Returning to the Scene of the Crime

by Karen Topakian

 

If I had a choice, I wouldn’t go to Livermore, California in August. It’s crazy hot.  And it’s scary dry.

But I don’t go to Livermore for the weather.

I go because nuclear weapons are created, developed and tested at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  I go in August to commemorate the dropping of the first atomic bomb in Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945.

I go to risk arrest because I cannot stay home and let the anniversary of this event go unmarked. Go unnoticed.

Though Robert Oppenheimer and his gang developed and tested the atomic bombs dropped in Japan in New Mexico, Livermore Lab continues the legacy.

Plus Livermore flourishes in my backyard. My ‘hood. Staying away feels like I’m permitting them to conduct business as usual in my backyard.

And so I go to Livermore. To step in. To say no. To use my body against the further creation, production and testing of nuclear weapons.

The Lab and I have a long history. I’ve made this journey on this day and others, for more than 25 years, Sometimes wearing my Greenpeace campaigner hat, sometimes wearing my Western States Legal Foundation board member hat or my Agape Foundation executive director hat. This time, wearing my concerned citizen hat. Always with other nonviolent activists and people of faith, young and old, organized by Western States Legal Foundation, Tri-Valley CARES and other local anti-nuke organizations.

Under the baking mid-morning sun, I risk arrest lying on a hot black tar road at the entrance to the Lab’s West Gate. My body and my fellow protestors’ occupy the pavement.

The sun bears down on my back. On my arms. On my legs. I can feel sweat forming on my face. I don’t wipe the beads away. The smell of hot road fills my nostrils. Flies land on my hands. I don’t swat them away. I don’t move. I’m lying there, feigning death. In a mock die-in. To replicate the lives of those who fell on the streets of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on two August mornings when the US chose to unleash the unthinkable.

Fellow protestors outline our bodies in chalk on the pavement. Mimicking the effect of the Japanese people whose bodies, seared by the impact of the bomb, only left a shadow outline on the street.

A white piece of paper, proudly pinned to my chest, bears the name of Hiromu Morishita, a hibakusha, a survivor of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima. Mr. Morishita, president of the Senior High School Teachers’ Society and the Hiroshima Peace Education Institute in Japan, was one mile from the atomic bomb explosion, which severely scarred the left side of his face and blew off his ear.

DSCN0239

I think about all the lives lost on that day. And about the lives of those lost most recently in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe. I don’t distinguish between innocent lives and the lives of the not so innocent. I’m saddened by my inability to stop those deaths or to stop these weapons.

Committed to nonviolence, I haven’t seen a war I’ve liked or supported. They all end in bloodshed, trauma and destruction. They weigh heavy on our souls. Making us small and inhumane.

Eventually an Alameda County Sheriff approaches me, tells me if I leave I won’t be arrested. If I stay I will be. I don’t move. I can’t. And still remain true to myself.

I rise from the ground when the officer tells me I’m under arrest. Escorted by an officer in camouflaged riot gear, I walk past the phalanx of heavily uniformed police. The officer asks for my ID, then handcuffs my hands behind me. One hand holds my California drivers license.

DSCN0247_2

A female officer pats me down, looking for weapons, sharp objects. The only item in my pocket, a pin of Greenpeace’s ship, the Rainbow Warrior III. To remind me of one more reason why I am standing on the other side of the law.

Another officer helps me into a waiting van, already occupied by my fellow protestors. We introduce ourselves. Some I have known for decades. Others I meet for the first time. All friendly. All here for the same reason. The last person to join us, a nun in her 80s who attends religiously. We total 30.

The van drives a short distance; officers escort us out of the van into a warehouse, set up to handle the booking. Two women record the information on my license on two separate forms. I sign them both. I ink my thumbs for fingerprints. I receive a copy of my citation for blocking a roadway.

Since we are the last arrestees, the guards quickly escort us out the gate.

No officer asks us why we spent our morning remembering this day of horror for more than 200,000 Japanese people. But we all know why.

