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Jody Williams won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her work in the banning and clearing of anti-personnel mines.

By Jody Williams

Asked to opine about what I think one or two of the biggest issues facing us in the coming decades might be, I find myself needing to quote Arundhati Roy, in her anti-nuclear polemic The End of Imagination. Roy writes, "There's nothing new or original left to be said about nuclear weapons. There can be nothing more humiliating for a writer of fiction to have to do than restate a case that has, over the years, already been made by other people in other parts of the world, and made passionately, eloquently and knowledgeably." She goes on to say, however, that she is "prepared to grovel. To humiliate myself abjectly, because in the circumstances, silence would be indefensible." Roy is talking about her need to speak out against the open embrace of nuclear weapons by the country of her birth, India.

When asked to comment about "big issues" and "issues related to war and peace" -- after all, I was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize so I should have "big thoughts" about any number of such "big issues" -- as often as not I find myself reduced to feeling more like what Roy describes. What more can be said about a multitude of issues facing this increasing small and overwhelmed planet, issues as wide-ranging as global warming or the HIV crisis or unbridled globalization? People with much more intimate knowledge of these issues have spoken -- often and with much wisdom. It feels like there is nothing left to be said.

Yet, I also find myself willing to try on some issues -- on which I am not even approaching what would be called "an expert" -- because I also feel that, under the circumstances, silence would be indefensible. Along with challenges facing us such as those noted above, one that causes me particular concern is the open embrace by the Bush administration of national missile defense (NMD), a project flirted with -- to greater and lesser degrees and in various incarnations -- for approaching two decades since launched under the Reagan administration and known in common parlance as Star Wars. As many others, I tend to revert to calling NMD the Son of Star Wars -- yet I recognize that such terminology threatens to reduce the cold-blooded horror of militarizing space to something amazing and almost wonderful. Son of Star Wars, of course, conjures the fabulous high-tech wizardry of that imaginative series of movies and suggests NMD is little more than lasers and "good guys" just trying to defend us from the "bad guys."

While I may not be an expert on national missile defense and its implications for the militarization of space, it doesn't take an expert to see how this move fits into the arrogant isolationism of the new administration. And from my experience sometimes it is the least expert questions that are the most difficult to answer.

We are now being asked to stunt our imagination and intelligence to accept that real freedom means being free from the arms-control treaties that have formed a cornerstone of stability for decades. We are told that our friends and allies around the world just don't understand this new concept of freedom and security. But not to worry, given enough time and a bit more backslapping, they will come around. And if they don't, we'll do it anyway.

It is also implied -- and not just by this government -- that if we do not accept this new wisdom, if we speak out passionately, eloquently and even with great knowledge, we are somehow not patriotic. And missile defense does seem so overwhelming that it is tempting to give in to being "patriotic" and to letting the "experts" advise how best to protect us from the rogue enemies who will feel the wrath of these defensive missiles. After all, what can ordinary individuals really understand about such difficult national defense issues?

I think the challenge is for "ordinary citizens" to believe that their view on this -- and any other "big issues" facing us -- is important, that they fire up their imaginations and believe they can make a difference if they take action. My friend and fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Betty Williams (a founder of the Northern Ireland Peace Movement) once said -- and I shamelessly use her words whenever I can -- that sometimes we try to get by just invoking our feelings of empathy for problems that face others or us all collectively. Somehow, just by "feeling the other person's pain" we are more righteous than those who cannot even do that. But as Betty says, emotions without action are irrelevant. If you do not take action to make the world the place you want it to be, it really doesn't matter what you feel.

So, I will have to move beyond my words of horror about NMD and the militarization of space and the arrogant isolationism in America. I will have to fire up my imagination to find ways to demonstrate that real security comes with meeting the needs of individuals on this planet and not through spending billions of tax dollars "freely," for imaginative weapons that threaten us all.

I reread this and discover that I have not found new eloquence on the issue of NMD and the militarization of space. I have not found some magic combination that will convince someone to stop this madness. At the same time, I recognize that the point isn't necessarily to find new eloquence -- it is to add my voice and my actions to bring about change that is critical to making this world a better place. All I have to do is use my imagination.

(c) 2001, Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.

For immediate release (Distributed 6/20/01)

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