I’ve been thinking about the power of NO, lately, and the power it takes to say when it matters most.

NO is a small word, a strong word and one of the first we learn as a child. According to parents everywhere we use it readily and effectively. Yet somehow, as I read the world today, we lose the facility, too early and too easily.

Of course the stakes I have in mind are much higher than bed-time or spinach. Many of us say no to the distasteful, or to people we aren’t fond of. We say No when a Yes would be just as easy, when the decision is trivial or a flip of a coin would do. But when the whisper of No arises not out of willfulness or for small or passing reasons, when it is the big NO, the block letter NO, when it threatens to change a life time of habits, the loss of comforts, of income, even of life and limb, and yet it grows out of everything you are, it does not come easily.

I think about this power of the No often, but this week several observations brought it particularly to focus –in the negative; the inability to think the word NO, much less say it and accept the consequences. On Sunday I had what old-time celestial navigators would call a “perfect plot,” a crossing of three sight lines on just that: the inability to say No.

To get a plot, the navigator gets up at dawn, or appears on deck at dusk; stars and a horizon are needed. Rocking a sextant, with a known star reflecting in the mirror, he brings the bottom of the arc down to kiss the horizon. He marks the angle of of the star and the precise time of the measurement. He does this until he has several stars marked or until they disappear into the daylight or the horizon is erased by the night. Then using tables in well turned books, he calculates lines of position for each body. Where the lines cross, there he is. Typically, because of moving oceans, stars disappearing in the light or the horizon in the night, an incorrectly calibrated watch or an unsteady eye, the cross is more like a triangle. There, somewhere in that area, am I. A “perfect plot” is when all lines cross in a point: a rare and a happy event in the middle of a trackless ocean before satellites and all the time perfect knowledge of where you are.

My triangulation was not of my position but of an idea: the Power of NO. Of its difficulty, and its importance. The three markers were these:

60 Minutes, on Sunday August 9 began with a repeat [from May, 11 2008] of a horrific story about Chiquita (Banana,) though one that’s been told repeatedly. From the early 1980s through 2004 Chiquita paid a reported $1.7 million to A.U.C. [United Self Defense Forces of Colombia] “to protect our banana workers,” the company claims. Problem is that in 2002, A.U.C. was declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of Justice — and Chiquita kept on paying. “Unaware,” it claims, of the DOJ finding. The current C.E.O. Fernando Aguirre, who was with Proctor & Gamble, prior to January of 2004, says the Company had no choice but to “pay for protection.”

The second “mark” was also on 60 Minutes, the same night, also a repeat [from Dec 11, 2005]. This was a story of shark tourism in the waters of South Africa. Many believe that the widely observed increase in shark attacks on swimmers and surfers around the world is because more sharks are drawn, for the benefit of tourists in underwater cages, by bloody chum thrown into the water. They are in effect, ‘being made pets.” They lose their natural fear of humans; they associate humans in the water with food; they attack more often. The tour operators deny this and say they are responsible for no more blood and fish remains in the water than any commercial or sports fisherman. They run small businesses, and if the tourists pays and sees no sharks, the tourists stop coming.

The story then turns to the danger of humans to sharks. Shark fin soup is a great delicacy in many Asian cultures: just the fins. There was a horrific clip of sharks being hauled up on deck, their fins rapidly sliced off and the whole living animal being tossed back into the sea, to drift to the bottom and drown, or be eaten. Shark populations are down some 90% in large areas of the ocean. And though shark-finning is illegal, as well as cruel, the fisherman, the dealers, the chefs and the soup-fanciers do not stop.

Finally, Judith Warner’s column in the N Y Times, Monday August 10 completed my plot. It turns out that the infamous “Louise,” whose “Harry and Louise” advertisements helped kill health care reform under the Clintons in 1994 was played by a woman who thought very highly of the very kind of medical care she was helping to kill. She had lived in Australia in the 1980s and loved the care she got for herself and her children — with never a bill. She had campaigned for Bill Clinton in 1992. She knew the fear of losing her own health insurance. Yet she took the job — and helped to kill what in fact she was in favor of.

As Warner says, had she walked out someone else would have walked in. But — would the replacement have been as effective? Would “Louise” have saved herself a decade of regrets? Louise is now featured in a series of ads in favor of the Obama plan, hoping to turn the tide in favor of the reform she wanted back then and perhaps to save her soul. But the question for me is: why didn’t she say No when she knew what she knew?

