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Protester, Saint Mary’s debate Iraq war

Kelly Meehan | Friday, April 13, 2007

Hell froze over last weekend, anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan said, as snow fell on President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas – a place where she has spent many of her days protesting the war in Iraq.

“Hell will freeze over when our troops can come home,” she said, calling the unexpected southern snowfall a sign from the universe that “we will prevail, and we will be successful” in ending the conflict in Iraq.

Sheehan, who lost her son, Casey, in Iraq, spoke to a packed Carroll Auditorium Thursday morning as dozens of South Bend residents convened at campus to hear the words of the anti-war activist.

While students were the audience’s minority, Sheehan said she did not fear a lack of youth activism calling for an end to the war.

“People always ask me, ‘Where are all the young people?'” she said. “It seems they are not involved like they were in Vietnam, but there is a big difference. … If young people started burning things people would take more notice, but young people are doing it in a peaceful, authentic way.”

Sheehan began her personal crusade in August 2005, when she protested at a peace camp outside President Bush’s Crawford ranch during his five-week vacation there.

Her continuous efforts to gain Bush’s attention garnered her international media attention at Camp Casey during her five-week stint camped outside the ranch. She demanded an audience with the president and an explanation for her son’s death.

Sheehan said there is great value in nonviolent demonstrations – giving her a voice louder than angry critics like conservative columnist Ann Coulter, she said.

“If you wrestle with pigs you only get dirty,” Sheehan said. “And the pigs like it. We must keep ourselves clean. Peace is the most radical concept.”

The concept of peace within our own society, she said, is so rare that Sheehan only included it in the title of her organization, Gold Star Families for Peace, after careful deliberation.

Sheehan is one of nine founders of the organization, which provides support for families of fallen soldiers and seeks to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

While Sheehan said people often approach her in a state of shock about America’s involvement in Iraq in this post-Vietnam era, she said she explains that after Vietnam those actively seeking peace thought their jobs were done.

“I tell them, ‘You put your signs in your garages and your peace badges in your jewelry box,'” she said. “Of course this can happen again. The war machine wants constant war … In twenty, thirty or forty, your children will be involved in something like this.”

Sheehan made the decision to speak at the College as a “break” from her large venue speaking tour, College Democrat president Meaghan Herbst said.

And while Sheehan could have spoken at a larger local venue, University spokesperson Don Wycliff said no request to have Sheehan speak at Notre Dame came through his office.

Although the expected attendance was only 200 people – a relatively small crowd for the internationally known activist – Sheehan said she was enthused to be at a small women’s Catholic college, particularly because the religious and leadership values Saint Mary’s intends to instill within its graduates attracted her.

“[Leadership] is not being elected or hired,” she said. “To me, leadership is about living your life in an authentic way that honors your values and the values of humanity.”

As a convert to the Catholic religion and former youth leader within the Church, Sheehan raised concerns over the state of today’s Church.

She said she will not believe priests, bishops, cardinals and the Pope are truly against the war until they join the nuns who are willing to physically sit in and protest the unjust bloodshed in the Middle East.

This reference resounded in audience members who were in support of the Sisters of the Congregation of the Holy Cross’ recently announced stance in favor non-violence.

The lecture’s introductory speaker, Regina Wilson, said the Congregation “declared that nonviolence is constituent of Jesus, right with all Creation and requires innovative responses to conflict.”

While Sheehan was in support of this declaration, it prompted the audience to question the College’s involvement in the Notre Dame-based Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program.

Introductory speaker and Notre Dame Assistant Professor of theology Michael Baxter said he did not believe ROTC had a place at the University, and the scholarship money should instead be used to finance student peacemakers’ scholarships – an idea that won the applause of Sheehan.

Sheehan said a shortcoming of domestic anti-war activism is the individual protester’s unwillingness to make sacrifices.

The first change she urged was the end of Saturday marches on Capitol Hill, jokingly saying that not even the person responsible for clearing dog waste from the sidewalks is in the neighborhood on a Saturday.

In turn, she extended an invitation to the 10,000 Mother March on Monday, May 14 – a date when she said she is confident the manifestation will draw the attention of lawmakers.

Sheehan said the ultimate sacrifice, however, lies within the individual, as every citizen has the responsibility to contribute his talents to the improvement of society.

“Look inside and figure out what more you can do,” she said. “Don’t worry about what you will eat, where you will sleep or your clothes. Step out in faith and that will be provided for you.”

A mother of three other children, Sheehan said she would gladly stay in her California home to cook and clean for them, but after Casey’s death and the loss of thousands of innocent Iraqis, she realized that was no longer an option.

“If we want true and lasting peace,” she said, “we all have to sacrifice. … We have to give something until it hurts.”