Elaine Klaassen

Speaking Up and Speaking Out

I woke up early, hungry with a terrible headache and an involuntary cramp taking over my left foot. I needed food and water. How fortunate I am that I could go to my kitchen and find food and water. I’ve been thinking about the children in cages. Many are sick, in pain, hungry and thirsty, but can’t help themselves. They can’t go to the kitchen to get some food, some water. They have no control over what is or isn’t given to them.

I would give anything if I could take good food, warm clothing, and books and toys to every one of the children in captivity every day and give each one a hug.

Even though I believe that violence never wins, I admit there are times that thoughts of guns come to my mind as I imagine freeing those children. I hear my little grandsons wishing to “save the day” as super heroes, fighting to cleanse the world of the “bad guys.” And my gut resonates. But my heart and mind know better.

It is true there are people enacting policies and setting in motion awful situations that result in terrible suffering, but if we add our own cruelties and violence on top of theirs, the destruction will double. That’s what I believe. Why do I believe this?

Maybe it’s years and years of learning from my boyfriend who learned pacifism from Albert Camus— who, among other things, said, if it were necessary for everyone in the world to suffer unspeakable torture for the rest of his life to save the life of one man—it would be worth it. To me this idea demonstrates the understanding that we are all one, which is at the heart of selfless, sacrificial protesting against evil, destructive phenomena.

Or maybe it’s learning from a wide array of highly conscious, compassionate peace activists I’ve come to know. Just being around them and their disciplined lives has made me open my heart—more.

Or maybe it was my childhood Christian education in an historic peace church.

The nonviolent people I know stand up to the walls of evil in our world in many different ways. All of them, in my mind, have  justice as their goal, without which there is no peace. They see all the world as one, without national, racial, gender or religious walls. These people are serious peacemakers. They are a source of inspiration that raises the consciousness of those around them. Many times when they stand up to the walls of evil, they end up in prison, where they bring their remarkable spirits and change the vibe. They are courageous, sacrificial—and happy.

The way they live their lives inspires me to act as though every person I encounter comes into my care to one degree or another.

I want to describe a few of the more extreme examples of the speaking up/speaking out type of compassion for the world that exist (which is not to say that random acts of kindness are any less valuable to our collective experience).

There are volunteers at migrant shelters in Mexico who offer practical and spiritual support as migrants wait to enter the U.S. and appeal for asylum. Volunteers do what they can to prepare families, but they can’t protect adults and children from customs officers who will forcibly separate them.  Volunteers choose to be there, aware that it is as risky and dangerous for them as it is for migrants.

There is a group of lawyers, called lawyers4goodgovernment, whom I listened to on a webinar talking about immigration. One of them has worked in immigration for 30 years. She said there have always been problems with inhumane treatment, and, yes, there have been deaths in immigrant detention. But now, she said, cruelty is the point. The president of the United States himself has said that the cruelty is supposed to act as a deterrent. Lawyers4goodgovernment works around the clock to give migrants desperately needed legal counsel.

Thousands of volunteers in U.S./Mexico border cities help at humanitarian respite centers for immigrants who have been lucky enough to make it through the initial evaluation and are on their way to stay with relatives in the U.S. My friend Andi from Minnesota went to work for two weeks at such a center in McAllen, Texas, showing migrants there are people who consider them human beings who deserve food, clothing, warmth and kindness.

I put myself in the shoes of so many migrant people, terrified to stay where they live, and then moving through unsafe territory to arrive at another impossibly dangerous location. What would I do in their place?

Since I am a citizen of the country implementing this heartbreaking and impossibly dangerous location, I feel a great sense of responsibility. So far, there is no solution in sight, despite the thousands who care.

Ultimately, what are citizens to do when their country does unspeakable things? On a large scale? How does one actually confront the evil and continue to base one’s life in love?

The most obvious example of this conundrum was faced by the German people in Germany before World War II. Why didn’t all the Germans in Germany rise up with one voice and say “NO”? Why haven’t all the citizens of the U.S. arisen with one voice to say “NO” to the children in detention throughout the country … or, even more,  “NO” to Guantanamo, a place of unthinkable torture.