Why don’t more people say No? Stand up? Walk away?

chiquitaChiquita certainly had choices other than to pay vicious killers — and reportedly allow weapons and cocaine to come in through their private loading facilities. The shark tour operators have a choice to do something other than put bloody bait and people into the water together to ensure a strong market; the soup fanciers and fisherman have choices. Louise had a choice.

I grew up in a generation when lots of us walked. We walked out of classes. We walked away from cushy jobs. We walked away from the secure financial paths laid out for us by our depression tinged parents. Many young men said NO to fighting in the war against the Vietnamese. They said NO and walked into prison — willing to sacrifice years and dangers in prison because they believed in the power of NO. Many walked to Canada and Sweden and parts and futures unknown. Others, myself and many I know, walked out of the military, risking dishonorable discharges, weeks or months in holding cells, or grillings before review boards and the threat of hard time in the brig. It seemed natural for us to do. Not everyone, of course. But many. It was in the air. It was what we did.

It was natural to deny ourselves grapes, or beer or lettuce because we were asked and because it seemed it would help others who asked for our help. It was natural to shift our patterns to shop at another store, not Safeway, because we were asked. It was a big hassle but a small thing.

Our heroes were those who had said No, the little guys with lots of moxie. Those who risked their lives against impossible odds — the volunteers in the generation before ours who went to Spain with the Abraham Lincoln Brigades to take on the fascists when their own countries announced their “neutrality.” The French and Italian Resistance fighters. It was not just the physical courage, our own fathers had fought in terrifying battles in WW II. It was the going against the common, cautionary wisdom; it was going against family and friends, taking a grip and saying – NO, this will not stand.

We looked to the skinny, odd Indian guy, Mohandas Gandhi, who took on the British Empire and created a new way of saying NO, without threats of mutual murder. We looked at the young preacher from Georgia, not much older than we, who spoke what we felt: NO more! to barriers between people. We looked at the young people, our own age, sitting at lunch counters under the truncheons, standing with linked arms before the dogs and fire hoses for the freedom to walk down a street or cross a bridge.

These were our heroes — people who believed that saying NO was the way to change the culture of injustice, of discrimination, of unchecked power. They did it with specific, individual actions but their actions were wrapped in a belief in each other. To change a culture they had to change the culture. They did. We did.

This is not to say there are none who say NO today. It just that it seems they are fewer in number, less known and less honored. It is not a part of the culture as it was then, the risk seems greater, the willingness less.

Given the loudly voiced pride in personal independence and resistance to authority, why are there so few today?

My perfect plot of three lines converging on NO, and how few have the courage to use it, received its perfect counterpoint a few days later on August 6th when I read a post by Dan Ellsberg writing on the anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. Dan is a friend and a man who defines for many of us the risk and the power of NO from his act in 1971 of releasing a top secret history of U.S. intervention in Vietnam to the news media, threatening himself and his wife with long jail sentences.

Dan writes in his post, not so much of Pentagon Papers, as the secret history became known, but of his life long opposition to atomic weapons, and of his father, who late in life revealed to Dan something he had never known.

The elder Ellsberg had been a structural engineer, one of the best in America. As the United States entered the Second World War, he was asked to design and oversee construction of the the Ford Willow Run plant, a factory to make B-24 Liberator bombers for the Army Air Corps. After the war was over and Dan was in college, his father lost his job; it was with another company and the best he had ever had. He was without work for a year. Dan didn’t know why his father had lost the job until much later in life. Dan, at the time, was working full time on preventing the deployment of U.S. neutron bombs under President Jimmy Carter, to Europe. One day, almost casually, he asked his father, 89 years old at the time:

“Why did you quit?”

“I didn’t want to make an H-bomb. Why, that thing was going to be 1,000 times more powerful than the A-bomb!”

Dan was stunned. For all his own involvement in American top-secret projects, and reading about the builders of the first atomic weapons he had never known this about his father –a man, who quietly, but powerfully, had found the line he would not cross and risked his career with a single NO. Dan goes on to talk about others he knew and had read about who had been confronted with similar opportunities — and who, by and large had failed the challenge. One in particular was Eugene Rabinowitch:

….who after the war founded and edited the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (with its Doomsday Clock)—had in fact, after the German surrender in May, actively considered breaking ranks and alerting the American public to the existence of the Bomb, the plans for using it against Japan, and the scientists’ views both of the moral issues and the long-term dangers of doing so.

