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Interview with human shield Ken O'Keefe (pt.1)
An in-depth interview with "human shield" Ken O'Keefe during his recent Japan tour, on direct action for Palestine, standing up to US military might in Iraq, the legacy of Hiroshima....and the better world to come
“If you try and understand the world and how these leaders make decisions and all this kind of stuff from a normal, sane point of view, you’ll never figure it out. But if you look at it from a tyrant’s point of view, it all makes perfect sense. And this is the way you have to think if you want to try and understand the world we live in.....”
When people first meet Kenneth Nichols O’Keefe, more often than not they want to know about the tattoos that cover him nearly from head to foot: There are a couple of tattoos on his neck, which he says have cost him more than one potential job, and another pair of tattoos across his knuckles that reads WORLD CITIZEN when he puts his fists side by side. When he speaks, his words tend to be punctuated by spurts of expletives and barely concealed anger, and he spares niceties for no one, be they liberal or neoconservative.
But he has also done what most people would have neither the courage nor the time to bother doing in these uncertain times: standing up to the wrath of the United States military — both as a disillusioned US Marine who was dispatched to Kuwait during the first Persian Gulf war in 1991, and more openly, as a former soldier and “human shield” in Iraq during the weeks leading up to the US-led invasion there in early 2003.
Kenneth Nichols’ worldview has evolved from a somewhat naive 19-year-old who joined the US military in 1989, pointing out the corruption of military brass to his own detriment, to a 35-year-old ‘world citizen’ who has twice renounced his US citizenship (in Canada and Holland) and twice burned his US passports in defiance (in Holland and in Baghdad earlier this year). Nichols later adopted the family name of O’Keefe from his then-wife, has since received Irish nationality due to his blood family’s genealogy, and now resides in London.
It was from London that O’Keefe launched his appeal in late 2002 for people to go to Iraq as human shields to protect the Iraqi people from the imminent US attack. He managed to round up about 100 human shield volunteers to Iraq, but it wasn’t long before O’Keefe’s outspoken views on the places to be protected in Iraq got him kicked out of the country by the regime of Saddam Hussein. Some human shields did remain behind in Iraq. Nevertheless, O’Keefe today claims success in that action, and is planning an even bigger project for the future: gathering 10,000 people to go to Palestine as witnesses to the continuing carnage there. He calls it the ‘P10K Force,’ and is appealing for grassroots volunteers from many countries to step forward and join that international effort.
Independent journalist Brian Covert caught up with Ken O’Keefe during his recent speaking tour of Japan — O’Keefe’s first visit to the nation — which included stops in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the annual August commemorations of the 1945 atomic bombings of those two cities.
BRIAN COVERT: You’ll be speaking the next few days all over Japan, including in Hiroshima tomorrow. What are you planning to tell the Japanese people the next few days?
KEN O’KEEFE: I obviously want to express my belief that nuclear weapons are horrible weapons. There’s no justification, ever, for using them, and that we should remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki — all of us, not just in Japan, but all around the world — and who did it. And let’s take at look at this same nation [the US], who used these two nuclear weapons not so many years ago and their actions now. And recognize this danger that they pose — before they do it again. Because they’re fully capable of doing it again; they’ve even publicly stated it.
So of course I want to meet people. I would like to hear the views of as many Japanese people as I can. I’ll talk about human shields to a degree. But most important to me, really, is to present the plan, the P10K plan, and to get people who believe that this is a good idea, to get them to register and become part of that plan.
BC: What do you make of Japan being in Iraq to support the US efforts there?
KO: I think it’s just another example of the illusion of democracy. I don’t believe that the Japanese people, the majority, support it. Especially if they were given proper information about all of the factors involved in the invasion of Iraq. I don’t believe for a second that the majority of people here would support Japanese peacekeepers, or whatever you want to call them, “humanitarian workers.” I think the majority of people here don’t want Japan’s involvement at all. The Japanese government — just like virtually every democracy on this planet — when it comes to big decisons, is not honoring the democratic wishes of its people. I think it’s disgusting. And what does it do? It makes Japan a target, when it doesn’t need to be. Because [Japan] doesn’t have anything to gain, really, by doing this — other than capitulating to the most powerful nation in the world that’s running roughshod over the rest of the world. And that’s not a good thing.
Obviously there’s short-term benefits for the politicians that do this crap. But long term, your nation and your people pay a heavy price so these assholes, quite frankly, can pad their pockets more and sell out your children’s future. And it’s the same everywhere. I don’t know of a democracy, quite frankly, that really respects its people. With insignificant things like “We want a fountain in the park,” then yeah, you might be able to exercise democratic principles. But when it comes to the most critical decision — specifically Iraq — what nation really honored its people? Because no one really wanted this. Who wanted it?....