Along the way, since 9-11, there have been heroic efforts to defend the human rights of prisoners held there, even the human rights of the minority, the real terrorists, who had committed violent acts.

In September 2002, Mary Stucky, reporting for Minnesota Public Radio, said that, “there are some 600 prisoners at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo, Cuba. The military says they’re enemy combatants, allied with Bin Laden or the Taliban. However, they have never been charged with a formal crime, they are held in solitary cells, and the few who have lawyers aren’t allowed to talk with them. Now a small band of civil rights lawyers has taken up their cause …”

Within the small band of civil rights lawyers was Joseph Margulies, who wrote an article for VQR (Fall 2004), a national online journal of  literature  and discussion, in which he described how the U.S. government, through many elaborate twists and turns of logic, attempted to make Guantanamo a prison beyond the law, outside the scope of the Geneva Conventions. “In the middle of a conflict—precisely when history cautions us that we are least apt to be thinking clearly—the administration set about disabling the very instruments that mark our commitment to the rule of law: [which is] that the military must always be subject to civilian rule; that the proper limits of military discretion are ultimately, and always, judicial questions; that armed conflict—and particularly the treatment of prisoners—is not a descent into lawless anarchy but is governed by carefully negotiated and reciprocal obligations; and that restraints on individual liberty must be subject to review by some impartial tribunal,” he wrote.

I wish the architects of Guantanamo had known about the Kurds’ treatment of ISIS captives reported on in the Minneapolis Star Tribune in August 2019. Polly Mann, lifelong peace activist, summarized the article in her September Southside Pride newspaper column: “The article begins with a description of Syrian prisoners in a Kurdish prison making paper flowers.The reason for such kind of action for these three-year imprisoned men is the hope of reconciliation and reform. A Kurdish judge explains, ‘If I sentence a man to death I am spreading hate. If you take revenge, people will be radicalized.  But with reconciliation we are sure we can finish this problem.’

The Kurdish guards have had the responsibility to accommodate, feed and guard the Syrian captives now held in prisons or internment camps. The prisoners number 1,000 Syrian fighters and 900 of their wives and children from 40 countries.”

Although the Kurdish policy may seem selfish, or self-serving, or even manipulative, hoping that its actions will produce good results, maybe in this case the motive is not important if the result is humane behavior.

Although Obama promised he was going to close Guantanamo, it never happened. In the meantime, Margulies was able to defend two inmates whom he never met face to face and facilitate their freedom.

Others fighting for justice for those imprisoned and tortured in Guantanamo were psychologist Dr. Brad Olson and former CIA officer John Kiriakou. A few years ago they spoke at a forum at Hamline University sponsored by a committee of Woman Against Military Madness: Tackling Torture at the Top,  which works to hold accountable those who made torture legal.

For 10 years, the American Psychological Association (APA) had a close relationship with U.S. military officials who were practicing torture on terrorism suspects—ostensibly to make it “safe.” Techniques included sleep deprivation, extreme temperatures, solitary confinement and physically uncomfortable [painful] positions.

Owing to the persistent protesting voice of Dr. Brad Olson, along with some other voices, in 2016, the APA voted nearly 100% to end the APA’s cooperation with the U.S. military.

At Hamline, John Kiriakou described the moment when he was confronted, along with about a dozen other CIA officers, with the opportunity to participate in a new enhanced interrogation program. He was the only one in his select group who said no. After that, he informed the U.S. public of torture operations and that was the beginning of his life unraveling. Ultimately, he served 23 months of a 30-month sentence, not technically for whistleblowing but related. To this day he is bankrupted and  working to put his life back together. He had the compassion and the moral core to say “no.”

Usually changes can only take place because of somebody’s sacrifice, whether it be serving prison time or worse. Selflessness is the foundation of sacrifice and commitment based on a deep belief in the oneness of all life.

In Johnston County, North Carolina, two women became aware that CIA rendition flights were taking off from their small airport, taking captives to different sites around the world, including Guantanamo, to be tortured. Together they founded North Carolina Stop Torture Now (NCSTN).

