesus wept)
By Duncan Burch
Online Journal Contributing Writer
"And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark."—Ralph W. Emerson
August 26, 2005—On Wednesday, August 17, I rode from Austin to Crawford, Texas, with two beautiful women who happen to share my belief that George W. Bush is a deceitful and treacherous jackass who deserves to be run out of office as soon as possible because he has betrayed the trust of the American people.
We went there to show our support for Cindy Sheehan, who has been holding a vigil outside Bush's Crawford ranch since August 6, shortly after the president began his five-week, war-time vacation there.
Sheehan is a co-founder of Gold Star Families for Peace. Her son, Casey, was killed in an ambush in the Sadr City section of Baghdad on April 4, 2004, shortly after the incredible incompetence of then head of the Coalition Provisional Authority L. Paul Bremer inflamed the Shiite Militia into a widespread and deadly rebellion. Casey was 24. His mother is demanding to meet with President Bush, who has repeatedly assured her and the thousands of other grieving parents, siblings, husbands, wives, and children of soldiers killed in Iraq that their loved ones have died in service of "a noble cause." Cindy Sheehan wants to know, specifically, to what noble cause he's referring.
About 15 miles west of Waco, we pulled into Crawford, population 705, and stopped at the Crawford Peace House, which is located just off the main street running through the middle of the small town. The Peace House was first opened on Easter Sunday 2002 for the purpose of promoting the cause of peace. They have not necessarily been the most popular residents of the traditionally Republican community, but they have persisted in their efforts to promote dialogue with local churches and other organizations in the area. Now, they have their hands full providing support to what has become known as Camp Casey and the continuous stream of people who have come from around the country to demonstrate their support for Cindy Sheehan.
We were greeted out front by Peace House volunteers, who offered us food, drink, and the use of phones and computers. A few members of the media were conducting interviews in the house and other people were sitting at tables under a large tent that had been set up in the yard. Volunteers were answering questions, preparing food, and operating a shuttle service running out to the camp and back. We looked around for awhile and talked with some of the volunteers, who were all quite friendly and helpful, then we got directions and headed out towards the camp.
Across the street from the Peace House, in front of a store advertising "George Bush Gifts," there is a 15-foot tall replica of the Ten Commandments, and I don't even think it's intended to be ironic. I didn't have a chance to read the giant tablets as we drove by, so I can only assume that the president and his supporters have a different translation of the Decalogue than the one found in traditional Bibles. "Thou shalt have no other gods before corporate profits. Thou shalt kill often. Thou shalt steal elections. Thou shalt bear false witness against thy neighbor's weapons development programs and involvement in terrorist attacks. Thou shalt covet thy neighbor's oil."
We drove down a few blocks and turned onto Prairie Chapel Road. On the corner was a Lutheran Church with a message board out front encouraging the flock to come out Sunday to show their support for the president and the troops. Jesus said, in the Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God," but again, perhaps their Bible says something different, like "Blessed are the warmongers, for they shall start wars for profit based on lies, and they shall send other people's children to kill and to die, and they shall be called the embarrassing and infrequently mentioned distant cousins in the family of God."
Jesus commanded his followers to care for the poor, to feed and cloth and shelter them, to lift them up out of poverty, fear, and ignorance, and to give them hope and life. Has George Bush done that? Has he done it for the people of Baghdad? Or the people of Fallujah? Has he done it for the people of America? Jesus also said, "You will know a tree by its fruit."
The country around Crawford is very pleasant, and we rolled over barely perceptible hills winding through a series of fields populated by cattle and goats until we came to the outskirts of Camp Casey. The first thing we saw were the crosses, over 1,850 of them lining one side of the road on the way into the camp, each one representing a fallen soldier, a flag-draped coffin being lowered into the ground as a family weeps for a son, daughter, father, mother, husband, wife, or sibling who has been taken from them in what George W. Bush refers to as "a noble cause." The small crosses, which were also interspersed with an occasional Star of David or Islamic Crescent, were set four or five deep along the road, and they stretched for almost half a mile.