BC: What advice would you give to Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, if you were able to have some kind of audience with him?
KO: If I met these people, basically what I would say is: “You and I both know that you don’t answer to the people and to the children and the future generations of Japan. You’re answerable to those of power, of money. You know it, I know it. And the price you pay for that, in my opinion, is you sell your soul. ...I would encourage you to be true to your conscience and truly represent the wishes of the people that you’re supposed to represent — and set an example for the rest of the so-called democracies.”
BC: How effective do you think human shields have been in dealing with very violent situations, whether in Palestine or Iraq or other places, from your personal experience?
KO: I think the strategy proved itself in Iraq. We only had a hundred human shields there during the [US] bombing, and all of the sites they were at, which were similar to sites throughout the rest of the country — none of ’em were hit. None of ’em. The US said, “We don’t want to bomb the infrastructure.” Bullshit. Who rebuilds that crap? KBR [Kellogg Brown & Root] and all these other bastards. They get these contracts; they make billions off the shit. Anyway, you’ve got to hit these sites because if they have power and they have water, they have more ability to fight back. You need to demoralize your enemy. You need to destroy their will to fight. And the way you do that is by hitting their infrastructure so they can’t get supplies. It’s just basic strategy. So this is just a bunch a crap, that they said that they weren’t going to bomb these places. And they did, elsewhere in Iraq. But they did not, in Baghdad.
The full potential of [human shields], in my opinion, will never be achieved until we do it in numbers significant enough.... I still maintain if we could’ve got 10,000 western citizens, or world citizens, to Iraq pre-invasion, we could have conceivably stopped what was a totally predetermined invasion. And it’s the only thing, in my mind, that I believe could’ve actually possibly done anything. No amount of lobbying governments or writing or protests — I mean, look at February 15 . It was the biggest single day of protest in the history of our world. How much more clear could we have made it? And did any of these nations respect our wishes? No. But if you have a bunch of western citizens who were not only saying “We’re against this,” but putting themselves in sites that are protected by the Geneva Convention as well — and you end up killing maybe a dozen or maybe a hundred or, God forbid, maybe a thousand? Can you imagine? Politically, that’s an untenable risk: “Holy shit! This will expose us for what we are, plain and simple.” I really believe they had great fear that there would be larger numbers. And they did everything they could in the mass media and whatnot to paint us as a bunch of idiots who were gonna support a brutal dictator [Saddam Hussein]. That was all anticipated. But my mistake with human shields is I started it too late, then infiltration happened and all sorts of stuff.
BC: Do you think you can get those numbers for the next plan for Palestine?
KO: Yeah. To me it’s purely a matter of when, not if. In life or in death, I intend to see P10K happen. Because I know that if we do not do something different than what we’ve been doing — I mean, petitions and protests and demonstrations and these standard tactics to try and compel democratic principles, they’re largely symbolic and largely ineffective. There’s a simple saying: “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you always got.” I mean, at what point do we realize we’ve got to employ some different strategies? And this strategy, in my opinion, is the very best strategy on the table. I’ve looked at many different proposals, and to me most of them are just rehashes of the same old thing. And I’m not content to do something that I didn’t see make results in the past; why would I expect it to have a better result now?
To get 10,000 people, it may sound really ambitious and really huge, but when you do the math, there’s 879 million people in the West. In the UK, there’s 59 million people. We need 673 people out of the entire United Kingdom. There were two million people on the streets on February 15, 2003. Can we not get 673 people to be their part of 10,000? From Norway, we need 40. I know we can get 40 people from Norway and 600 from Italy and 400 from Spain. You can’t tell me that we cannot get that many people. Of course we can.
The task, really, is to show people the option and to get them to realize that this is a realistic option, that it really takes only a relatively few of us to make it real. And for me, that’s just a matter of time. In know that the support is 100 percent, in Palestine. Everyone agrees there that “this is a good idea, this is great, we really need this.” The friends that I’ve made there are really fantastic, real brothers. They’re family to me, just like my Hawaiian brothers and sisters. And they [Palestinians] want us. They’re ready to receive us. If we have 10,000 people, they will all have homes welcoming them, literally. So it won’t just be [to] go and visit these people. You’re gonna go into their homes; you’re gonna make friends.
[Following O’Keefe’s visit to Hiroshima on 5-6 August]
BC: You just came back from Hiroshima on the 59th anniversary of the atomic bombings. How did it all affect you?
KO: It was very powerful and very moving. ....The thing that really stood out for me was a kind of informal of second-generation [atomic bomb] victims — nisei — in the wheelchairs, not able to move properly. And one of them was speaking as best he could with help from a friend. That really hit me, it was very moving. The museum was certainly moving, but the nisei victims there were even more moving.
