Thursday, August 30, 2007

Iraq: Syracuse Stands Up to Walsh's Empty Chair




A group photo was taken Tuesday night to remind Congressman James Walsh of what he'd decided to miss.





About 100 people came together on the plaza at the James Hanley Federal Building in Syracuse, N.Y. on Tuesday evening for a town hall meeting on the Iraq war that was sponsored by a group based in Washington D.C. called Americans Against Escalation in Iraq.





SuniFranchelle Hart, who serves as New York state director for the organization, said that Congressman Jim Walsh had been invited to the town hall meeting and that neither he nor any of his staffers would commit to attending the event. There wasn't one member of the group of attendees I spoke with who were not disappointed in Congressman Walsh's decision not to attend the meeting, most of them calling it a snub. The general feeling from most was that Congressman Walsh not being willing, even by sending a staff member as a symbol of good will, to listen to some of his toughest, smartest critics on the Iraq war - who believe as the majority of Americans now believe that the U.S. needs to withdraw the right way from Iraq - was arrogantly taking his own constituents for granted.




SuniDan Maffei, a Democratic candidate for Walsh's seat, attended the town hall meeting, which served to erase the tone of Congressman Walsh's previous ribbing of Mr. Maffei for having missed a public meeting. Maffei spoke at ease with members of the crowd and listened carefully, along with the rest of the group, to the concerns of each speaker.





Suni




Attendees at Tuesday's 'Walsh-less' town hall meeting












SuniTuesday night's public meeting was absolutely aching for the incumbent Congressman's responsible ear, yet all that graced the stage where he should have been was one empty chair with a red sign that read, "Congressman Walsh, Stand With New York. End This War." Over the course of the evening, Walsh's absence was palpable.






The Post Standard's Delen Goldberg reported on August 14 about a town hall meeting in Marcellus that Walsh had attended. In that article it was reported that Congressman Walsh has privately met with several members of Americans Against Escalation in Iraq. (see quote below):
Hart and several members of her group met with Walsh last week to urge him to support an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. She said she saw results from that meeting - albeit small ones - Monday night.

"We've seen a slight change in the language he's using," Hart said. "But talking isn't enough. He cannot wait until September. We need our troops home."

Still, Hart commended Walsh for meeting with residents and listening to what people had to say. She said she hoped the conversations would continue and gain resonance.

"One individual cannot do it," she said. "One person alone looks like the fringe or a rogue. But when individuals come together and funnel their power, you can't help but listen. You start to empower the citizens of a community when you come together like this."


Perhaps Walsh believed the private meeting was sufficient, yet nearly every person I spoke to on Tuesday evening at the Federal building expressed personal sentiments to the contrary. Henry and Sally Manwell of Liverpool said that they have, for a long time, actively expressed their views both in the Syracuse area and in the Spacecoast region of Florida where they also reside. Speaking with the Manwells, it was clear that their views were not out of the mainstream. Mr. Manwell, a Coast Guard retiree, said that he believed that America needs to show far more respect for other countries and that an aura of international disrespect was perpetuated by statements from leaders such as 'Either you're with us or you're against us.'

Others said they'd like to see the United States as a humanitarian superpower. Some feel that President Bush seems overly confident that Congress won't stand up to him in this autumn's funding decisions. Rather than leading the country to a withdrawal of troops, the President is going to increase his request to fund his surge by another $50 billion on top of the original $147 billion supplemental requested. Most citizens are sickened and feeling helpless about this money, that of which they believe will fund and perpetuate a failed Bush strategy in Iraq that has failed, nationwide, to reduce the level of sectarian violence. The general consensus of the citizens at the town hall meeting was the expectation to see the Iraq war defunded by elected leaders, including Congressman Walsh, if the Bush administration insists on further escalation of the Iraq war this fall. Most are frustrated every time they see Congress caving in and passing funding bills with no "teeth"; no timelines; no indication of a consensus on reasonable exit strategies; no talk from Congress about what happens after we withdraw U.S. troops currently occupying Iraq.



SuniThe featured speaker was Army National Guard Spc. Eleonai "Eli" Israel, who has told his own story at the Courage to Resist website. He spent some time in military custody for refusing further combat missions because of his conscientious objection to a war he believes is wrong. He said that he could no longer keep protecting the people who are keeping this war going when he believes his country does not have a right to be there. More than once he said, "The Iraqis don't want us there. Respect is what Iraqis want. We can't dictate to them how they want to run their lives. I won't be a hypocrite anymore." Israel believes that the U.S. troop presence is creating much of the violence we're seeing in Iraq and that the people of Iraq, like all of us, only want peace. He wants his country to respect the dignity of the Iraqi people.

Suni"I don't deserve to be here," said Israel as he talked about some of the realities and horrors of his Iraq war experience and his place as a soldier. "I want to say 'I'm sorry' to the Iraqi people," he continued, "I'm trying to save my country's soul right now." Israel believes the Iraq war can only be stopped 'from the inside.' Soldiers are afraid of being called 'traitors' if they should choose to speak out.





SuniJohn Burdick, Professor of Anthropology in the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, emphasized that our nation was "wrong to go in" to the Iraq war and that we are now "wrong to stay in". Professor Burdick wanted Congressman Walsh to know that citizens in Central New York are not willing to tolerate the current policy on the Iraq war and that they're worried that Walsh has made mere cosmetic gestures to temporarily satisfy constituents by voting only on bills with no "teeth". When Mr. Burdick proclaimed, "Congressman Walsh doesn't get it," a male voice from the crowd got laughs and applause when he exclaimed "He almost got it!" - referring to last year's close election against challenger Dan Maffei. Appealing to everyone in the audience to become leaders who take the initiative when their representatives won't, Burdick ended his comments by saying, "You don't have to be an expert [on Iraq]. We've moved beyond 'expertise' to 'truth'. It's time to do the right thing. Withdrawal won't be easy, but we must get it started now."






SuniAly Wane-Damiba of the Syracuse Peace Council wryly told the crowd, "Smart bombs don't have Harvard degrees. Many innocents die in war, whether intended or unintended." Innocent citizens who are subject to war are at greater danger than any soldiers or fighters on Iraq's battlefield. Putting yourself in the place of an Iraqi citizen today, Aly said that it would be easy for you to think this thought: "Their political agenda is more important than my life."






SuniDr. Bill Cross, who received his B.S. in Engineering at West Point and is currently a Professor of Psychology at Onondaga Community College, spoke of the inability for many returning Iraq war veterans to simply take a deep breath, close their eyes, and feel "at home" in their deepest inner-selves. He asked the crowd for a moment of silence to try the exercise themselves in order to help them empathize with what these veterans are not able to do because of the traumatic memories they carry back home with them. Dr. Cross quoted the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh who has told soldiers who come to him struggling to find peace with their past actions that they are just the very tip of the flame- that the burden isn't theirs to carry alone, but is their officers, their government, and their society's as well.







The thumbnail photos below are the ones I took on Tuesday night. I am happy to share them all with you. You may view larger versions at this link.




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