Last month, several state witnesses took the stand in a Haifa District Court to testify in the civil law suit filed by Rachel Corrie’s family against the state of Israel. Many may still recall the disturbing photographs that wallpapered the world’s media outlets of Ms. Corrie, a 23-year-old activist from Walla, Walla, Washington, being crushed under a military bulldozer while trying to defend a Palestinian home in Rafah, Gaza under threat of demolition.
You may not immediately relate to Corrie’s story, but you should. We live in a world where we are all implicated in war, where we are all vulnerable to the violence that emerges out of poverty, segregation, and oppression. We are all Rachel Corrie standing in front of a bulldozer, and yet we are also all the Israeli soldier who was driving it, just trying to do his job.
The forces of globalization have woven us together in a violent, inescapable tapestry from which there is no escape. But this shouldn’t paralyze us. Rather it should awaken us to the fact that, in this painful, tense connection, we have the opportunity to heal, to progress, and at least dialogue together.
'No civilians in a war zone'
The story of Corrie’s life and death have proven to be electric – bringing out the most righteous and rabid reactions from people. Many Palestinians claim her as a martyr, some Israelis say she was brain-washed, and more than one young, privileged American understands the impulse, albeit dangerous, to put oneself in a place where it feels like there’s an unequivocal opportunity to help people. In her journal Corrie herself wrote “I am hungry for one good thing I can do.”
While Corrie stopped writing her own life on March 15, 2003, the world continues to add new volumes of meaning to her passing. Indeed, last month in court, a colonel in the Engineering Corps of the Israeli army, a witness to Corrie’s death, testified repeatedly that there were no civilians in a war zone. Reportedly, those in attendance gasped.
No civilians in a war zone? At first, the notion seems preposterous, even inhumane. But when one considers how ubiquitous and complex war has become, it’s actually not all that far-fetched a notion.
Of course, the Fourth Geneva Convention, adopted in August 1949, specifically outlaws the practice of “total war,” advocating for the human rights of civilians unlucky enough to find themselves in war zones. In 1993, the United Nations Security Council adopted a report which concluded that the Geneva Conventions had passed into the body of “customary international law,” making them binding for absolutely everyone, not just those who had initially signed on.
But the more you sit with this brazen colonel’s words, the more sense they make. Of course civilians should be protected in a war zone. Of course the Geneva Convention should be honored. But what good are these ethics, these laws, at a time when it feels like we are all mired in “total war?” Are they enforceable in any way? Do they retain any meaning?
The Israeli colonel’s words may seem unacceptable, but they are honest.
Our unequal vulnerability
Of course, we are still far from equal in our vulnerability. The modern tools of war are lauded for their precise capacities. But then why have the civilian deaths in the Iraq War been so astronomically high? Iraq Body Count, a website that draws on data from cross-checked media reports, hospital, morgue, nongovernmental organizations, and official figures, estimates that between 97,939 and 106,895 civilians have been killed.
Just months before her death, Corrie wrote the following in her journal: “The surreal thing is that we are safe. White skinned people stand up in front of the tanks and they open their weird tank lids and wave at us.”
It’s understandable why she thought this. Those of us who are white, with relative economic stability, born in the first world, do tend to be more protected than our counterparts in other demographics and other parts of the world.
But as her untimely death demonstrates, as ongoing terrorist attacks and natural disasters exacerbated by climate change dramatize, we are all more vulnerable than ever before.
Shared global fate
Even our economic interconnections are too wide-ranging to grant any of us immunity from the world’s ills. The New York Times recently reported that a gel that could prevent HIV-infection in millions of women is on hold, in no small part, because of “tight finances in the West.” Only $58 million of the $100 million needed for follow-up research has been pledged – a gap that literally equals a death sentence for many. Suddenly, a risk-happy Wall Street millionaire pharmaceutical investor and a struggling single mother in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa are gravely connected.
Our cruel interconnections are devastating to consider, but there is also a powerful opportunity in this new era of globally shared fates. For if we are all vulnerable, then we all have cause to make the world less violent, unequal, and unjust. Our environmental, economic, and even ethical fates are tied up together.
Rachel Corrie understood this, even as a little girl. She wrote: “In second grade there were classroom rules hanging from the ceiling. The only one I can remember seems like it would be a good rule for life. ‘Everyone must feel safe.’ That’s the best rule I can think of.”