Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Remembering Rachel Corrie the Activist, Not the Myth

Published in Left Hook. An earlier version appeared in The Peace Chronicle Vol. 2 No. 3 (Fall/Winter 2003).

Recently, the prestigious Royal Court Theatre premiered a play entitled “My Name is Rachel Corrie,” sparking an outpouring of stirring tributes and hateful diatribes about the drama’s protagonist. For the activist community, Rachel has become a vivid symbol of resistance and solidarity with the world’s oppressed, as the many songs, poems, films, and art pieces devoted to her confirm. But to those of us whose lives have crossed paths with hers, as mine did during my years at the Evergreen State College, the international response to Rachel’s death can take on unique and difficult dimensions.

Having once known the subject of this sudden outpouring of adulation, it has been with painfully mixed emotions that I have watched her transformation from a young woman who was bright, idealistic, articulate, and irrepressibly alive, to one who is renowned, enshrined, canonized, and gone. Certainly, that immortalized image of little tiny Rachel unbudgingly staring down the giant metal monster that loomed before her, mouth open to swallow her up, has been a powerful source of inspiration to many in search of some model of conviction to fuel their own struggles and give them the courage and strength to persist. And to what would have likely been Rachel’s satisfaction, the International Solidarity Movement has received unprecedented media recognition in the wake of the tragedy, and recruitment for the organization has soared, with scores of young people hoping to follow in the footsteps of this striking figure. Yet I recall the emergency meeting of local activists held the day afterward, which was filled with refrains of “this is a great opportunity” and “we could really use this as leverage,” and I find myself strangely paralyzed, left with the wrenching question: is it possible for a movement to succeed without martyrs?

I would like to believe that it is possible. When behind a movement lies a vision based on the precept that every life is infinitely sacred and worthy of protection, it seems an imperative that this principle extend to the adherents themselves, negating the celebration of human sacrifice. Still, the ghosts of past movements seem to line up in hopes of proving me wrong: Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Malcolm X, and Jesus, all of them ready to die, and die again on a symbolic yearly basis, for the sins of the rest of us so that we may go on committing them forever and ever. In that intoxicating glow that sets in on crowds who identify with a martyred figure, all that is left of her memory is rendered hollow, reduced to a dehumanized cardboard cutout that is less a person (one who, perhaps, wrote silly poetry and had a stack of dishes in the sink the size of the Eiffel Tower) and more a mere symbol.

This is not to say that everyone who has paid tribute to Rachel throughout the last two years, much less the multitudes of people worldwide who were so deeply touched by her story, are entirely lacking in respect for her as a human being. In fact, I believe it was largely her humanness that resonated with them to begin with. What concerns me most is the manner in which her actions will be remembered in the time to come, when everyone who crossed paths with her during her lifetime is gone. Even now, when her community is still reeling, there can already be seen a deeply misleading mythology springing up around her. Like Rosa Parks, she is most commonly portrayed as a lone figure moved by sudden, nearly superhuman inspiration to throw herself heroically in front of a bulldozer poised for destruction, when in reality her actions were carefully planned (even routine, by that point), carried out not in isolation but as part of an organized network of experienced, community-based activists. Before that singular moment now emblazoned in our collective consciousness, she and others in her organization repaired wells, walked terrified children to school, and spent countless hours just trying to dig some semblance of dignity and humanity from the rubble of lives shattered by incomprehensible suffering. Rachel did not travel to Gaza simply to stand in front of a bulldozer, and she did not go there to die. Nor are these her greatest achievements.

Like its Arabic counterpart “shaheed,” which now graces posters of Rachel on the streets of Rafah and has become source of pride for many here in Olympia, the term “martyr” has its roots in the meaning “to bear witness.” And, indeed, it was primarily to bear witness to the plight of a people with whom the lives of Americans are so intimately yet so remotely connected that my fallen schoolmate chose to undertake the work she did. One cannot help but wonder, though, whether it should have taken her brutal killing to make the world pay attention. Why could she not have borne witness, and been heard, without becoming a martyr and losing her life, a life boundlessly irreplaceable in its uniqueness and beauty? Further, why do we not offer the same recognition to the many other internationals who were lucky enough to evade such a brutal fate, or to the many Palestinians who were not?

As we remember the life of Rachel Corrie, and the many peacemakers who came before her and are sure to come after, it is my hope that we will remember them not as infallible, superhuman figures acting alone and out of some extremely rare quality of character, but as ordinary people immersed in communities of compassion, because in the end, the reality is far more inspiring than the myth.

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