Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings.” — Nigerian writer Ben Okri
Ninety years ago a small group of women led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns set an urn in front of the White House and in it burned the words of President Woodrow Wilson. They called their action Watchfires of Freedom. Wilson had been extolling the enhanced democracy brought to the world by the bloodbath of World War I. If this were true, the women asked, where are our rights? What respect do words — especially a president’s — deserve when they are based in hypocrisy?
Dec. 17 at 5 p.m., in front of the federal building in Bangor a group of citizens will burn words of President Barack Obama justifying the escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Our agenda, not supporting any political party, is democracy and truth. If the first casualty of war is truth, then the first casualty of untruth is democ-racy. Democracy is a sacred trust, which must burn with pure, transparent clarity. How can the people make responsible decisions about their precious lives and resources if they don’t know the truth? Elected officials who employ fear, patriotism, propaganda, secrecy and false history to mislead their own people have betrayed de-mocracy.
Obama’s speech employed multiple duplicities to make his case for expending more blood and money.
We will enumerate and denounce those lies and distortions, burning them as a metaphoric act of purification and transformation. Our acts are ritualistic — demonstrating immense respect for life and an equal abhorrence of deceit. While the style of our president is articulate and persuasive, his content is hypocritical and pur-posely misleading. Our intent is to burn the lies and shed light on the truth. George Orwell said, “When deceit becomes universal, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Telling the truth, not dropping bombs, is the harbinger of peace and justice.
Obama said, “The wrenching debate over the Iraq war is well-known and need not be repeated here.” Why? Because the fundamental, though unacknowledged, “debate” was not about going to war, but about whether to commit a war crime by lying to the American people to launch a pre-emptive war — a crime against humanity as recognized by our own Constitution. And our president has used his persuasive power to insist that those guilty of plotting the crime not be held accountable.
President Obama justifies the war on Afghanistan by invoking the actions of 9/11. He says the U.S. attacked Afghanistan only after the Taliban refused to turn over Osama bin Laden. This is not true. The Guardian newspaper reported in October 2001 that the Taliban offered three times to surrender bin Laden and, each time, was rejected by the Bush administration.
The president says, “We did not ask for this fight.” During the 1990s, long before 9/11, many prominent figures of our military industrial complex pressed for finding cause to attack Iraq and Afghanistan to control their oil and gas resources and to enlarge the U.S. sphere of imperial power. We didn’t ask for this war? We surely wanted it.
Obama said the U.S. has underwritten global security for six decades. Did the U.S. strengthen world security in Vietnam? Nicaragua? East Timor, Guatemala, Grenada, Ghana, Panama, the Congo? Is he talking about the security of markets or people? And has Obama forgotten what he admitted earlier this year in Cairo — that our CIA overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953, reinstating the repressive Shah, to preserve western oil interests?
Obama says, “Unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination.” The facts are otherwise: the U.S. military budget is larger than the rest of the world’s combined and we maintain over 1,000 foreign military installations. The Pentagon calls the plan for military control of the world Full Spectrum Dominance.
Truth telling is the only path to political and cultural sanity. Without truth telling there will be no democracy, no peace, and no justice. Our goal is not to tell truth to power, but to insist, as we all must, that power tell the truth. We burn lies to feel the warmth of truth.
Robert Shetterly, an artist and writer, lives in Brooksville. His series of over 150 portraits of “Americans Who Tell the Truth” has been exhibited across the country.