This wasn’t my first trip nor will it be my last to the scene of this crime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sept 11. A different memory.

by Karen Topakian

As we approach the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001. And the commemorations that will ensue. I’d like to offer a slightly different remembrance.

Remembrances of what happened after September 11.

On October 7 to be exact. The day the US first bombed Afghanistan. An act of preemptive self-defense. Unlawful under international law.

We all remember the horror and the specter of the collapsing buildings. The suicidal jumps. The smoke and flames that overwhelmed a city and a country. The outcry of support from our friends and neighbors around the world. The goodwill that flowed to our shores.

I too remember all of that.

Along with the quick rush of patriotism that engulfed a generation of young people to enlist and fight the good fight. That 10 years later, has wrought very little in the way of peace and security for the people of Afghanistan and Iraq.

What I want to remember today however are the acts of bravery that I saw in my colleagues and friends who stood on Lombard and Broderick Streets. Carrying signs calling for an end to the bombing of Afghanistan. When it wasn’t popular. And on the corner of Van Ness and Market with me. Week after week. Calling for justice not more violence.

Melanie Okamoto who housed our signs in the trunk of her car. Carol Cantwell and Rachel Lanzerotti who helped organize the hour-long vigils. And to the many others who joined us.

As we endured the verbal epithets and taunting we received for opposing the bombing. Also I want to remember the kindness performed by those too afraid for their jobs to stand with us.

As my pal Catherine Powell said, “It’s easy being a vegetarian between meals.” Just as it’s easy to oppose war in peacetime. Saying no to more violence. After an attack isn’t easy. But it’s essential.

You know you’re living in the twilight zone…

by Karen Topakian

when the US military “see(s) overdependence on fossil fuel as a big liability, and renewable technologies — which have become more reliable and less expensive over the past few years — as providing a potential answer.”

Why would they arrive at such a conclusion? Simple. According to a recent NY Times article, “In Iraq and Afghanistan, one Army study found, for every 24 fuel convoys that set out, one soldier or civilian engaged in fuel transport was killed. In the past three months, six Marines have been wounded guarding fuel runs in Afghanistan.”

Service members are literally dying while transporting fossil fuels in countries that produce the fossil fuel with which we burn and pollute.

Ray Mabus, the Navy Secretary said he wants 50% of the power for the Navy and Marines to come from renewable energy sources by 2020.

My favorite line in the whole article: “While setting national energy policy requires Congressional debates, military leaders can simply order the adoption of renewable energy. And the military has the buying power to create products and markets. That, in turn, may make renewable energy more practical and affordable for everyday uses.”

If they are successful in achieving their goal, they could easily drive the renewable energy markets in a way that our Congress has proven incapable.

And to top it off…

Mabus and other experts also said that greater reliance on renewable energy improved national security, because fossil fuels often came from unstable regions and scarce supplies were a potential source of international conflict.

If that argument sounds familiar, it’s because those of us on the left have been singing this tune for years. And here we thought it was falling on deaf ears.

Reagan’s life on the silver screen. Which version?

by Karen Topakian

Finally someone had the good sense to make a biopic about one of our most revered and visionary leaders. Ronald Reagan. Yup you heard me, the life of the 40th president of the US will grace the silver screen.

The movie, Reagan, based on Paul Kengor’s two biographies, The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism and God and Ronald Reagan, is scheduled for release next year.

Screenwriter Jonas McCord will cover Reagan’s childhood, acting career and two terms as president in this $30 million film. Do you think he’ll include Iran-Contra, the attempt to overthrow the government of Nicaragua, the rise in the budget deficit, the doubling of the national debt, the firing of the 12,000 air traffic controllers…?

The producer, Mark Joseph, concludes that Americans loved Ronald Reagan because they lined up and waited for 10 hours to see his closed casket pass by. Maybe they just wanted to make sure he was really dead.