He first reported this in a letter to The New York Times published on June 28, 1971. It was the day I submitted to arrest at the federal courthouse in Boston; for 13 days previous, my wife and I had been underground, eluding the FBI while distributing the Pentagon Papers to 17 newspapers after injunctions had halted publication in the Times and The Washington Post. The Rabinowitch letter began by saying it was “the revelation by The Times of the Pentagon history of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, despite its classification as ‘secret’ ” that led him now to reveal:

“Before the atom bomb-drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I had spent sleepless nights thinking that I should reveal to the American people, perhaps through a reputable news organ, the fateful act—the first introduction of atomic weapons—which the U.S. Government planned to carry out without consultation with its people. Twenty-five years later, I feel I would have been right if I had done so.”

Ellsberg continues:

I thought about Oppenheimer and Conant—both of whom had recommended dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima—and Fermi and Rabi, who had, that same month Dad was resigning, expressed internally their opposition to development of the superbomb in the most extreme terms possible: It was potentially “a weapon of genocide … carries much further than the atomic bomb itself the policy of exterminating civilian populations … whose power of destruction is essentially unlimited … a threat to the future of the human race which is intolerable … a danger to humanity as a whole … necessarily an evil thing considered in any light” (York, “The Advisor,” pp. 155-159).

Not one of these men risked his clearance by sharing his anxieties and the basis for them with the American public. Oppenheimer and Conant considered resigning their advisory positions when the president went ahead against their advice. But they were persuaded—by Dean Acheson—not to quit at that time, lest that draw public attention to their expert judgment that the president’s course fatally endangered humanity.

Ellsberg also tells us how early in life the strength of conscience arises. He had been a ninth grader in ’44-’45 and had considered with his class, the question of an all powerful bomb and whether it should ever be used, if developed. The August 6th morning of Hiroshima followed close on those days and sealed in him forever an opposition to mass murder and nuclear weapons.

[I know I don’t have to plead with you to read the whole of Dan’s post, here.]

Though he doesn’t mention it in this posting, Dan has written and spoken often of how he was influenced to risk his own career and court jail time by young Vietnam War Resisters who were speaking in public venues of their willingness to go to jail rather than kill innocents in the war. Randy Kehler, David Harris, Bob Eaton and many many others were not faltering before the question of what do you do with your life when NO is before you? They answered it in prison. Michael Ferber, a young man with life before him and Benjamin Spock, at 65, with an enormous reputation at risk, were brought to trial and sentenced to two years in prison. John Huyler, Ron McMahan and other officers on the USS Constellation told the Navy they would not serve any longer in the Vietnam war, risking jail time and dishonorable discharges. Sailors and soldiers from all branches of the armed services deserted, applied for conscientious objector status, asked for asylum, went into hiding. Each had to come to the answer of what to do when faced with great, life changing decisions. Each found his moment of NO.

DeLasCasasMy “perfect plot” of the idea of NO, and Dan’s revelation, were also possible against the perfect horizon drawn by a book I had just finished re-reading after first discovering it years years earlier when I was coming grips, quite alone, with the fear and the power of NO. Bartolome de las Casas was a young Spaniard who accompanied Hernando Cortez and his conquistadores on their murderous invasions of Cuba and Mexico. He himself owned Indian slaves and took advantage of the encomendero system of forced native labor. Moved by his own observations and a fiery sermon by a Domincan brother by the name of Antonio Montesinos, de las Casas freed his slaves and began a decades long effort at reform of the way Spaniards were treating the Indians. The book which he wrote to further his views — and which created riots in the colonies and threats on his life — was titled Un Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias. Returning from a trip to Peru in July I re-read the English translation [A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Having seen, and stood at some of the locations of the Spanish barbarities in Cuzco, Peru I was gripped and astounded imagining his courage and steadiness of purpose as he brought to the King of Spain –whose wealth was increasing enormously from the Conquest– the terrible stories of how it was happening. His descriptions of Spanish torture and mutilation of native Americans remain some of the most powerful ever written. It livened me again to knowing the difficulty of standing against the common wisdom, the weight of disapproval, the contempt and threats of our peers. And the improbable power it has when we dare to do it.

Where, I wonder, looking back through the past six years, have the Bartolome de las Casas been? Who has risen from the midst of our own terrible invasion and blood letting in Iraq to speak? Where are those who might have come forward, having witnessed, even participated in terrible things and, giving up wealth, even risking their life to say to the world: NO: This much and no more!

Throughout the years of the U.S. invasion of Iraq there were Generals and FBI agents and political figures who, upon leaving the service, announced their opposition to the war, or to the way it was carried out, to the torture, to the breathtaking breaking of Consitutional norms. Yet few, if even a handful, stood up in the midst of what they were doing and said loudly and publicly: NO More.