Of course, those 1,850 or so crosses represent only the American soldiers who have so far lost their lives because of the Bush administration's foolishly planned, lie based, and incompetently executed invasion of Iraq. If there had been crosses representing those uncounted Iraqi civilians who have lost their lives to this war, they would have stretched all the way back to Crawford. And once the ultimate toll from the over two and half thousand tons of radioactive uranium that American forces have so far dropped on that country is known, those crosses might stretch all the way to Waco, or even Dallas.
The majority of the tents, around 30 or more, were set up in a shallow, six-foot wide ditch at a fork in the road where Cindy Sheehan had been stopped by local police almost two weeks earlier on her way towards the president's ranch. Cars and trucks were parked down both forks of the road, some with tents beside them and many with various anti-Bush and pro-peace signs, including "Who Would Jesus Bomb?" Several large television news trucks were also parked near the camp and set up for satellite broadcast. We found a place to park a little way down the road and walked back toward the camp.
Shortly after we arrived a woman asked me if I would stand with a group of people behind Cindy while Anderson Cooper interviewed her for his show on CNN. I had read several of Cindy Sheehan's speeches and seen her on the news a few times, and I was and still am in complete agreement with the vast majority of the things I've heard her say. So I said I would be glad to stand behind her. In fact, I felt honored to stand behind her, because I believed she was speaking the truth about President Bush and his administration, and to them the truth is as sunlight to vampires. They directed me to a place behind three veterans of the war in Iraq who were holding a Veterans for Peace sign, and I was honored to stand behind them, too, because they were there to confront the people who had sent them to fight in a war based on greed and deception.
The people standing around me beside the road were all very friendly, and they had come from all across the country. Some were parents of children still serving in Iraq, and a few were parents of children who had died there. Others were just people like me who'd somehow felt compelled to come to Crawford and show their support for this mother who has managed to turn the loss of her son into something positive and hopeful. They were from as far away as Minnesota, California, and New York. Some had flown and some had driven. Two people in the back were holding a large banner with the words "Jesus Wept."
When Jesus arrived at Mary and Martha's house a few days after Lazarus had died, their grief was still fresh and they both began weeping uncontrollably. Then Jesus wept, too, because he felt the pain of their loss, and because he was compassionate. Compassion is a divine emotion, and it consists of placing the needs and concerns of others above your own interests. Would Jesus weep for the families of the needlessly slain soldiers represented by the line of crosses stretching down the road? Would he weep for the families of the tens of thousands of slain Iraqis? Would he weep for a once-great country that has been filled with fear and bombarded with lies and led astray into a foolish, unnecessary war by arrogant and reckless rulers? Perhaps he does. Just before the interview started Cindy Sheehan turned around and looked back at us with a smile that was so infectious I couldn't help smiling back. Then, as I thought of her standing in a graveyard, watching her son's coffin being lowered into the ground, I could feel the tears forming in my own eyes.
After the interview, which I couldn't hear from where we were standing, I walked around for awhile checking out the camp. Various peace-based organizations had makeshift booths set up with tarps and tables with flyers and sign-up sheets. Other booths offered free food and water, and still others were being used for some of the numerous interviews with veterans and parents of soldiers and other peace activists. Several parents had set up their tents behind the crosses bearing their children's names. All the crosses had the names of fallen soldiers on them except for a few whose relatives had called and asked that their names not be used. Each day more crosses are added as casualties continue to mount.
Two nights earlier, a Bush supporter in a pickup truck had tied an iron bar to the back of his truck and then driven through the rows of crosses, knocking down almost half of them and crushing, beneath his tires, the flowers and American flags that adorned the crosses. They had all been replaced and the man had been apprehended and charged, but it is a good example of the type of blind and foolish rage that inevitably comes from people who listen to and believe in the vitriolic nonsense of these disingenuous propagandists who've somehow become dominant voices in the mainstream media.
Across the street from the crosses, three or four Bush supporters, or counter protesters, sat beneath a single tarp and occasionally shouted insults at people, but nobody seemed to pay them much mind. I honestly felt sorry for them, though, because, despite all the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they seem to believe that George Bush actually gives a shit about their safety and well being and the future of their country.