Loss Aversion Theory – when to wait, when to walk away

By Karen Topakian

Recently I learned about Loss Aversion Theory. An economics and decision theory that effects our lives daily.

The basic premise. We prefer avoiding losses rather than making gains or profits. According to the website, Mapsofworld.com, “if a person loses $100, s/he will lose more satisfaction compared to another person’s satisfaction gain over an unexpected gain of $100.” 

In social psychology, we know that it isn’t the loss that matters but the perception of loss. For example, once we’ve committed time and energy to an activity or concept, it is nearly impossible to convince us that it is unworthy.

Any time you’ve waited for a bus instead of walking, you’ve encountered Loss Aversion Theory. The longer you wait, the harder it is to start walking because you’ve already spent time waiting. (And if you live in SF and are waiting for the J-Church line, you may be waiting a long time because, like Godot, it never comes.)

Eventually, you have to ask yourself, “How bad are my losses before I change course?”

This theory not only applies to those of us waiting for the bus. But for those of us waiting for our elected leader(s) to determine that our losses are bad enough to change courses in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Isn’t the Afghanistan death toll of more than 1,200 US soldiers and more than 700 others not to mention the Afghani deaths bad enough? Or have we not reached the magic number before we change course?  Maybe deaths aren’t what determine losses. Maybe those extinguished human lives aren’t part of the calculation at all.

Learning about this theory has caused me to stop waiting for buses and encouraged me to change course immediately when things go awry. It’s also made me realize that our leaders need to stop waiting and start walking away from wars we started that can’t be won. Or better yet, stop waging them in the first place.

The Fog of Every War

by Karen Topakian

 By happenstance, on the eve of the 7th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Peg and I watched the 2004 Academy Award winning documentary Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.

The parallels between his discussion of the rationale for invading and fighting in Vietnam and the current war in Iraq and Afghanistan are uncanny.

Errol Morris’ filmmaking deserves to be seen along with hearing the original music soundtrack by Phillip Glass. Check it out. Let me know what you think.

Here are his 11 lessons:

1. Empathize with your enemy.

2. Rationality will not save us.

3. There’s something beyond one’s self.

4. Maximize efficiency

5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war

6. Get the data

7. Belief and seeing are often both wrong

8. Be prepared to re-examine your reasoning.

9. In order to do well, you may have to engage in evil.

10. Never say never

11. You can’t change human nature.

Forty years ago today…

by Karen Topakian

the Cleveland Plain Dealer published five photographs. Photographs from VietNam. Photographs from the My Lai massacre. Of women, children, infants and elderly people, lying dead on a path between rice fields. All taken by Ron Haeberle, a combat photographer and Ohio resident.

The publication of Mr. Haeberle’s photos began to turn the tide of public opinion on that war. A thousand words of protest couldn’t match the response these five photos elicited. America and the world could not believe that the US military would shoot more than 300 noncombatants in cold blood.

I recently saw those photographs, up close and enlarged, in the Vestiges of War Crimes and Aftermaths room at the War Remnants Museum* in Ho Chi Minh City in Viet Nam. They are just as chilling today as they were in 1969.

Unfortunately, those aren’t the only ones hanging in that gallery.

The photos of napalm, phosphorus bombs and Agent Orange survivors and victims tell the story of the results of using chemical weapons on humans and the environment.

The seven other themed rooms included Requiem: Collection of photos taken by 134 war reporters (from 11 nationalities) killed during the Vietnam War; Imprisonment System; and International support for the Vietnamese people in their Resistance War. Which included a photo from the 1960’s of a 10,000-person march from Oakland to Berkeley.

Though the captions weren’t always rendered in perfect English. There was no mistaking the message of these photos.

After visiting all eight rooms, my partner Peg and I sat outside for a few moments to just breathe.  We wondered if in 40 years we would be visiting similar museums in Baghdad and Kabul.

*Originally called  “The House of Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government (of South Vietnam)” then the “Museum of American War Crimes” then the “War Crimes Museum” and now its current name, “The War Remnants Museum.”