Sophia's Peace Work

Monday, March 01, 2004

Boys with Guns

It is strange how priorities can be so mixed up. A few days ago, I was over at the Iraqi Ministry of Environment and they showed me a long laundry list of unfunded projects throughout Iraq from assessment and clean-up of depleted uranium to stopping water, land and air pollution. Many of these projects are vital to the health of the devastated Iraqi environment as well as to that of the Iraqi people themselves. Yet the Ministry of Environment has very little funding. So where is all the money? Most people tell me that it’s going to security. There are massive reconstruction projects planned for Iraq but it would be interesting to find out how much of the money is dedicated to actual on-the-ground reconstruction and how much is being spent on security. Security seems to be where the money is. But as terrible as the security situation is here, it doesn’t seem to matter that the violence in Iraq will kill far fewer people then air pollution. Nor does it register that water pollution will hurt more people than Improvised Explosive Devices, Mortar attacks, and random street crime combined. But security is big business in Iraq and the boys with the guns, whether it is the U.S. Military, the party militias or the numerous security companies operating in Iraq seem to be the biggest game in town.

Even in the U.S. this reverse priority can be a problem. The U.S. has spent millions on security measures since 9/11. Nearly every other spending priority (environment, health, education, welfare, etc) has suffered from cuts, while military and security spending has gone through the roof. But the fact remains that you are far more likely to die of an environmentally-induced disease than you are from a terrorist attack.

Just how did we get ourselves into this pickle? Was it simple ignorance and fear? Is it because a car bomb is a flashier way to die than sliding slowly and painfully away from lung cancer in a hospital ward? Or can this disparity in our spending priorities be laid at the door of just who is at risk? There is no doubt that terrorism can and has harmed everyday people, but terrorist tend to target the power centers of our society where the elite hold sway. In the case of 9/11 – the Pentagon, the Whitehouse, and the World Trade Center.

Environmentally-caused diseases, though they do effect us all, tend to be focused on those who are too poor and powerless to change their circumstances … inner city kids and the elderly, workers in low paying and polluting industries, and people on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder. These are not the people who decide where the funding goes.

But the decision-makers who have determined that security is our biggest problem are just hurting themselves in the end. You see, guns attract violence. This, in my humble opinion, is a general truism. I am living in Central Baghdad and it’s known to be a dangerous place – high crime, low security. Particularly for a Westerner who stands out like I do. I have had several people tell me, “Oh, you must get out of the city!” or “Oh, you should have a bodyguard.” And we do know of several friends who have been robbed or targeted in some way.

I know that this is a dangerous place and I do take some basic precautions. I generally only go out in the day time and if I travel at night it is by taxi. Also I never carry too much money. But I also have, if need be, a secret and surprisingly powerful weapon. It was a woman with the Christian Peacemaker Team that gave me this idea. It is called "salaam a'walekum." And it means, "Peace be upon you." The proper response to this statement is "a'walekum asalaam" … basically "And upon you, peace as well."

In the U.S., when you walk down a street in a strange city frequently the only acknowledgement that might be made to another passerby is a curt nod of the head. But here people often greet each other with "asalaam a'walekum!" "a'walekum asalaam!" When I say "Peace be upon you," I have found that even the sternest and most unfriendly look dissolves into a smile and a hand upon the heart as the person receives my wish for them and then returns it back. It truly is like magic.

I have written before about a former Kurdish minister who has befriended me of late. He appears to be a nice man but he is swathed in "Security." On several occasions when I have been with him, I have had to suffer through the presence of men bristling with guns. Interestingly enough, I have never felt more insecure than when I am around these armed men. He has told me numerous times that I need to be in a more secure location and has even offered to find me a place with proper security. I understand were he is coming from. He seems to be a very visible and outspoken personality in Iraq and perhaps he needs this level of security. But security has its own problems. It is expensive, provides no direct productive value, isolates the people it protects from the reality of their world, curtails freedom of movement, draws potentially unwanted attention and can only operate within a paradigm of fear.

For myself, I think I will stick to "salaam a'walekum!" Perhaps it isn't as effective as an armed guard ... but it's cheaper, allows me to move about relatively freely, and increases the possibility for dialogue and developing connections. It may be too much to ask of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the true law of the land here in Iraq, to re-examine its priorities. Perhaps if they could lighten up on focusing on their own security and give even more attention to fixing the problems that Iraqis faces, they would see an accompanying drop to violence directed towards them.


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