Since 2005, the group has organized protests, met with local and state officials, and educated others about the activities of Aero Contractors, the company running the rendition flights.

In 2010 the group sent a letter to Binyam Mohamed a year after he was released from Guantanamo, along with an apology signed by nearly 800 people. People from NCSTN met with Mohamed after that and helped him as much as they could to regain his health and his life. Cowger continues to dedicate her efforts to helping released Guantanamo prisoners with their physical and psychological health.

NCSTN  has tried to get an official investigation into the airport’s activities, but there is no official interest. So, NCSTN has created its own citizen-led truth seeking commission.

One of the people involved is David Crane, who lives in the area and once prosecuted Liberian President Charles Taylor for war crimes. Quoted in an article by Larry Siems in Raleigh, North Carolina, Crane says, “… Torture is a clearcut issue: you don’t torture. … ”

All the people previously mentioned have protested in nonviolent ways. They are giving of themselves in ways that are costly. Do their actions change anything? I believe they make small gains, which is better than no gains at all.

What about violent means? Albert Camus said that, morally, if you take a life in order to help others, you must be willing to accept your own death, that is, give up your own life too.

There are those who have given up their own lives literally without perpetrating violence on others,  simply expressing outrage, despair, complete and utter sorrow, as a Quaker man, Norman Morrison, did when he set himself on fire in front of Secretary of Defense Robert NcNamara’s Pentagon office. He was expressing solidarity with the suffering of the North Vietnamese people. And I suppose with the suffering of everyone touched by the war. It was something he felt called to do. By all accounts, he did not suffer from mental illness. He was inspired by the self-immolation of Buddhist monks in Vietnam protesting the repression of the South Vietnamese government. I don’t think he believed that his death would bring about the end of the war. But his supreme act profoundly impacted Robert McNamara and many other people.

I don’t know if the 22 suicides per day (ongoing) of members of the armed services can be counted as statements of protest against the unfathomable destructiveness of war.  Maybe they can.

Sometimes it’s just one solitary voice rising up and saying “No,” like the voice of Norman Morrison. It’s almost never a million voices.

When the U.S. and the U.N. imposed sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s, activists from a group called Voices in the Wilderness organized more than 70 delegations to Iraq, bringing food, medicine and supplies to the people hardest hit. On one delegation, a woman from Voices recalled the poignant words of an Iraqi woman who wanted them to tell people in the U.S. about the Iraqi people’s suffering: “Once the American people know what is happening to us, things will change.” I’m sure she hoped for a million American voices rising up in protest. I think she believed there would be a million voices. But sanctions were not lifted, in spite of demonstrations, media appearances and other attempts to inform the public of the grave human costs. And Voices in the Wilderness, despite threats of 12-year prison sentences and million dollar fines, continued to bring needed supplies. One of the founders of Voices in the Wilderness, Kathy Kelly, went on 26 delegations and stayed in Iraq as U.S. troops poured into the country in 2003. She wrote a beautiful book called “Other Lands Have Dreams,” which shows the oneness of all humanity and speaks out against war.

In our public discourse, how severely the Iraqi people were hit by the sanctions has been debated, but the extent of the tragedy Voices tried to ameliorate should be noted. Three U.N. humanitarian coordinators in a row resigned in protest, starting in 1998. Denis Haliday ended his 34-year career with the U.N., likening the sanctions to “genocide.” Next, Hans von Sponeck resigned, calling the sanctions “a true human tragedy.” Jutta Burghardt, head of the World Food Program in Iraq, was the third.

Governments and rebel groups of all kinds involved in armed conflicts can create dangerous situations for ordinary people just trying to live their lives. People are caught. Trapped. Do they have the agency to say “No”? Usually not.

Helpful, loving, courageous people sometimes appear. For example, there’s the Nonviolent Peaceforce, based on the idea of providing unarmed accompaniment for civilians in the midst of an armed conflict zone. Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) teams are paid salaries and come from all parts of the world. These international teams have uniforms and are established enough to be recognized as the people who come to defuse and de-escalate and to listen. NP deployed its first team, to Sri Lanka, in 2003. Since then, it has had programs in Ukraine, Lebanon, South Caucasus and Bangladesh. Current programs are in Iraq, Myanmar, South Sudan and Philippines.