General Eric Shinseki is thought to be one who did. As Chief of Staff of the Army, he contradicted his boss, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, before Congress, saying that the number of troops to occupy and pacify Iraq after an invasion were triple what Rumsfeld was saying. This was done in public and heralded by many as great courage. And it was. But Shinseki left only at the end of his term. He was not fired. He did not face ruin. True, he might not have retired had there not been the disagreement; perhaps he did not want to go, but this was hardly a career risking No, however much we thank him for his public opposition.

DarkSideJane Mayer reports in her indispensible book, The Dark Side, of some of the courageous men and women who stood up to the Bush Administration as knowledge of torture at Guantanamo became known to insider circles.

“…Jim Clemente [FBI] …had been working in Guantanamo since October [2002], and almost from the start had been tirelessly trying to halt what he believed was likely to become the criminal abuse of Qahtani.” [202]

She continues: “The FBI refused to allow Clemente to discuss his role, so Clemente could not be interviewed. But many who were with him in Guantanamo with him, and who shared his view, regard him as an unknown hero in America’s war on terror, who tried, at great risk to his career, to steer the government off a disastrous course.” [204]

She writes, “The tactics used by the military touched off wrenching debates with the FBI agents in which one agent, who cannot be named, accused the military of criminal behavior.” [203]

Clemente, from Guantanamo, “sent Bowman [head of the FBI national security law section in D.C.] a scathing legal analysis warning that ten of the eighteen interrogation techniques on the military’s wish list were illegal under the U.S. Constitution… Bowman, who had good contacts in the Pentagon, called two lawyers in Hayne’s office [William J. Haynes, Rumsfeld’s top lawyer in the Pentagon] expressing concern. But he never heard back from Haynes or the other lawyers there.” [204]

Tom Wilner, a lawyer in one of Washington’s top law firms, who took on the defense of Kuwait detainees was met with disbelief and animosity at his law firm, in his social circles and by his own wife. He offered his resignation to the firm. They rejected it but would not allow their letterhead to be used on any of his filings. [206]

As Dan Ellsberg says about those who opposed the development of the H-Bomb: not one of these men risked their clearance….

Why does Clement allow the FBI to decide who he talks to? Why, when no one from Haynes’ office answered his urgent questions, did he let it lie? Why can’t an FBI agent who believes the military engaged in criminal conduct be named? Why did Tom Wilner continue to work with a firm which disagreed with him over the fundamental oath of a lawyer — on the grounds of patriotism? I am sure each weighed their opposition and made moral and economic calculations as to effectiveness and ability. But why was there no NO? Why had it become so hard to do as de las Casas did, as Ellsberg did, as draft resisters did? What has changed? How can we change it back?

Perhaps the biggest hero in opposition the criminal conduct interrogators at Guantanamo and of Bush Administration lawyers was Alberto Mora, the General Counsel of the U.S. Navy. A civilian with the equivalent status of a four-star officer, he was an appointee in both Bush administrations; he supported the invasion of Iraq. Yet when he heard in December of 2002 from the head of the Navy’s Criminal Investigations unit, David Brant, details of what was going on in Guantanamo, he took action. He talked to the General Counsel of the Army, Steven Morello, who corroborated what Mora had learned — and showed him “the package,” secret documents tracing the interrogation policies back to their sources. [220] He took his concerns to Gordon England, Secretary of the Navy and then to Haynes himself. He had a second meeting with Haynes in January, 2003, expressing disappointment “that nothing had been done to end the abuse at Guantanamo.”

By this time news stories had surfaced that brutality against prisoners was occurring at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Still nothing was done. Rumsfeld himself was told of Mora’s concerns and dismissed them with a joke. Mora finally delivered a memo to Haynes, “describing U.S. interrogations at Guantanamo as ‘at a minimum cruel and unusual treatment, and at worst, torture.’” Mora said he would “sign it out,” making it an official document unless the treatment was stopped. Haynes called Mora later and said Rumsfeld had agreed to suspend the disputed techniques and convene a “working group” to develop new guidelines. Mora thought he had won. One week later he was shown a copy of a memo from the Justice Department that superceded his, negating almost every argument he had made. The author was John Yoo. [229]

Mora tried again, telling Haynes that the Yoo argument was deeply flawed. Not only that, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Judge Advocate Generals [TJAGs] all send strongly worded dissents to Haynes. They were all immediately classified secret and went unknown to the press until revealed in 2005 by Senator Lindsey Graham himself a former JAG. It wasn’t until the revelation in April of 2004, of the Abu Ghraib tortures, that Mora discovered Rumsfeld had signed off on the Yoo memo without notification to any of the dissenters. Mora wrote a strongly worded memo in July of 2004, detailing his efforts in 2002-3 to push back against the policy of abuse and cruelty.

