Peace & Justice

Tuesday afternoon at Modesto Peace/Life Center

Tuesdays, the Peace/Life Center is usually open from 12:00 noon to 3:00 p.m. Bring brown bag lunch. Come by for some coffee or tea or to chat or to see a film or browse through various books and magazines. Beverages will be provided.

2007 Peace Essay Contest

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Peace/Life Center celebrates with holiday potluck


Peace work and peacemakers tend to be too earnest and serious. Emma Goldman thought they needed to laugh more, let their hair down, enjoy a good party. “If there’s no dancing, that’s no revolution I want to be part of.” Those aren’t Emma’s exact words, but that’s her spirit. And that’s the spirit in which Alice and Dan Onorato’s invite all peacemakers to a holiday party at their home at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, December 9.

The party is open to people already part of the Peace/Life Center community as well as to those curious about it or interested in possibly getting involved. The party will be a potluck, so everyone coming, please get creative in the kitchen and bring your tasty dish, a beverage to share, and your festive spirit.

Besides delicious food, we’ll have lively conversation and laughter, lots of singing, and maybe some dancing to keep Emma happy. There may also be some surprises. Rumor has it that Santa wants to practice his chimney descents early this year, and that he’s gone on a crash diet to be able to fit down the narrow chimneys of wood burning stoves. There’s a good chance he’ll try the Onorato’s chimney because he’s been informed there will be a special personage waiting for him, none other than the grand dame of merriment, Ms. Mildred Lovitt. If you haven’t met Mildred, that’s reason enough to come to this party. She’s part busy body, part storyteller, and three parts rascal.

So mark Saturday, December 9 on your calendar right now. Delight others with your potluck surprise, enjoy the kinship and mirth of kindred spirits, share your hopes, raise your voice in song, and maybe do a little slippin’ and slidin’ on the dance floor, so Emma can smile upon us.

ACTION: The Onoratos live at 1532 Vernon Ave in Modesto. See you December 9.

One thousand grandmothers will protest at SOA


I met a remarkable woman this month. Dorothy Parker of Chico told me her story of being arrested at the School of the Americas (SOA) in Fort Benning, Georgia.

The US Government has maintained the facility for many years training men from many countries to do deadly covert operations. Many of them return to Central and South America. Interfering in any movement to bring true democracy and self-government is their specialty.

One prime example is the attack on liberation theology and the killing of priest Oscar Romero on March 23, 1980.

Dorothy Parker, seventy-six, joined many others in a peaceful protest at SOA. Yes, they were trespassing. She was arrested with others and sentenced to one year in jail. She served her time in California. With a large group, some were housed in minimum security facilities and were given some freedom of movement.

Dorothy’s fate was to land in a maximum security facility when they ran out of room. Here she was subjected to a cell made for one person but incarcerating three women. In addition to the lack of privacy, they were treated as if they were criminals, often not even being given time in the exercise yard (supposedly required by prison rules).

I have unbounded admiration for Dorothy Parker, who was mentioned in a Peace Center newsletter from Chico. She plans to return to SOA for the November 15, 16, 17 demonstrations. This time the group is aiming for One Thousand Grandmothers to attend. From all over the US they will come to protest the evil that emanates from this “School”.

They will call attention of the world to this obscenity being perpetrated by our own government. Write your congressman; your taxpayer dollars are paying for it.

ACTION: For information about the grandmothers’ action, contact Cathy Webster or visit For information regarding the School of the America’s protest, visit SOA Watch at

See The Ground Truth


The Ground Truth, a powerful new film featuring US veterans talking about their experiences being recruited, trained, and deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, will be shown on Sunday, November 5 at 6 p.m. at College Avenue Congregational Church, 1341 College Avenue (corner of Orangeburg) in Modesto.

The war in Iraq, depicted with unflinching honesty, is a prelude to the challenging battles fought by the soldiers returning home — with personal demons, an uncomprehending public, and an indifferent government. These soldiers and their loved ones courageously share their truth about the war and about their homecoming.

Reviews have praised the movie as “gripping,” “searing,” “intensely provocative,” and “emotionally potent.” Time magazine called The Ground Truth “the best film so far about the cost of war in Iraq.”