We met some of the survivors who were either in Hiroshima or came there after the explosion to find their family and whatnot. They told us some stories, answered some questions. That was really fascinating. I was able to ask them several questions, but one question I asked was: Did they feel that we had learned our lesson, that humanity had learned the lesson? And the answer was “No. We hadn’t.”
And I can really relate to that because for many years, I’ve lived with the understanding that we sit perched on the verge of complete self-destruction. Yet we walk around as if everything is OK. I don’t think we should be walking around, like, “The sky is falling!” We shouldn’t be going loopy over the whole thing. But what we should be doing is acknowledging that fact and doing something about it. But from my perspective, humanity is largely in a collective state of insanity. We’re in a state of denial. We don’t want to face unpleasant truths — or we just use the excuse that, “Well, I’m only one person, it’s bigger than me and I can’t really do anything.” And that’s exactly what the powers-that-be want.
These people who survived Hiroshima, they know just how ugly and horrid it is. And yet they have to live with the understanding that most of us in this world have not learned the lesson — and here we sit, ready to do it again! And I think that must be an extremely difficult kind of understanding to live with, and I know that understanding intimately ’cause I’ve lived with it for several years. So that was important for me, something that kinda [gave me strength]. All of it gives me strength. Facing the truth gives me strength. And meeting people who have a similar understanding of the world and are coping with it and still doing what they can to effect a better world is very inspiring to me. So I carry that with me for the rest of my life. This is kinda the main reason why I wanted to come in the first place. It’s been as much as I wanted, and more. It was an amazing visit.
BC: How did the people of Hiroshima react to your call for recruits for P10K Force?
KO: To be honest, I didn’t talk about P10K all that much [there]. I mean, I talked about depleted uranium. While we were there, there was a press conference and they had an Iraqi man who had spent some time in Abu Ghraib [prison] and had been tortured by US soldiers. So I spoke a little bit about my feelings on what’s happening there. I didn’t really talk about P10K all that much, to be honest — not because I don’t want to but because I think there’s a time and a place, and it just didn’t feel like the right place to really start talking about Palestine.... I did certainly say, “This is what I’m doing and I would encourage people to take a look at it, because I think it’s something I think they’d be interested in.”
BC: Talking just about the general issue of human shields: What does it take to be a human shield?
KO: Every situation would be different. There’s no one rule for every scenario with human shields. But in the case of Iraq, the only requirement, really, was to be a conscientious human being who refuses to accept an illegal invasion and put your body in a spot that’s protected by the Geneva Conventions. And stay there. That’s it, literally. There are some other other things, of course, that should go without saying, such as respecting the culture and the place that you’re going to. It would be great, in a situation where you have plenty of time and resources, that everyone would go through some sort of cultural training and maybe some language, and have some political and historical background on things, so everyone at least knows a certain amount. And I would certainly prefer to have it that way. But in the case of Iraq, we didn’t have time. No way. It was just a matter of gettin’ down there as fast as you can.
BC: How do you approach the subject of possibly dying out there to people, when you’re recruiting them?
KO: I’m assuming that people are adults and that they can make their own decision. I certainly never shied away from the fact that this was potentially a dangerous thing to do. We were looking at a major bombing campaign.... One thing I would say to people, though, is that we have a choice. We can put ourselves in this potential harm’s way but the Iraqis — they don’t have a choice. And generally non-western people who are the victims of our policies don’t ever have a choice. It’s part of the disparity, the inequality that exists in our world, that we in the West get to live comparatively safe, luxurious lifestyles and reap the benefits of what little freedom does exist in the world, while the rest of the world basically just has to eat it.
From my personal point of view, I think we should be fearful of not living our lives to the fullest — not death. If you’re fearful of death, then you’re paralyzed and you’re not really gonna get anything out of life. And that’s why fear is so routinely employed to control and dominate people. And once you let go of the fear and live life, then you have the kinda rewards that I’ve been able to enjoy in my life. And I highly recommend it. I think I’m truly blessed for my experiences. A lot of peple would say I’m nuts for some of the things I’ve done but, really, all I’ve been doing is exercising my consciousness and doing what I felt was right. And it’s worked out. But even if I did die tomorrow, I would have lived a wonderful life, extremely blessed. And I would say to everyone, “Don’t cry an extra tear for me.” I’ve lived 35 years and in that life I’ve experienced more wonder and joy than most people do in several lifetimes.
BC: How did you yourself get drawn into the human shield movement?
KO: One of the inspirations for it was during the siege of the Occupied Territories in spring of 2002, when the Israelis went into Jenin, amongst other places, and were committing these horrendous crimes. One of the things that I happened to see was the activists that got themselves into the Church of the Nativity and Yassir Arafat’s compound — when it was looking like, while there were Palestinians in the church, they were just gonna kill ’em. Then Yassir Arafat’s compound was seriously looking like it might get hit or run over. And these activists went in there. Whether they did or didn’t stop the Israelis from doing what they might’ve intended to do, it was a balls-out, “Fuck this, let’s do something about it” [action], and I really respected that, big-time. I thought, “That’s not talking about it, that’s just doing it.” That’s what I’ve been doing in my life and I really think that that’s what we need to do. So that was kind of an inspiration for human shields.
