Stopping The Next Stupid War

A Conversation With Kathleen O’malley, Albuquerque’s International Peace Activist

Jim Scarantino
9 min read
Kathleen O’Malley (right) sits with an Iraqi woman.
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You can meet truly amazing people in Albuquerque. I sat down with Dr. Kathleen O’Malley to talk about her work for peace in Iraq, Palestine and, now, Iran. Bill Richardson isn’t the only New Mexican flying off to the world’s flashpoints of hate and violence. He goes with the protection of a host government under the glare of television cameras. O’Malley goes in as just another vulnerable human being, using her own resources and body to stand for peace.

When I heard you were heading to Iran to try to head off the next stupid war, I really wanted to meet you. First, please share your experiences with our current stupid war.

I’ve been to Iraq three times. The first time I went with Voices in the Wilderness, a group trying to prevent the invasion. After the invasion, I went with the Christian Peacemakers Team twice to be a presence of nonviolence as well as to document human rights violations. We were focusing especially on the detainee issue and interviewing detainees and their families. I lived in Baghdad with other peacemakers, including Tom Fox, who was kidnapped and killed last year. After the release of the three Christian peacekeepers held hostage with him for 188 days, I debriefed them and the other team members involved. Additionally, because I’m a psychotherapist with expertise in treating trauma, I’ve been helping in the training of new members to prepare for what they will face overseas.

How did you come to be a member of the Christian Peacekeepers in Iraq?

I met some of them in Iraq before the invasion. I was impressed and went through their training.

Which was?

A month-long training in practicing nonviolence, documenting human rights abuses, media skills and just learning to survive in the midst of war. You know, a lot of people get crammed into one apartment, and that alone takes some preparation to get through it with everything else going on around you.

A reality show in a war zone.

When the four hostages were seized we began preparing future peacekeeping teams to deal with the trauma they could encounter. I’ve done workshops to prepare new teams for facing violence in Iraq, Columbia and occupied Palestine. And I’ve flown to Toronto, Washington, D.C., and Chicago to address trauma issues with returning peace teams, the families of hostages and the family of Tom Fox.

You’ve been to Palestine yourself. What did you see?

In occupied Palestine I saw apartheid in practice: Jewish-only highways; a strategy of denying education to Palestinian children and making life so miserable it drove educated Palestinians out of the country; checkpoints for Palestinians keeping them from getting needed medical care; denying Palestinian farmers water for their crops while Israelis have swimming pools; not letting Palestinian farmers bring tools, animals or helpers onto their own land.

Just like the world responded to apartheid in South Africa, there is a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israeli apartheid, e.g. boycotts of companies like Caterpillar, which builds the machines used to demolish Palestinian homes. Caterpillar sells clothes, you know, as well as bulldozers.

Have you encountered pushback from the Jewish community for your outspokenness?

Once during a presentation at the Peace and Justice Center here in Albuquerque a woman started screaming at me: “You don’t know what you’re talking about! There are no Palestinians!” I see eye to eye with many very liberal Jewish Americans on just about everything except Israeli conduct toward occupied Palestine.

How do you handle the argument that Israel must do horrible things to survive?

They don’t have to do those things. Not all Israelis agree with what’s going on. There’s “Rabbis Against the Occupation” and “Israelis Against Home Demolition.” They’re trying to educate Americans that the answer is not more violence and oppression.

And soon you’re off to Iran? Why?

Basically, I’m going to build relationships with individual Iranians. Human relationships are the antidote to hatred and violence. Bush is demonizing Iran and the Iranian people. I want to learn as much as I can and also serve as a civilian diplomat, returning to tell their stories back here in America.

Is this a solo trip?

Not alone, though I am paying my own way and hoping to do a little fundraising to make it easier. The trip is organized by Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith organization dedicated to active nonviolence and working for peace and justice locally and around the world.

What is your own religious faith?

I was raised Catholic. That never leaves you. I have a tremendous attachment to the Church’s teachings on social justice. But I would say I am today a Catholic Buddhist.

Can you share anything from your debriefing of the hostages?

One story should be told. It demonstrates the power of building human relationships. The hostages gave their guards names like Medicine Man, who brought them medicine, and Junior, the youngest guard. He told them he aspired to be a suicide bomber. Americans killed his mother, father, aunt, uncle and fiancée in Fallujah. Jim Loney, one of the hostages, was pained to see that Junior valued his own body so little that he would destroy it to kill Americans. So he offered to give Junior a massage. By the end of the 118 days, Junior was looking forward each evening to the massage and, most importantly, he gave up his goal of blowing himself up.

And, I note, joyfully, Jim Loney came home to tell that story. This is brave, scary stuff.

I, along with an Iraqi friend and one other CPT member, was taken into custody outside Basra, trying to track the whereabouts of an Iraqi who disappeared into Abu Ghraib. I was terrified. We were taken to a horrible warehouse and detained for hours. But by the end of the day, we had met several Iraqis with whom we just traded stories about our lives.

What motivates Kathleen O’Malley to risk her neck for people on the opposite side of the planet?

[Pausing to think, followed by tears leaking from closed eyes] I’m going to get emotional about this. I guess my belief is that we are each called to create justice in this world. Those of us who have been privileged by access to money and education are even more responsible. For us, it isn’t a privilege, but an obligation. Each of us has their own gifts, whatever they are, and we are called to do what we can.

So, when …

Let me add this. I have to do what I do despite having learned it probably won’t do any good.

How can you keep going?

There’s a Buddhist story that serves as a guide. It’s about a small bird flying over a vast land, seeing a great fire in the distance. It flies closer to see what’s going on, then returns to find water. It takes a tiny drop of water in its beak, flies all the way back and drops it on the fire. Will that make a difference? No. But you must act anyway.

Like the man walking along a beach covered with starfish washed up by a storm. He starts throwing them back, one at a time. Another man comes along and says, “There are millions of them. That won’t make any difference.” As the first man throws another starfish back in the ocean, he answers, “It matters to that one.”

My work as a therapist keeps my hope alive. I see people become happy and tolerate great pain. I see people get better. But when I look out on a global scale, I don’t see the same things to give me hope. But then there I am in Iraq, with violence all around, and I’m sitting, laughing, sharing stories with an Iraqi woman about the little things in our lives. And there I see hope in another human face.

Now you’re getting me interested in joining you in Iran.

I’ll let you know about the next trip.

I’d better warn my wife.

In preparing for this trip, I am shocked to learn things about our country’s conduct toward Iran historically, like overthrowing their democracy.

You mean the CIA coup against Mossadegh [Iran’s Premier in 1953]?

Yes. And then we installed the Shah with his brutal secret police.

Savak, they were called. Not a history lesson the Bush administration wants us to know. Say, while we’ve still got space, would you tell readers about the peacemaker training you provide locally?

With Judy Bierbaum I conduct workshops in practicing nonviolence through a group called Peaceworks. I’m also involved with the New Mexico Women’s Justice Project. We work with incarcerated women and their children, helping them get through the prison experience and re-enter society.

Kathleen, if you’ll permit me to say so, it all adds up to much more than a tiny drop of justice.

I want to mention one last thing about the Christian peacekeepers. They were asked to return to Iraq to testify in the prosecution of some of the people charged with their abduction and killing their friend. They refused. On the anniversary of the date that had been scheduled for their own executions, they released a statement insisting on forgiveness, the only way to interrupt the cycle of violence and retribution.

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