Director Patricia Foulkard writes, “I produced and directed this film so we could talk openly about what really happens in war — the fact that people kill and get killed; the thousands and thousands who are injured in combat and must now struggle to cope with their pain and new stressful living conditions — long after the conflict is out to the news.

The showing is sponsored by College Avenue Congregational Church, the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and the Modesto Peace/Life Center, For information, call 523-8445, or email  For information about the film, visit

The hidden cost of homeland defense

By BENJAMIN H. FRIEDMAN, MIT Security Studies Program

Conventional wisdom says that none of us are safe from terrorism. The truth is that almost all of us are. The conventional belief is that in response to terrorism, the federal government has spent massive sums on homeland security. The fact is that the increased federal spending on homeland security since September 11 pales in comparison to increases in the U.S. defense budget. But homeland security has costs beyond spending, costs that conventional thinking rarely considers. U.S. homeland security policy conjures up a flawless enemy that could strike at any moment, in any place. That policy institutionalizes the fears terrorists created and harms liberal values.

Most homeland security experts say that Hurricane Katrina’s flooding of New Orleans shows how vulnerable we are to terrorists. In fact, it shows that most Americans have better things to worry about. By any statistical measure, the terrorist threat to America has always been low. As political scientist John Mueller notes, in most years allergic reactions to peanuts, deer in the road, and lightning have all killed about the same number of Americans as terrorism. In 2001, their banner year, terrorists killed one-twelfth as many Americans as the flu and one-fifteenth the number killed by car accidents.

Most experts dismiss this history. They contend that because both weapons technology and Sunni extremism are spreading, the terrorist danger is ahistorical. But while both these trends are real, we should not leap to the conclusion that the threat is growing or greater than more mundane dangers. There is no obvious reason to believe that September 11 was the start of an era of ever-deadlier terrorism, rather than its highwater mark.

There are several reasons why terrorism is harder than we generally hear. First, terrorists have to get here. There isn’t a militant Islamic population in the United States, as there is in Spain or England, nor evidence of sleeper cells. A successful terrorist plot in the United States would probably require terrorists to fly overseas and cross several borders. That entails reliable men with names off the watch-lists that airline security run, or hard-to-find forged documents, and border agents who are not suspicious. If the plot requires several people, as most do, a core part of the group must accomplish these tasks. Then they must execute the plot without raising suspicion.

All of these steps are doable, especially for a professional terrorist organization, as Al Qaeda proved. But conventional analysis of terrorism ignores the second reason terrorism is not so easy: today’s terrorist organizations are not as capable as Al Qaeda once was, especially when it comes to operating overseas. One possible exception, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, no longer attacks American targets. The war in Afghanistan and worldwide policing against Al Qaeda shattered the main terror network that menaced the United States. In its place are disaggregated set of extremist Sunni groups who share little more than Al Qaeda’s ideology, and pockets of unaffiliated fellow travelers. This network is linked by people, websites, and sometimes financing, but these groups do not cooperate much, and lack the training and experience the core of Al Qaeda had. They will struggle to train operatives, get false documents, and coordinate men and material abroad. This weakness is demonstrated by the terror attacks that recently struck London, Madrid, Jakarta, Bali, Riyadh, Sharm-el- Sheik, Istanbul, Casablanca, Manila, and especially Iraq. The impetus of these attacks came from local groups, which bodes well for nations like ours, with less dangerous locals.

Terrorism with unconventional weapons often prophesied is far from easy. Terrorist attempts to use chemical and biological weapons have failed to cause mass casualties. Manufacturing, controlling, and dispersing biological agents is probably too difficult for today’s terrorist groups. The anthrax attack in 2001 killed five people. Making chemical weapons is dangerous and requires sophisticated chemical laboratories. Using them to great effect is difficult. The 1995 sarin attack in Tokyo’s subway system killed only 11 people. Nuclear terrorism is a greater threat. But the chances of terrorists acquiring a nuclear weapon are low. Most nuclear weapons require delivery vehicles and activation codes. Stealing all of these elements is next to impossible. Smaller, more portable tactical nuclear weapons made by the USSR are easier to get, but these are probably inoperable today. A greater danger is that terrorists might acquire fissile material and a simple gun-type bomb design from a rogue scientist like Pakistan’s A. Q. Khan. But even for nations with sufficient funds and infrastructure, building a nuclear weapon can take decades and is hard to conceal. Nuclear terrorists have to take several risky steps. They must find a seller for fissile materials, a design, and other materials, buy the materials, transport them to a secure location, assemble the weapon, and deliver the weapon to its target, which is likely to be another location across borders. None of these steps are impossible, but the existence of multiple failure points drives down the odds of success.

