How Do We Talk about Terrorism and War?

In my workplace, discussions about the war in Afghanistan vary from comments that acknowledge the complexities and causes of this war to "bomb the shit out of them" to no opinion at all. Our members for the most part are reluctant to talk about sensitive issues at work because they want to protect the long-term relationships that we have with each other. The employer already divides us along many lines; care needs to be taken in discussing this issue, as we want to come together, not further divide ourselves.

I spoke on a panel in Toronto October 27, titled "How do we work for peace and justice?"--a discussion on what Canadian union members are doing, saying, asking, and open to with regards to the war in Afghanistan. Another trade unionist on the panel, Omar Latif, Hotel and Restaurant Employees Local 75, spoke about the HERE members that were killed at the World Trade Center and of others that now have no job to go to. He spoke of the impact this would have on HERE's members in New York, considering that many were immigrant workers in a very low-wage sector.

IMMIGRANTS NOT SURPRISED

Brother Omar as well as others at the forum said that many immigrant workers were not surprised at the retaliation of terrorists, considering U.S. foreign policies. One person spoke of a member that had emigrated from Chile; her comment was that her September 11 happened to her and her country 21 years ago.

This seems to be a recurring comment from Canadian workers who immigrated in order to flee their war-torn homelands. Many of our sisters and brothers in this position have personal experience with war in their home country, on the soil of that country.

This is a perspective that most Canadian and American workers do not have. Where have workers of my generation gathered their perceptions of war? From personal accounts of grandparents, great uncles, and neighbors that had fought overseas, from the news and TV, but mostly from Hollywood movies.

WHAT HAS CHANGED?

We also discussed the recurring theme that "on September 11 the world changed forever." Questions we can ask: What has changed? What remains the same? "Our world"? Who is "our"? As Canadians, does "our" indicate we are American?

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After September 11 there has been a definite increase in feelings of nationalism and of sovereignty issues. The North American Free Trade Agreement and the Free Trade Agreements of the Americas are topics that arise specifically among activist members. Bill C-36 (the Canadian anti-terrorism bill) and its effect on civil liberties will impact us on the picket line and in protesting.

We talked about each other's experiences in approaching members. It seemed clear that in discussion with members it needed to be said at the onset that we abhor what happened to the victims and their families and that we absolutely disagree with the violent tactics of terrorism. This is essential when going on in our conversation that will question the status quo of the Bush war response, as three things usually happen: 1) you are seen as defending the acts of the terrorists, 2) that you are in some way diminishing the tragic suffering of the victims, 3) that you are unpatriotic to question the war response. "You are either with us or with the terrorists."

We talked about creating room for these discussions. Some questions I ask myself: What is my goal? Is it to broaden and politicize the discussion or to force my opinions on fellow workers? Is it to keep two-way communications going (which include listening to views that I sometimes strongly disagree with), or is it to slam the door of conversation shut by passing judgment on another's comments and feelings?

We need to recognize in our conversations that this is an emotional as well as an intellectual process, and that opinions can change as we all move through this process a bit differently. Anger can progress to reason, grief can include forgiveness and not wanting to inflict this pain and suffering on other working people anywhere.

The forum ended after a lot of lively discussion, with the goal of producing a pamphlet that would be used in our workplaces to create positive debate about the war and how to actively work towards peace and justice.


Cathy Austin works at the CAMI assembly plant In Ingersoll, Ontario.