Some of the crosses had pictures of the soldiers they represented, and at the end, close to the camp, there were posters listing the names and showing the faces of many dead soldiers. A lot of them were still teenagers when they died, and many others were in their early and mid-twenties. Some were slightly older. They had all volunteered to serve and now they are all dead because they were betrayed by their leaders. They were betrayed most directly by the members of the Bush administration who repeatedly and intentionally lied about their reasons for starting this war, but they were also betrayed by their representatives in Congress who essentially voted to give away their constitutionally guaranteed power to declare war to a dangerous and irresponsible administration. Of course, they were further betrayed by a carefully controlled media that is owned and operated by many of the same companies that make billions of dollars off of defense contracts. And finally, they were betrayed by the apathy and ignorance of a sheepish American public who buried its collective head in the sand and chose to buy into the lies being sold them.
When I walked up to the car to get a bottle of water, I met an older woman who'd recently arrived from Louisiana and had begun to set up her tent. She was having trouble getting a signal for her cell phone, so I let her borrow mine to call her family and tell them she'd made it safely. "My granddaughter told me not to get arrested," she said, smiling, as she returned the phone. As we walked back up the road together, she told me that she had seen Cindy Sheehan on TV a few days earlier and decided, despite the objections of her family, to drive over to offer her support. She said she agreed wholeheartedly with Cindy and she thinks what George Bush has done to this country is a tragedy. "She's a good spokesman for what I believe," she said. "They couldn't put someone like me on TV because I would tell those bastards I think they're all full of shit."
"Me too," I told her, laughing. "We better steer clear of those reporters." Then I asked her, hesitantly, if she had any children serving over there.
"No," she said, "not biological children, but they're all my children. They're all of our children."
The camp seemed to function organically, and most everyone busied themselves with some task or another. Quite a few people had brought their children, and they were darting around the camp, helping out their parents and playing with each other in the ditch beside the road. I saw journalists typing on laptops and TV crews filming interviews and political activists promoting their causes and small groups of people sitting in the shade beneath a row of trees, talking and laughing. I saw a beautiful young woman slowly walking among the rows of crosses, bending down now and then to right a toppled cross or adjust the misplaced nametag of a fallen soldier. I helped a couple of people repair a partially collapsed tent with a roll of duct tape, and then I talked to a small group of people about some of the ideas I was considering for protest signs. The majority seemed to prefer "Freak Out the Squares" to some of my other ideas, like "Down with Tyrants" and my personal favorite, "Go Home, Carpetbagger."
As I was walking over to find my friends, I saw a bunch of cameramen gathering around a man as he pulled a cross up off of the ground. Holding the cross in his hand, he said that his son, too, had died in Iraq, and he believed his son had died for a good cause. He said he was removing the cross because he didn't agree with what was happening there in Crawford, and he expressed support for the president and the troops. "We all need to pull together and win this thing," he said, his voice trembling with emotion. "We can't forget about the 3,000 people killed on 9–11, and we have to fight them over there so we don't have to fight them here. How many people will die in the next terrorist attack? Or the one after that? My son gave his life, too, because he believed in defending his country, and I'm taking his cross because I don't think he would approve of what's happening here."
Again I felt tears forming in my eyes, because I knew that this man had also stood in a graveyard and watched helplessly as his son's coffin was lowered into the ground. Like many people, he was unable to accept that the leaders of his country had destroyed so many lives for what might most generously be referred to as less than benevolent reasons. He cannot accept that another man, his leader, would send his son off to die in a desert half way around the world simply to increase the fortunes and secure the power of his wealthy supporters. He cannot believe that his leader would deliberately lie about the reasons and necessity for a war in which his son has died. He cannot accept that his son's life has been sacrificed for a lie.
Like many Americans, he is still under the erroneous impression that the war in Iraq is somehow connected to the attacks of 9–11, and perhaps he also still believes that George Bush is fighting against terrorism rather than legitimizing it. Maybe he thinks that George Bush is spreading democracy by ripping families apart with bombs, or by knocking down doors in the middle of the night and hauling people off to prisons. Maybe he thinks that building military bases in Iraq while closing them down in America is somehow keeping terrorists from sneaking across the border.