And he left the Bush Administration to become General Counsel for Wal-Mart.

A very brave man, a man who went to great lengths to right wrongs But not a man who could stand against tradition and loyalty to reveal what he knew, to resign in protest and make sure the world heard his NO. He is a good man, but not our De Las Casas. He did much but we do not yet have our Brief History of the Destruction of the Iraqis.

Sibel Edmonds, a U.S. citizen, interpreter for the FBI of Turkish and Persian during the months right after the September 11, 2001 attacks, has for years claimed she heard and knew enormous and important secrets about malfeasance of the FBI, that the FBI had received warnings as early as April of 2001 of Osama bin Laden’s plans, and that she was fired by the FBI because of her knowledge and her allegations. She has done much to reveal to the public what she knows. She has been thwarted at almost every turn by reclassifications of intelligence, by government denial of her right to speak. A “States Secrets” gag order was imposed on her by Attorney General Ashcroft — which is in place today. She has done much. Much more than many would do, yet she will not simply break the order; she will not speak all she knows. The No is just beyond her grasp.

This is not to say anything about her courage. It is not a plea that she risk her freedom. It is simply to underline how difficult such acts of civil disobedience are. How difficult to contemplate Gandhi’s 7 years in jail, how difficult to be willing to accept the multiple arrests of Martin Luther King. How frightening to be Bartolome de las Casas. How difficult is the NO.

Yes it is hard. But it is somehow odd to me –this reluctance to stand up and be counted, this reluctance to push into the hard part of being what we know in our bones we must be. Has there been an American high school student since the 1960s who has not read, discussed and written about Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience? Is there anyone who went through 10th grade who doesn’t know that Thoreau influenced Mohandas Gandhi who influence Martin Luther King, Jr.? Is there a person in America who does not think of him or herself as a moral and independent soul, who would hesitate to say something in public about child or animal abuse; who would stop shopping at a store where open and evident racial bias was practiced? Is there a person who, away from the fray, doesn’t shake a head in disapproval and say such things as “they’d never get away with that with me!”

This difficulty, and what seems to me a wide absence of the necessary NO today is not to say that there still aren’t resisters. There are, and brave.

Jim Hanson, the first, longest and loudest testifier about the dangers of global climate change has been told repeatedly by his superiors at Goddard Space Flight Center to quiet down. He will not. He has been told that all such speeches, warnings, seminars and appearances must be done on his own time. And that’s what he does.

Specialist Joseph Darby who released the Abu Ghraib CDs took his life in his hands by passing on the images that had been circulating among the guards at the prison. What for many was soldier humor-while-in-danger for him was wrong. He said NO. And his life changed forever.

The soldiers like Aidan Delgado featured in Soldiers of Conscience who sought CO status while on the battle fields of Iraq, and others, have carried on the traditions of those who resisted in Vietnam.

Yes, there are some, but not enough. The possibility and sometime necessity of standing in public and saying NO is something that should be part of all cultures, everywhere. When the radio-haters start going, in Germany, in Rwanda or in the United States there has to be a culture of NO, to enable those who must, stand and say it.

No to the hatred. No to the cruelty. No to the greed and special license so many believe is their birthright.

First of all NO and then all the Yeses that let us move forward in understanding and building without the destructive mortar of antagonism and viciousness.

By the way, all these No’s though uttered strongly and with strength of purpose were not screamed. Spittle did not fly. The point of saying No is not your internal fear or anger but your knowledge of yourself and what it takes to be a man, or a woman, in this world.

A No that says This is Me. This is My Backbone. This is what I believe.

And for those of us who do not have to face the biggest NO, the life altering, possibly life ending NO, what about the smaller ones? What should we do about choosing the bananas that fed the “protection expenses” of Chiquita Banana? Should we skip the blue sticker? And what of Dole? What of Del Monte? What do we know of our fish and meat provisioners, those who make our shoes, our shirts? How much do we want to know? What should we do about Chevron in Ecuador? Those who threaten violence and spread hatred in public meetings and on the airways?

Where do we each draw our own line and say, this far and no further? Where do we practice our NO?

[Cross posted at ruthgroup.org Editing done after initial posting.]