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Looking for truth in the face of terror

By Judith Scherr
Monday October 21, 2002

A pediatrician by trade, Dr. Helen Caldicott’s call to save the children is a fight against militarism. 

Children are maimed and dead in Afghanistan due to the detonation of unexploded bombs, and 500,000 Iraqi children have died over the last decade because they lack clean water and medications due to U.S. sanctions on their country, the Nobel Peace Prize winner said in a keynote address Saturday at a conference marking the 20-year anniversary of Berkeley-based East Bay Sanctuary Covenant. 

“A child is a child is a child; all life is sacred,” Caldicott said. 

The daylong event, whose theme was “To Speak the Truth in a Time of Terror,” opened with music by the La Pena Community Chorus and included a dozen workshops. It drew about 300 people to the First Congregational Church in Oakland.  

At times during her address, Caldicott sounded more preacher than physician.  

“We have to learn to stop killing; the Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’” she said, gesturing to the cross behind her. “What did (Jesus) preach? Love thine enemies. Do good to those who hate you.” 


Caldicott jumped from description of one evil to the next – SUVs and the waste of natural resources, global warming, militarization of space, the innocent killed in Afghanistan and New York City, the impending war in Iraq. 

“It’s God’s earth and God’s creation. We are united by humanity,” she said.  

Of the 18-year-old Americans who fought the war in Afghanistan she said: “There were young men almost eight miles up dropping boxes of bombs. They couldn’t see what was under the bombs... They didn’t smell the scent of blood.” 

The evil she described has not cowed Caldicott; it fuels her determination to make change. Having founded Physicians for Social Responsibility in 1977, Caldicott has now put together the Nuclear Policy Research Institute, whose goal is to use the mass media to place the dangers of militarism squarely before the American people. She urged people in the audience to find their own ways to combat the arms race and environmental degradation. 

Workshops following the keynote speech also presented daunting problems and explored answers: resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; organizing in immigrant communities; promoting human rights in Guatemala; pressuring the United States to end sanctions against Haiti to allow its self determination. 

Stephanie Salter, a former San Francisco Chronicle columnist who was removed from the paper’s editorial pages because she “didn’t fit in,” led a workshop with Paul Burks, a United Methodist minister. 

Salter said she was told her column “did not resonate with upper management.” In response to her removal – she has a union job and won’t be fired, but was moved to the Sunday Insight section – she received more than some 1,600 e-mails, two rallies were held and supporters took out an ad in the Bay Guardian. “All that fell on deaf ears,” Salter said.  

While she was unable to get back her column on the editorial pages, Salter said the pressure had some effect. Ruth Rosen, like Salter a woman over 50 with left-leaning ideas, will take Salter’s place on The Chronicle’s editorial pages next month.  

“I’ll be replaced by someone who looks like me,” Salter said. 

The workshop did not focus so much on the journalist’s personal plight as on the more general problems of the media, where fewer and fewer corporations own more and more diverse media outlets.  

One result is a “dumbing down” of newspapers, Salter said, noting, for example, that after 9/11 The Chronicle put its resources into stories such as people’s “nesting” reaction to the event and the increased time they spent at the gym. 

Why? It’s not some conspiracy to keep Americans in the dark, she said. The answer is less complex: “They’re committed to making money. That’s where the vision stops. The product is almost of no importance to the profit seekers.” 

Still, she argued that there is hope. Some stories do get out in mainstream media, such as in the New Yorker. And there’s KPFA radio and the Internet, especially, Salter said, further suggesting that those who organize rallies need to learn to get their messages out more clearly. “Speakers need to be few and terrific,” she said. 

The event closed with a call for people to take action, including attending the following events: 

• A weekly vigil sponsored by the Ecumenical Peace Institute at the Oakland Federal Building at 13th Street and Clay to end the sanctions on Iraq: Tuesdaysll 12-1 p.m. 

• A march and rally against racism and war in Iraq: Justin Herman Plaza, 11 a.m. Oct. 26; 415-821-6545 

• A presentation on Iraq by Barbara Lubin, Middle East Children’s Alliance: 6 p.m., Nov. 3, Epworth United Methodist Church, 1953 Hopkins St., Berkeley. Dinner and program $15: 548-4141