This pacifist breaks laws for a reason

Laffin protests target U.S. policy toward Iraq

February 21, 1999|By Colman McCarthy

FOUR DAYS ago on Ash Wednesday in Washington, Arthur Laffin, 44, a pacifist who lives with and helps house poor people, began Lent as he often does: fasting on water and fruit juice.

As a believer in Christ's teachings on nonviolence, as well as the biblical command, "Thou Shalt Not Kill," Laffin expects to twin his Lenten exercise in self-denial with an exercise in free speech. On sidewalks near the White House and Pentagon, he will undertake vigils and protests against what he calls "U.S. violence against Iraqi people."

If the pattern holds, the state is likely to see Laffin -- his fasting and sincerity aside -- as a chronic lawbreaker. That's fitting, because that's how Laffin sees U.S. government officials: breakers of such laws as the War Powers Clause of the Constitution (Article I, Section 8); the Geneva Protocol 1, Article 54, which prohibits "starvation of civilians as a method of warfare;" and the Executive Order prohibiting conspiracy to assassinate.

For Laffin, all of that involves U.S. policy toward Iraq. He is not alone. Last month, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit called President Clinton and other administration officials war criminals for imposing economic sanctions on the people of Iraq.

Four months ago, Denis Halliday, the chief humanitarian worker for the United Nations in Baghdad, resigned in protest. Sanctions, he said, "are starving to death 6,000 Iraqi infants every month, ignoring the human rights of ordinary Iraqis and turning a whole generation against the West."

Laffin's witness against the military might of the United States as vented against the people of Iraq continues a militancy begun in 1982 while living in the Covenant of Peace Community in an impoverished neighborhood in New Haven, Conn. He was arrested on a civil disobedience charge at a nuclear submarine base in Groton, Conn. Since then, he has been arrested more than 70 times -- with about a dozen jailings and imprisonments -- for nonviolent protests at U.S. military bases, nuclear weapons silos, defense contractors and congressional buildings.

When not handcuffed or caged, Laffin is a community member of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House in Washington. It is one of some 150 faith-based centers of mercy and rescue -- including Viva House in Southwest Baltimore -- where laypeople live in voluntary poverty caring for the needs of the involuntary poor: the homeless, the jobless and the luckless. Among other expressions of their religion, Laffin and others at the Dorothy Day house visit food markets to glean fruits, vegetables and staples that would otherwise fill refuse bins. The food provides meals at the house or is passed out at parks near the White House.

To have something equally as solid as a pacifist's automatic opposition to governmental violence, Laffin spent 10 days last year in Iraqi cities and villages to see and hear in a close and personal way the suffering that is, for many Americans, a distant abstraction.

He went to the Al Amervah shelter where more than 1,100 Iraqi civilians were bombed and burned to death by U.S. pilots in 1991. He stayed at the bedsides of dying and hungry children in four hospitals. He spoke to humanitarian workers who confirmed findings of the April 1998 UNICEF report -- that economic sanctions have killed far more people than the approximately 150,000 civilians who died in 1991 when 88,000 tons of bombs were dropped in 52 days.

Laffin went among Iraqis not knowing how they would respond.

"Not one time in my 10 days there," he said during a talk to my students at Catholic University in Washington, "did I experience any hostility because I was from America. Instead, I was treated with kindness and generosity.

"In the hospitals, I saw children dying and suffering from diseases they would never have had without the sanctions. I can remember the childrens' names: Khafar, Zahra, Ann. These are kids that officials in the Clinton administration treat as expendable, all in the name of getting at the demonized Saddam Hussein."

Laffin traveled to Iraq as part of the Voices in the Wilderness, a Chicago-based peace group. On that trip and others, it took medicine and medical supplies to give to Iraqi doctors and nurses. What Laffin saw as a modest try at saving lives, the U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control defined as a crime: breaking the sanctions law. Voices in the Wilderness has been fined $163,000 -- a sum it has no plans to pay.

In addition to serving the poor and getting arrested, Laffin is the co-editor of "Swords & Plowshares: Nonviolent Direct Action for Disarmament, Peace and Social Justice." The 1996 book is a collection of 70 essays, many by Laffin, including "Reflections on a Lenten Fast and Public Witness."

He writes on the 38th day of his 1995 experience of water and juice:

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