California English Journal


Table of Contents

September 2002

Martin Warren

John H. Ritter

Jeff Gottesfeld

Christine King

Tina Ichard Johansson

Kathryn Thomas

Mitzi Merrill

Alexandria LaFaye

Artist of this issue - Carol Mayfield


Features & Departments

Editor's Column

Presidents' Perspective

Breger's Bookshelf

Pacifism Is Not Passive:
A Young Adult Novelist Responds to Terror

by John H. Ritter

I heard the bullet hit. In the low gray light of an April morning, I squinted through gunsmoke and lowered my .22 rifle. Down in the canyon, the rabbit did not move, did not fall over.

Strangest thing I'd ever seen

As I lumbered closer, I saw that the rabbit sat on the earth, eyes open, looking at me.
The bullet, I could now see, had slit the abdomen open, spilling intestines onto the canyonside. It-a doe-was very much alive and was pregnant. Four or five tiny pink fetuses lay in the morning dew.

The bullet had performed a C-section.

Her huge brown eyes-I will never forget her eyes-followed me as I approached and circled. I, the 12-year-old hunter, the rough country boy who'd never given much thought to a rabbit's life, wandered about, trying to figure out what to do.

I glanced toward the two-lane blacktop below. In half an hour the bus would roll up. I needed to change clothes, get ready for school. There was only one thing I could think to do.

I walked behind the rabbit, put the rifle barrel to the base of her skull, and pulled the trigger. Then I walked away.

Back inside my bedroom, I took the rifle apart. I did not get down the 3-in-1 Oil, did not swab out the chamber and barrel. I picked up the silver chamber bolt, dropped it in the trash, and I laid my rifle down.

I vowed I would never again bring any more pain into this world.

That, for me, was a "turning day," as Luke Bledsoe would call it, "a day when things just turned, and you knew they'd never be the same again."

Well, I've just been through another. We all have.

The strain of this past year has been tough on me. After witnessing for days the grand, immediate outpouring of selflessness, generosity, and sacrifice in lower Manhattan-the "small friendly town of New York City" that I celebrated in my recent novel, Over the Wall-I now sit in a blue funk, disappointed in our nation's response and the public outcry for further military retaliation. Discouraged might be a better word. I mean, why do I even bother to write books about empathy and reaching out to others, why do our teachers bother to offer lessons on the same thing, when in crisis, we hunker in survivor mode under a blanket of ethno-centrism, fear, and nationalistic fervor? Seems to me that these were the precise sentiments that drove the hijackers.

Luckily I receive the BBC and the Canadian TV networks, so I'm able to see the global picture, grateful for their reporters who ask the tough questions. American networks simply turned the tragic event into another reality TV show full of personal sorrow, hate, and anger, but few, if any, displays of the higher level thinking skills our school teachers have worked so hard to encourage in our kids.

So how should we respond to terrorist attacks? I wrote Over the Wall to address that specific issue. In fact, a critical scene involves the main character, Tyler, having to deal with several attackers who swoop down upon him "out of the blue" as he makes his way through Central Park.

The key to the scene is that Tyler sees the incident as a sneak attack, an unprovoked and isolated event. The attackers see it as revenge.

"It wasn't my fault, Coach," says Tyler. "They attacked me."

"Maybe so, but your actions set this whole thing up. And you should've seen it coming."

The coach, a Vietnam War veteran, goes on to add, "Tyler, you're in a revolving door with this guy now. And you'll go 'round and 'round with him until one of you has the guts to step away." After further protests from Tyler, Coach Trioli empties both barrels. "Hey, it's time to cut the Angry Man routine. No one's impressed. Anger's the easiest and the laziest emotion there is, and on my team I expect my guys to work hard. At everything."

Without knowing it, the coach had just defined the difference between a cool, well-measured, pro-life response, such as pacifism, and the hot-headed strike-now/think-later reaction Tyler had employed thus far.

First off, Coach Trioli points out that Tyler is using the most common excuse proffered in anger management classes. Few of the stories ever seem to start at the beginning. Most sound like Tyler's, as if the fight came "out of the blue." But there is nearly always a history between the combatants.

That history is what Tyler, his cousins, and the coach later call "the big picture." It is the idea that the "other side" actually has a different perspective, and it may very well be worthy of consideration.

I'm often asked, by well-meaning adults, why I write books for children. My answer never wavers much from what I told Dr. Chris Crowe of BYU in an interview last year.

"It goes back to that old saying, 'Kids may have a lot to learn, but they have a lot less to unlearn.' I think the potential impact of any work is greater on those who aren't so set in their ways. Look at the mess adults have made of this world. If there's any hope at all, it's in the kids."

So it is now, that students, and their teachers, are able to give me hope in dark times. Why? When I was growing up, most adults never questioned the moral justifications for war, and despite their seasonal greeting cards, they never had any real commitment to the concept of "Peace on Earth." Now a new generation has learned conflict resolution skills, learned that violence is not the proper response to violence, and they are questioning their parents and national leaders on the matter. Peace movements are springing up on campuses and students are displaying a pacifism that is not passive. They understand that action is required if they expect anyone to hear their demands for a compassionate response to our enemies, as Dr. King demonstrated in response to the terror in Birmingham so many years ago.

War may satisfy our immediate hunger for revenge, but it is not a long-term solution. In fact, it most often creates long-term problems.

I remember what happened in Iraq when the U.S. bombed sewage treatment plants around the country and poisoned the water supply with deadly bacteria. This has created a vicious circle as drinking water is extracted from rivers into which untreated sewage is being dumped. Today, there's not enough chlorine to treat this water, due to US sanctions, so whatever reaches humans is largely contaminated with untreated sewage. UNICEF estimates that more than a million people, half of them children, have died of dysentery and other preventable diseases, as well as of malnutrition and starvation, since the end of the Gulf War. Or will that war ever end?