This argument does not endorse complacency among government officials. Even a small threat of nuclear terrorism should provoke a better-organized non-proliferation policy than the United States now has. Nor does this argument imply that another terrorist massacre in America is unlikely. If enough people try, eventually some attack may well succeed. But attacks are likely to be rare and conventional, on the scale of the London attacks, not apocalyptic nightmares. Even if attacks killing thousands were certain, the risk to each of us would remain close to zero, far smaller than many larger risks that do not alarm us or provoke government warnings, like driving to work every day. And if something far worse than September 11 does occur, the country will recover. Every year, tens of thousands of Americans die on the roads. Disease preys on us. Life goes on for the rest. The economy keeps chugging. A disaster of biblical proportions visited New Orleans. The Republic has not crumbled. The terrorist risk to the United States is serious, but far from existential, as some would have it.

Why does this sound unusual? Why is the threat exaggerated? There are psychological and political reasons. Most peoples’ risk perception is confused. The world is complex. No one can be an expert in everything. Making judgments about risks requires mental shortcuts, what experts call heuristics. Heuristics subject us to biased risk assessment. Human psychology leads us to overestimate the likelihood of dangers that are novel and uncontrollable. The news media and social interaction reinforce these common errors. We also tend to overestimate risks that lend themselves to memorable images, like planes crashing into buildings. Like shark attacks and kidnapping by strangers, terrorism is strange, uncontrollable, and forms a ready mental image. So people overestimate terrorist’s risk and demand excessive protection from it.

People also attach irrational value to current possessions, overvaluing losses and undervaluing potential gains. This may be one reason why publics generally believe that you can never have too much safety, ignoring the costs of protection. But excessive protection is dangerous, because it takes money and resources from more worthwhile ends. The costs of preparing for unlikely disasters are less evident than the illusory benefits.

The other reason people overestimate risk is politics. When Americans assess danger they rely on their perceptions, but they also rely on experts. Experts, however, have interests and often exaggerate danger to serve them. From government bureaucrats seeking larger budgets, to contractors hawking technology, to congressmen campaigning, danger sells. It delivers money and votes. It also sells newspapers. Reporters report on danger, not its absence. Careerist think tank and academic analysts learn that grants, invitations to Capitol Hill, and jobs go to those who trumpet threats and defenses against them, not those who tell Americans to worry less. There is a tendency in America to exaggerate national security dangers.

Despite this threat inflation, spending on homeland security remains tiny compared with defense spending. The homeland security budget for fiscal year 2006 is $49.9 billion, up $32 billion from 2001. States only spend about $1-2 billion a year on homeland security in addition to federal outlays. Private corporations spend, at most, another $10 billion.11 In total then, the United States spends about $60 billion annually on homeland security. The defense budget for FY 2006, without the costs of the wars, is $440 billion, an increase of $135 billion over FY 2001. The extra spending goes to weapons and personnel that deal with traditional threats. Widespread fear of terrorism has primarily boosted defense spending that has little to do with terrorism.