I agree completely with the man who lost his son, though, about the fact that we all need to pull together as a nation and get this job done, but the job that needs to be done is to hold accountable those who have driven this country into a ditch full of crosses. I believe that we should pull together to stop this war of aggressive imperialism, and that we should take our country back from these so-called leaders who have spent the last four years lying, killing, manipulating people with fear, and spreading war and hatred across the globe. Because only then we can begin to repair the physical, emotional, economic, and moral damage inflicted on the world by the foolish and dangerous policies of this reckless and greedy administration.
As the sun was setting on the scene at Crawford, a pleasant woman asked me if I would help her pass out the candles for the impending vigil. There were about a hundred people or so gathering around a triangular esplanade at the fork in the road. Several volunteers were placing the candles in cups so the breeze wouldn't blow them out, then they handed them to me and I carried them around to the crowd. Other people passed out flowers to be placed on a small wooden coffin covered with an American flag. Everyone I handed a candle to was so polite and appreciative and seemed so peaceful that I became suddenly aware of the sacredness of the moment. As we gathered around the coffin and lit the candles one from another, there was a sense of reverence and humility not unlike a church service, yet there was no commandments but love and no dogma but peace.
The cameramen were all jockeying for position, and then one of the Iraq war veterans who'd been holding the "Veterans for Peace" sign earlier began to speak. He said, "In victory or defeat the price is the same. A price that cannot be measured in dollars or votes but can only be measured in pain. We must make sure it is never paid again until all other means have failed." After he spoke another veteran read a poem about his fallen comrades, about how he could still picture them all, alive and smiling. Then someone began reading the names of the soldiers who had died since Camp Casey was started on August 6, and everyone began to walk single file with the candles around the esplanade, placing flowers on the symbolic coffin as they filed past. A group of people standing near the coffin were singing Amazing Grace.
As I carried my candle past the anti-protest protesters of the support Bush camp across the road, one of the two or three people still standing there was saying, "Don't forget about all those troops who are still over there." He said it sincerely, too, and in a much softer tone than that of the mocking insults he had been spewing earlier. Apparently, though, he didn't realize that it was for those very troops who are still over there that we were doing this. During my second lap around the esplanade I saw a woman walking up without a candle, so I offered her mine and she took my place in the procession.
After that I walked down the road a little way to have a smoke and try to take it all in. Off in the distance, the sun had dropped out of sight, but a few colorful rays of light were still shooting up into the sky above the fields and ranch houses on the horizon. The candles, too, shone in the partial darkness of the early evening, illuminating the serene faces of the people as they marched slowly beside the road. Those faces were also glowing from within, glowing with a long-absent hope for peace that is finally returning to our country. Standing there, watching that scene, I could feel my own sense of hope returning as well, and I had no doubt that for once I was in the right place. I had heard that around the country there were some 1,600 similar vigils taking place at the request of Cindy Sheehan, and I could hear the call for peace growing louder with every candle.
A long-haired man from Missouri came walking down the road, also on his way for a smoke. I gave him one of mine so he didn't have to walk back to his tent, and then we stood there smoking for awhile, watching the sunset and the vigil and talking about war and peace and Jesus. He said he was a Catholic, and he agreed with my insane, radical, liberal theory that Jesus would have his followers work to lift people up out of fear and ignorance and poverty, rather than use those things as weapons to manipulate and oppress them. He told me how he'd grown up kind of poor, though he knew there were many people who were much poorer.
"Just the word poor attaches a terrible stigma to people," he said. "You should look it up in the dictionary. It's defined as inferior, inadequate, insufficient, having little value, and all kinds of things like that, so when you find out you're poor and you look up the word, you start to associate your poverty with those concepts."
"Like Gandhi said," I told him as we walked back over to the vigil, "poverty is the greatest violence."
Cindy Sheehan was standing near the coffin reading the following poem, which was written by her daughter, Carly, who is Casey's younger sister.
A Nation Rocked to Sleep
Have you ever heard the sound of a mother screaming for her son?
The torrential rains of a mother's weeping will never be done.
They call him a hero; you should be glad that he's one.
But have you ever heard the sound of a mother screaming for her son?
Have you ever heard the sound of a father holding back his cries?
He must be brave because his son died for another man's lies.
The only grief he allows himself are long, deep sighs.
Have you ever heard the sound of a father holding back his cries?