Iraq is a country with tremendous natural resources which cannot be brought to market due to the U.S. sanctions. Every month, the Iraqi people witness the deaths of 5,000 children, and they see Americans as the perpetrators of these deaths.

The boycott has kept food and medicine from getting into the country and prevented average Iraqis from making any kind of life for themselves. It has also weakened the relationship between parents and their children, as parents are compelled to work day and night merely to acquire food and the basic needs for their families. They no longer have time to sit with their children, to hear their problems or to help them through life.

Of the millions of people killed in wars over the past thirty years, 80%-90% were civilians, many of them children. Today, social workers estimate that as many as 90% of the children in war-torn areas like Gaza, Jerusalem, and Afghanistan suffer from post traumatic stress disorders-from seeing other children shot or blown apart, seeing neighbors' houses bulldozed or bombed, from trying to sleep at night while F16s scream overhead, and so on. One of the driving forces that led me to write Over the Wall was the little known fact that even though some 58,000 U.S. soldiers died in Vietnam, roughly twice that many, over 100,000 Vietnam veterans, returned home and committed suicide.

We need to know this. So do our children. We all need to see the big picture.

My thought has always been that as patriotic Americans, we can best demonstrate the values of our free nation by acting internationally precisely the way we saw the firefighters and volunteers react in NYC-with generosity, compassion, and empathy.

In her book, The Challenge to Care in Schools, Nel Noddings, of Stanford University, suggests that in international relations, we must "change our typical stance from one of moral superiority, in which we apply pressures and sanctions to nations that misbehave, to one of firm and friendly persuasion. We should saturate the potentially unfriendly nation with our presence. Times of tension call for massive exchanges of students, artists, scientists, and other people who can meet each other in caring encounters. These are not the times to withdraw. Such withdrawal creates greater distance, an emotional and spiritual separation that may eventually encourage us to put the other outside the moral community. When that happens, as we have seen, horrible acts often follow. Keeping the lines of communication open can prevent this separation and provide us with direct knowledge of the others whose behavior concerns us." (page 119).

In researching Over the Wall, even before I came across the above quote, I spoke with a Naval Intelligence officer, a friend of my daughter's, and suggested to him roughly the same idea.

"Let's have huge blocks of American kids," I said, "even soldiers, going off to live all over the world and have huge blocks of kids from other countries come visit us here, live in our homes. Let both populations see the other side, go into their schools, their markets, their churches. Let's put our guns away and export our decency and knowledge."

He shook his head. "I disagree with that. Once we let our soldiers think of the enemy as potential friends, they'll have more and more difficulty doing their job when the time comes. In the field you've got to be able to count on soldiers to perform, to kill the enemy, without stopping and thinking about it, about how those other guys have families, and how they might, in many ways, be just like us."

That was another turning day for me. I had been pulling back in writing Over the Wall, thinking it would be too provocative, too incendiary. But this young man had renewed my passion. I simply needed to show the big picture. His objective was to win a war at any cost. My goal was for friendship and peace.

I gain my perspective from my religious training and the Civil Rights movement of my youth. Before the second Trade Tower fell in lower Manhattan, I had begun to pray for Osama bin Laden and his people. I prayed for an opening of their hearts, for a deeper understanding between us, for blessings-exactly the way Jesus and Dr. King had taught their respective followers to pray for their persecutors.

And today, instead of singing, "God Bless America," I sing, "God bless the world."

But I don't look for positive, pro-life actions from our leaders. Right now, the politicians are in lockstep, like so many cheerleaders at a pep rally.

Former U.S. Air Force Col. John Warden, the strategist behind the 1991 Desert Storm air war, said he regrets the death of children, but that the United States is not to blame. "When we went to war, our objective was to reduce Iraq's capability to be strategic," he said. "In order to make that happen, the last thing you want to do is focus your efforts solely on the military... We shut down the electrical system within the first hours of war. ... We shut down the internal flow of oil by knocking out the refineries. We also knocked out the communications. In my view, it was extraordinarily successful. ... Wars are devastating on civilians. Always have been."

My suggestion to our leaders is to develop a long-range foreign policy promoting democracy and self-determination in foreign countries-something we specifically denied the Vietnamese in the 1950s because of our fears. Instead of propping up or creating right-wing regimes for our economic advantage, and to the detriment of their people, we need to do the things that make us less of a target of hatred and terrorism and more of a symbol of hope, grace, and compassion.

Instead of being the world's police force, we should aim to be the world's firefighters. It may seem unrealistic to think the world can ever become free from hatred, but there are systematic methods for gradually developing an empathy and compassion powerful enough to do just that. Simply ask our school teachers, our young peer counselors, or Dr. Elliot Aronson, who developed the highly successful Jigsaw Classroom in Texas during the early days of school desegregation. Without active, demonstrative love, the fires of anger, hate, and pride will burn, and we'll never prevent them nor the violence which tends to follow.

As a writer who visits with thousands of students and teachers across the nation each year, I know how much our childhood experiences shape our values. For me, it wasn't just seeing the ironcast courage of Dr. King marching into Birmingham in '63, nor witnessing the tragedy of a war fought by a government more interested in saving face than saving lives, ignorant of the big picture, the history and cultural differences between China and Vietnam and within Vietnam itself. It wasn't even the pain caused by the sneak attack of a hunter's bullet.

It was love. It was family. An aunt and uncle from Ohio moving out West to help four little kids after our mother died. My dad coaching our baseball teams to be closer to us.

Pacifism is not for the weak of heart. It's not for those who are prone to long bouts of anger and fear, who carry grudges. It is for those who can practice an active, participatory love for others.

It is for those who will run into the burning building while everyone else is running out.