When Some Lives Matter More Than Others

May 21st, 2003
By Naomi Klein

Jessica Lynch and Rachel Corrie could have passed for sisters. Two all-American blondes, two destinies forever changed in a Middle East war zone. Private Jessica Lynch, the soldier, was born in Palestine, West Virginia. Rachel Corrie, the activist, died in Israeli-occupied Palestine.

Corrie was four years older than 19-year old Lynch. Her body was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza seven days before Lynch was taken into Iraqi custody on March 23. Before she went to Iraq, Lynch organized a pen pal program with a local kindergarden. Before Corrie left for Gaza, she organized a pen pal program between kids in her hometown of Olympia, Washington, and children in Rafah.

Lynch went to Iraq as a soldier loyal to her government. In the words of West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, "she approached the prospect of combat with determination rather than fear."

Corrie went to Gaza to oppose the actions of her government. As a US citizen, she believed she had a special responsibility to defend Palestinians against US-built weapons, purchased with US aid to Israel. In letters home, she vividly described how fresh water was being diverted from Gaza to Israeli settlements, how death was more normal than life. "This is what we pay for here," she wrote.

Unlike Lynch, Corrie did not go to Gaza to engage in combat — she went to try to thwart it. Along with her fellow members of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), she believed that the Israeli military’s incursions could be slowed by the presence of highly visible "internationals." The killing of Palestinian civilians may have become commonplace, the thinking went, but Israeli doesn’t want the diplomatic or media scandals that would come if it killed a US college student.

In a way, Corrie was harnessing the very thing that she disliked most about her country — the belief that American lives are worth more than any others — and trying to use it to save a few Palestinian homes from demolition.

Believing her florescent orange jacket would serve as armor, that her bullhorn could repel bullets, Corrie stood in front of bulldozers, slept beside water wells, and escorted children to school. If suicide bombers turn their bodies into weapons of death, Corrie turned hers into the opposite: a weapon of life, a "human shield."

When that Israeli bulldozer driver looked at Corrie’s orange jacket and pressed the accelerator, her strategy failed. It turns out that the lives of some US citizens — even beautiful, young, white women — are valued more than others. And nothing demonstrates this more starkly than the opposing responses to Rachel Corrie and Private Jessica Lynch.

When the Pentagon announced Lynch’s successful rescue, she became an overnight hero, complete with "America loves Jessica" fridge magnets, stickers, t-shirts, mugs, country songs, and an NBC made-for-TV movie. According to White House spokesman Ari Fleisher, President George W. Bush was "full of joy for Jessica Lynch." Lynch’s rescue, we were told, was a testament to a core American value: as Senator Jay Rockefeller put it in a speech to the Senate, "We take care of our people."

Do they? Corrie’s death, which made the papers for two days and then virtually disappeared, has met with almost total official silence, despite the fact that eye-witnesses claim it was a deliberate act. President Bush has said nothing about a US citizen killed by a US made bulldozer bought with US tax dollars. A US congressional resolution demanding an independent inquiry into Corrie’s death has been buried in committee, leaving the Israeli military’s investigation — which conveniently cleared itself of any wrong doing — as the only official probe.

The ISM says that this non-response has sent a clear, and dangerous, signal. According to Olivia Jackson, a 25-year-old British citizen still in Rafah, "after Rachel was killed, [the Israeli military] waited for the response from the American government and the response was pathetic. They have realized that they can get away with it and it has encouraged them to keep on going."

First there was Brian Avery, a 24-year-old citizen shot in the face on April 5. Then Tom Hurndall, a British ISM activist shot in the head and left brain dead on April 11. Next was James Miller, the British cameraman shot dead while wearing a vest that said "TV." In all of these cases, eye-witnesses say the shooters were Israeli soldiers.

There is something else that Jessica Lynch and Rachel Corrie have in common: both of their stories have been distorted by a military for its own purposes. According to the official story, Lynch was captured in a bloody gun battle, mistreated by sadistic Iraqi doctors, then rescued in another storm of bullets by heroic Navy SEALs. In the past weeks, another version has emerged. The doctors that treated Lynch found no evidence of battle wounds, and donated their own blood to save her life. Most embarrassing of all, witnesses have told the BBC that those daring Navy SEALs already knew there were no Iraqi fighters left in the area when they stormed the hospital.

But while Lynch’s story has been distorted to make its protagonists appear more heroic, Corrie’s story has been posthumously twisted to make her, and her fellow ISM activists, appear sinister.

For months, the Israeli military had been looking for an excuse to get rid of the ISM "troublemakers." It found it in Asif Mohammed Hanif and Omar Khan Sharif , the two British suicide bombers. It turns out that they had attended a memorial to Rachel Corrie in Rafah, a fact the Israeli military has seized on to link the ISM to terrorism. Members of ISM point out that the memorial was open to the public, and that they knew nothing of the British visitors’ intentions. As an organization, the ISM is explicitly opposed to the targeting of civilians, whether by Israeli bulldozers or Palestinian bombers. Furthermore, many ISMers believe that their work may reduce terrorist incidents by demonstrating that there are ways to resist occupation other than the nihilistic revenge offered by suicide bombing.

No matter. In the past two weeks, half a dozen ISM activists have been arrested, several deported, and the organization’s offices have been raided. The crack down is now spreading to all "internationals," meaning there are fewer and fewer people in the occupied territories to either witness the ongoing abuses or assist the victims. On Monday, the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process told the Security Council that dozens of UN aid workers had been prevented from getting in and out of Gaza, calling it a violation of "Israel’s international humanitarian law obligations."

On June 5 there will be an international day of action for Palestinian rights. One of the key demands is for the UN to send an international monitoring force into the occupied territories. Until that happens, many are determined to continue Corrie’s work, despite the risks. Over forty students at her former college, Evergreen State in Olympia, have already signed up to go to Gaza with the ISM this summer.

So who is a hero? During the attack on Iraq, some of Corrie¹s friends emailed her picture to MSNBC asking that it be included on the station’s "wall of heroes," along with Jessica Lynch. The network didn’t comply, but Corrie is being honoured in other ways. Her family has received more than 10,000 letters of support, communities across the country have organized powerful memorials, and children all over the occupied territories are being named Rachel.

It’s not a made-for-TV kind of tribute, but perhaps that’s for the best.

This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.