Of course, the costs of homeland security go beyond what we buy. They include opportunity costs, what we pass up. These costs, hard to quantify, are substantial. Slowing down commerce at ports and borders only slightly due to more inspections may cost millions of dollars a day. Making immigration more difficult hurts industry by depriving it of labor, and at the higher end, by keeping away innovative minds. Educational visa applications in the United States fell by almost 100,000 from 2001 to 2003, reflecting in part the hassle created by homeland security. Most importantly, homeland security has non-monetary costs. The U.S. homeland security strategy says terrorists could strike anytime, anyplace, with any weapons; Americans are told to prepare for disaster with escape routes, safety kits, and alertness to suspicious people. Billboards on highways and loud speakers at train stations preach vigilance. Every state now has its homeland security agency to promote disaster plans, preparedness, and the like. The benefits of all this are uncertain. There is little reason to believe that vigilance creates useful tips rather than time wasted on false leads, that evacuation routes for families would ever be useful, or that preparing for fictive disasters much helps prepare for the messy reality of disasters that actually come, like Katrina. What is the effect of this? For one, it creates a domestic state of war, a creeping authoritarian ethos that affronts the openness and relaxation of a liberal society richer and healthier than nearly any in history. This state of affairs might be acceptable if the threat were greater, but because most Americans are safe, it becomes show business, a set of policemen and analysts in every state that buy equipment and hold press conferences to announce the success of drills for disasters that will probably never come.

Another cost of homeland security is the creation of domestic interests that have an interest in frightening us. Along with the Department of Homeland Security and its little brothers in every state, there are now dozens of university institutes and think tanks of homeland security full of ambitious people. Contractors, buttressed by lobbyists, feed on funds to defend us against terrorism. This growing apparatus would not exist without a sense of danger. Those who comprise it have disincentives to tell Americans how safe they truly are.

This set of interests will preserve the culture of fear that terrorists seek. Terrorists, who get their name from an emotion, are psychological warriors. They make fear. By telling Americans in every corner of the nation to plan for attack and stay eternally alert, we deliver the terrorists message, at least to those still listening to government warnings. If combating terrorists is war, it is primarily a psychological sort, where the stakes are as much the American psyche as safety alone. Victory is the return to normalcy, not for the intelligence agencies and the FBI, but for the person in the street. Victory is convincing or permitting regular Americans not to be afraid. Conventional pundits of homeland security worry that the public will become complacent. We should worry that it won’t.

The author is a PhD student in MIT’s Political Science Department and a member of the MIT Security Studies Program. This article is part of MIT’s “Audit of the Conventional Wisdom” series, 05-12 (November 2005). For complete article with citations visit

The Human Cost of the War in Iraq: A Mortality Study, 2002-2006  

From Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The School of Medicine at Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, Iraq, and The Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University—in cooperation with MIT’s Center for International Studies—have released a report on the under-examined question of civilian deaths in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in March 2003. Its central conclusion, based on a population-based survey conducted at some risk by a team of Iraqi and American public health researchers, is that approximately 600,000 people have died violently above the normal mortality rate. Including non-violent deaths that are nevertheless linked to the war, the total is estimated to be more than 650,000.

On October 12, 2006, the survey results were published in the British medical journal, The Lancet (

“The Human Cost of the War in Iraq: A Mortality Study, 2002-2006” explains the cluster survey method; discusses how so many fatalities are possible; looks at the overall status of health in Iraq; examines U.S. military casualties and deaths and their long-term consequences, and discusses policy implications of the study. The report is available at

For questions, contact Tim Parsons, Director of Public Affairs, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, (410) 955-7619 or

Cost of War: How Are So Many Fatalities Possible?

Excerpted from the report

Precisely how so many people have been killed in Iraq is a natural question. While the survey is not designed to answer such a question, apart from general attributions, a few observations may be helpful in grasping the scale of mortality during the war.

• Much violence is occurring far from the view of journalists and widely cited mechanisms for counting the dead. Most Western reporters are based in Baghdad. Even there, large-scale events tend to gain attention, not the numerous but scattered incidences of violence that also occur.

• Baghdad has one-fifth of the nation’s population, or about 5 million. Another 5 million live in the three Kurdish provinces in the north, which are relatively peaceful. Some 15 million live in the remainder of Iraq, and with the exception of Mosul, Kirkuk, and Basra, where there is some foreign press presence, Iraq is largely hidden from the view of Western journalism [emphasis added]. This mortality survey also suggests much more violence is occurring outside Baghdad.

• Those who read the Arabic press say that many incidences of violence are reported in such news media that are never reported in the English-language press.