Incidents of injustice and city government’s response

Posted Sept. 21, 2008, at 4:52 p.m.

Does local government have a role to play in national and international issues? Or should it focus only on roads and sidewalks, school budgets and the daily details of municipal life?

At the end of each Bangor City Council meeting there is a time set aside for councilors to voice personal thoughts. Most often it is a simple “good night,” a comment on a parade or community event, or a reminder to vote. Our remarks are usually local, a gentle contribution to our sense of common purpose and community. There is no prohibition, however, against raising broader issues.

Several months ago I took two minutes at the end of our council meeting to voice my concerns about torture. I spoke about the history of torture by the U.S. army during the Philippine War in 1902-03, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and how these actions corrupt our national ideals and degrade our country’s founding principles. I was outraged and convinced that I had to speak. Our country has always depended on citizens standing up for what they believe to be right, challenging authority, seeking change. Did not I as an elected official and leader have a special responsibility to speak to the truth as I see it?

Since college a hidden demon has l gnawed at me. How would I have acted if I had lived in Germany in the late l930s during the rise of Nazism? Would I, a middle class physician, well-respected and useful in my community, have continued on my comfortable way? Perhaps like many well-meaning Germans at the time I would have adjusted my moral compass by a few degrees to align with changing realities. After all, when injustice appeared, approaching ever so slowly by unnoticed incremental steps, it would have been far from my daily life. I could do well by my fellow citizens and myself by living a good, productive and locally moral life.

I still worry about this issue. Although it is my great good fortune that my courage and resolve have never been tested by genocide, I am nonetheless still greatly disturbed by the knowledge that our government has used torture. It felt good to speak out.

I have heard a wide variety of thoughtful responses from fellow councilors and friends. Some approved without reservation. I suspect that they have struggled with the dilemma of whether to speak out or to remain silent during those quiet moments in which one comes face to face with the reality of injustice.

Others have not been quite so sure. They are wary of such remarks because they are too political and can lead to an arena where passion displaces rational dialogue. We may not have all the facts or know all the details. Our words or actions may have no practical effect.

There is a tradition in Bangor that the council, with rare exceptions, concerns itself only with issues that have direct local relevance. Debating larger issues can endanger the council’s sense of common purpose. If we become embroiled in issues over which we have no control we may neglect our local responsibilities or our tasks may become more difficult due to controversy and conflicting ideologies and worldviews. They note that I was elected to a local council to take care of local business. If I want to have an impact on national or international affairs they suggest I should run for a different office.

More telling have been the questions of the effect of my words. What did I really want to achieve? To be a lone voice in the wilderness or a catalyst for change? Were my expectations naive?

I have slowly come to the realization that speaking out as an individual may have satisfied my concerns of the moment but that its long-lasting effect has been negligible. Change is best effected by many people speaking with one voice, presenting well-reasoned, incremental, persistent, and polite but passionate arguments. They must be able to articulate clearly that in our complex world what happens in Washington deeply affects us in here Bangor as well. They must know how to listen, understand different perspectives, and be willing to return again and again. Perhaps I helped to open a door, but it is the residents in Bangor speaking with multiple voices who will prompt their government to listen and then change.

Quite serendipitously a local group approached me in the late summer requesting that Bangor go on record opposing a pre-emptive war with Iran. Orono and a number of other cities in the U.S. have done so already. Their concerns are equally valid as were mine and they have every right to express their opinion before our local council. I have helped to facilitate their appearance before our Government Operations Committee at 5 p.m. Tuesday in the council chambers.

You are welcome to join the discussion, both to consider their concerns and to reflect on the role of Bangor’s city government should take in dealing with the concerns of a group of its residents on an issue of national and international importance.

Geoff Gratwick is a member of the Bangor City Council.

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