Have you ever heard the sound of taps playing at your brother's grave?
They say he died so that the flag will continue to wave.
But I believe he died because they had oil to save.
Have you ever heard the sound of taps playing at your brother's grave?
Have you ever heard the sound of a nation being rocked to sleep?
The leaders want to keep you numb so the pain won't be so deep.
But if we the people let them continue, another mother will weep."
Standing there listening, glowing faces and bright eyes all around me, I was overcome by a strange combination of grief and joy. On the one hand, I felt a deep sorrow for this girl who had to hear her mother's screams, her father's sighs, and the sound of taps playing at her brother's grave, and yet on the other hand I could also feel the muted but abiding hope rising up in the hearts of the people gathered there beside the quiet country road outside of Crawford, Texas. I could feel it coming from the people gathered all across the country, too, and from those who were unable to gather somewhere but have nonetheless watched and waited and prayed for the spirit of peace to once again blow its cleansing breeze across our polluted nation. I could feel it in my own heart, as well the stirrings of a long dormant hope, and it did bring tears to my eyes.
After the vigil everyone spread out into the evening toward their cars and trucks and tents. Some people were heading over to the Peace House for a meal, while others sat around the roadside campsites in folding chairs, talking and playing guitars. As I walked back to the car I heard a boy of about 10 or 12 talking on a cell phone. He said, "Some nice man is letting us move the camp onto his land tomorrow, and it's right across the street from George Bush's church. So if Bush goes to church like a good Christian, which he isn't but he pretends to be, then he'll have to look at us."
We stopped by the Peace House for awhile on our way out of town. They had a buffet set up under the big tent beside the house, and several groups of people were sitting around eating and talking. Volunteers were in the kitchen doing the dishes and making coffee, and a couple of people were in the house writing or sending emails. I started talking to a Vietnam veteran who told me that, although he hates to see the country divided like this, he knows firsthand the ravages of war and feels obliged to stand up against the greed and corruption and slaughter. At one point he asked me if I'd ever heard of the formerly secret Pentagon operation known as Able Danger, which I had, and then we started talking about the possibility of impeachment.
Due to their habit of blatant deception and their pattern of gross incompetence, the Bush administration is currently facing more potential scandals than they have fingers to put in the proverbial dyke, so it's difficult to predict the series of events that will precede their inevitable demise. Between members of the administration intentionally lying about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and illegally outing a CIA operative in response to someone pointing out their lies, high-level Pentagon officials being indicted for spying on behalf of another nation, and proof beginning to emerge that the 9–11 Commission Report was nothing but a fraudulent sham designed to keep the American people from learning the real truth of what happened on that horrible day, they are facing quite an axis of controversy. Additionally, they have run up record trade and budget deficits and guided our economy to a point where it is extremely vulnerable to the whims of foreign nations. To their credit, though, they are cutting down on pollution by making gas so expensive that nobody can afford to drive.
The government of this country is our government, created of, by, and for the people, and if it does not serve our interests and conform to our beliefs, then we have not only the right but the obligation to seek to replace it with one that does. I stood behind Cindy Sheehan because she is demanding that her government be held accountable for its actions, and that individuals within that government be held accountable for their actions. I stood behind her because her son was killed by lies, and she is confronting the people who told those lies. I was proud to stand with Cindy Sheehan, and I hope to have the chance to stand with her again.
Driving home from Crawford with two beautiful women who happen to share my belief that George W. Bush is a deceitful and treacherous jackass who deserves to be run out of office as soon as possible because he has betrayed the trust of the American people, I carried in my heart a renewed sense of hope for my country. People across America are rising up in an effort to take their country back from the leaders who have betrayed them, and as that betrayal inevitably becomes more and more apparent, these people will continue to grow in numbers and strength.
The world is changing rapidly and I believe it is imperative at this crucial juncture in history that we have responsible, reasonable leaders who will protect our interests, promote our values of peacefulness and liberty, and honor our belief in upholding human rights. The people now in power have clearly and repeatedly demonstrated that they are not willing or able to do this, so now it is time for us, the people, to replace them with those who are. It is only our silence that allows the lies and killing to continue, and it is only our courage in the quest for truth that can restore the dignity, honor, and magnificence of our nation.