Then in late 2002, in the run-up to the invasion [of Iraq], I was free to do whatever I wanted to do because I was basically at a kind of a standstill with my [refugee] asylum procedure in Holland. So being free, I decided to go to Iraq after watching two news stories two days in a row: One news story was about the CIA Hellfire missile that was fired in Yemen at six accused “terrorists,” one of which was an American citizen. It was like after a month that they had done this — firing a missile at a foreign country, killing four nationals and your own national, with no charges against any of these people — and the US government said this was legal, that they’d had the legal right to do this. Not only that, [National Security Advisor] Condoleeza Rice went so far as to say that this was constitutional, that the president was within his constitutional rights to kill somebody who had never been charged with any crime, in a foreign land with a missile.
....And that’s when I just thought to myself, “Fuck this shit. I cannot sit by and watch this without doing something.” So I decided I would go to Iraq. And at the time it’s just me, it’s just one person, I’m going, and I didn’t know of anyone else in any organized way. I knew there were groups there, but what I wanted to do was go for myself. But I decided that, well, if I’m gonna go — and I really am going because I wanna at least stand against this and, really, I’d like to stop it — I wrote an appeal. I wrote several appeals that I posted on Indy Media. And this is a very important lesson for any would-be activists out there: Although I know these son of a bitches are just flooding Indy Media with a lot of crap too, it’s still a good tool for us to use. I posted several personal appeals, calls to action on Indy Media, saying, “This invasion is illegal, immoral, it’s wrong. In the aftermath of 10, 12 years of insane sanctions, the last thing the Iraqi people need is to be bombed. If we really care enough about peace, then why don’t we just stop our protesting in our lands, and do a little protesting in Iraq? And go to try and protect these people’s vital infrastructure places — at the least — because they’re gonna attack ’em.”
And people started to respond. Then the Guardian [newspaper] in London, they asked me to write a piece: “Back to Iraq as a human shield”. And that really kinda started the ball rolling. Very quickly I became the media darling, I was on everything....every television program.
You know, there was a real decent chance that we coulda got the [number of] people that I wanted. I was saying, from the first moment, that what I wanted was a mass migration to Iraq, and I felt that 10,000 people would be enough to stop the war. Because that would make it politically untenable. You can kill 15-, 20,000 Iraqi civilians and tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers — do we really give a shit, when it comes down to it? In Britain, they are still debating, “Is this legal?” Now, if it was 15-, 20,000 western citizens that got killed — or say, for instance, 3,000 western citizens that got killed on September 11 — we’d call what it is: mass fuckin’ murder. Why don’t we call it that when it’s Iraqis? Because they’re just fuckin’ Arabs and we don’t give a shit, do we?
So basically, what I was saying is that if we get enough of us down there [in Iraq], this war, this invasion, won’t be possible because you can’t kill too many western citizens before it would become really bad. Now, can you imagine, with everything we know now, if we had had 10,000 — or even a thousand — human shields down there in these sites, all over the place? Many of ’em would’ve been killed. We woulda lost some. And you woulda started to learn why these people went to Iraq, which would be moving, very moving, for a lot of people. Probably some of them [human shields] woulda been parents, or certainly they’d have brothers and sister, mothers and fathers back home, that would be really upset that they lost their loved one. But you’d also have a thousand or 10,000 witnesses.
Can you imagine if there was a thousand to 10,000 western witnesses to see the fuckin’ carnage that has occurred? This would’ve been bad, bad, bad, bad, bad — worse than it is now, times a hundred. That’s the power we had. And if we had realized that we could’ve stopped this invasion, or at the least we could’ve ended the carnage sooner — this is the power we have. The only thing stopping us is this thing between our damn ears [points to brain] that tells us we can’t do it. That we don’t have the power.
....But in the case of Iraq, we knew that they [US military] would hit the infrastructure. They said they wouldn’t, but that’s bullshit because KBR [Kellogg Brown & Root] and all of ’em, they rebuild these damn buildings; why wouldn’t they hit ’em? It’s just more money for these bastards. So it was important that we went to these places that we knew were bomb targets in the first Gulf War [in 1991], and we knew they would be bomb targets in this last one. And they were. But they just didn’t hit any of the ones that any of our human shields were at. Is that a coincidence? I don’t think so.
Ken O'Keefe, left, being interviewed by journalist Brian Covert. (Photo by Yumi Kikuchi)