Founders Mel Duncan, from Minnesota, and David Hartsough, from California, continue to be active in NP’s work, including speaking to congressional committees in Washington, D.C., to solicit financial support for nonviolent unarmed accompaniment. Currently, unarmed civilian protection is advancing in the Appropriation Bills for State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs.

Sometimes it’s not a political/national entity that wreaks havoc with people’s lives. Sometimes it’s a drug cartel or a multitude of gangs, or prominent wealthy families or companies: gigantic destructive forces.

For example, Nicaragua suffers from intense poverty and El Salvador suffers from intense gang violence owing to these “gigantic forces.” I went to hear two Lutheran pastors from El Salvador and Guatemala speak about their work. Besides being pastors, Rev. Dr. Soliette Lopez, from Nicaragua, is also a medical doctor and Pastor Concepcion Vanegas, from El Salvador, is also a registered nurse. Both of them work tirelessly in their communities to create a level of public health that makes life bearable. The Lutheran organization in the U.S. that supports their work is Global Health Ministries, which often visits to offer spiritual, emotional and medical support. These women both expressed a deep faith in God and their great hopes for the safety and well-being of their communities so that people don’t have to emigrate. Sometimes in El Salvador, people will sell their homes and everything else so they can afford to leave. Then, if they are sent back, they have nothing.

In El Salvador, the Lutheran Church engages with the government by encouraging voting and by providing official statements of support or dissent for various governmental policies. They speak up for dialogue, for an International Commission against Corruption and Impunity, for the formation of a Secretary of Religious Affairs, against militarization, against layoffs.

These inspiring pastors hope that God will permit them to stay alive in their dangerous environments to continue serving the people they love.

Taking on more gigantic destructive forces, during the summer of 2019,  a group of people from Faith Mennonite Church together with a civic group then-organized as Asamblea de Derechos Civiles, both located in Minneapolis, Minn., went to Pine Island, Minn., with the intention of informing residents that their City Council was going to vote that night on whether or not to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the construction of a new immigrant detention center. The Minneapolis folks divided into groups of twos and threes and went door to door in the town of about 3500 people, discussing the proposed Pine Island detention center. Some of the townspeople were in agreement with the door-knockers and decided to attend the City Council meeting. The meeting was already well-attended and many residents and former residents as well as people from nearby towns and cities spoke against the detention center. Whether their presence convinced the council isn’t completely proven, but the council voted ultimately not to cooperate with ICE.

The door- knockers believe that our country needs to welcome immigrants and needs to find a legal way for people from other countries to become citizens. Detaining them is counter productive. Separating families creates more traumatized people to walk through the world. Most of the people being arrested and deported are not criminals. Incarceration costs the state money. Wouldn’t it be better to spend the money on creating a system of user-friendly immigration courts—with feasible locations and enough judges?

Fighting the walls of evil, that is, the gigantic destructive forces,  with extreme acts of selflessness and sacrifice as described throughout this piece are just a few of the ways that justice and therefore peace are brought into the world. The fact that not all humans believe that “we are all one” is our fatal human flaw and is what will most likely bring about our extinction. In the meantime, there are these crazy and impractical humans who care about the human rights and well-being of others. Knowing about them informs us of a manner of compassion that we can emulate at whatever level is possible.

It doesn’t have to be as extreme as what I’ve just described. It can be the everyday picking up of the pieces of our human condition, done with joy, kindness, willingness and open hearts, as well as engaging with the living; planting pollinator flowers; living simply; loving dogs; taking meals to the elderly; advocating for legislation that supports the vulnerable; treading lightly; sharing rides …  All of this is speaking up and speaking out.


Elaine Klaassen is a writer and musician living in Minneapolis, Minn. During her working life she raised two daughters, taught piano lessons and wrote a column called “Spirit and Conscience” for the Minneapolis community newspaper Southside Pride. As the curtain closes, she writes and edits for the newspaper, composes music, and hugs her descendants.



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