Transcript of the September 23, 2007 Culture of Peace Distinguished Speaker Series commemorative event featuring Betty Williams, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for her work to bring peace in her native Northern Ireland.
Betty Williams’ life was changed when she witnessed the deaths of three children caught in the middle of a clash between British soldiers and an IRA fugitive. Deeply shocked, Ms. Williams gathered six thousand signatures for a petition for peace and organized a peace march of ten thousand Catholic and Protestant women and then another march of thirty-five thousand people a week later. These activities gained worldwide media attention. Together with Mairead Corrigan, the aunt of the three children who had been killed, she started Women For Peace, which eventually became The Community for Peace People, to help end violence in Northern Ireland.
In more than thirty years since she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work to bring peace to her native Northern Ireland, Ms. Williams has devoted her life to fighting against the injustice, cruelty and horrors perpetrated on the children of the world. Ms. Williams has traveled the globe recording the testimonies of children who have been subjected to suffering beyond belief and advocated legislation to protect children. She has called for the creation of safe areas off limits to any form of military attack in every country where children are under the threat of death and destruction. These “Cities of Compassion” will protect children and ensure that they be treated with dignity, respect and love, as well as help alleviate the huge refugee and orphan problems that plague many countries today. As a result of her many years of work in Italy, World Centers of Compassion for Children International is building the first “City of Compassion” for children in the Basilicata Region of southern Italy.
Ms. Williams promotes a message of nonviolence and respect for all human rights, particularly for children. This respect for human rights is the third of the eight action areas identified by the United Nations. When confronted with the violent deaths of three innocent children, she responded by finding the common humanity among women, especially as mothers, and brought tens of thousands of people together to voice a shared commitment to the right to live in peace.
Would you all stand up, please? Now I want you to give each other a hug. Didn’t that feel good? I’ll tell you why I do that. I do it for one reason and one reason only: Arms are for hugging, not for killing.
I am never quite sure what to say because doing what’s right just seems to be natural. We should all be doing it. When I meet people who say they can’t make a difference, I normally say it is because they don’t want to. It’s because they don’t care enough, because one act of kindness a day can make such a huge difference in our world.
I will tell you, for those of you who don’t know, what the beginning of the peace movement was like, because there are many young people in this room, and I am an old, old worker for peace. I don’t mean I am any wiser, I am just older.
When our work began in Northern Ireland, it began out of pain and suffering beyond belief. As I stand behind this podium today, you don’t see my three little angels, but I never leave home without them.
One day in Northern Ireland, driving home from my mother’s house, I heard shots ring out. On that day, I suddenly realized how sick I was, because I could distinguish gunfire. I heard the shots of an Armalite rifle, which is the rifle used by the Provisional Irish Republican Army, and then I heard the return fire of an SLR (self-loading rifle), which was the weapon of the British Army.
As I turned from the main road going onto the road where I lived, a car came careening around the corner, mounted the pavement and slammed into a mother and her three young children. Their names were Joanne, John and Andrew Maguire. Since that day, I have never left home without Joanne, John and Andrew Maguire. The carnage on the streets that day was horrific, even after all these years when I look back on it. It hurts, because you feel so useless and so helpless when you desperately want the children to live, and you know there is absolutely no way to save them. Little Andrew was only six weeks old. He had been lifted out of his pram and was impaled on a railing. Little John was thrown, and little Joanne with her blonde curls was scalped under the wheel of the car.
I was the first on the scene, and I remember I had my daughter. She was in her little car seat, and I ran to see what I could do. Any mother would do that. We would all do that. You go into a store, and you hear a child say “Mommy,” and every woman turns around. So you would try to aid the child.
But I couldn’t do anything. I remember holding Joanne in my arms and telling her how much I loved her and making a promise to that child, ”I will fight the rest of my life to make sure this doesn’t happen to other children.” It has been a hard fight. It’s a thirty-four-year-old fight now.
In Northern Ireland, when that movement started, there was a part of my life that was missing.
I talked last week at Soka University of America, and I am on a natural high. I am four feet off the ground since I left. It was the most wonderful experience — them getting to know me, me getting to know them, heart to heart, soul to soul, spirit to spirit, which is the way we should educate. Somebody told me that emotion doesn’t belong in a classroom. I disagree strongly.
In Ireland, our work started on pure emotion. I went back to my house that day, and I must have gone into a state of shock, because four hours of my life went missing and I have never gotten them back. I still don’t know what happened. I do remember my sister coming into the house and making me a cup of tea, and I was still covered in Joanne’s blood.
My next memory is that I was standing in my garage, and I was screaming. A psychiatrist friend told me that must have been my way of getting out of shock. I am really glad that happened. It probably would have cost me a fortune to get it out any other way, you know. But after that, I remember the burning anger. I have never lost that anger. If anything, it has become deeper, because I haven’t only been witness to the suffering of the children of Northern Ireland, I have been witness to the suffering of the children of the world.
Our work takes me all over the world, and we see suffering beyond belief. Maybe that suffering would make sense to me if my grandbaby could walk through the doors of this auditorium and declare war on any of you. A child doesn’t declare war, and God, Buddha and Allah do not declare war. We declare war, mankind declares war. Mostly man-kind.
When the peace movement started, it started on that kind of emotion and that kind of pain. I remember my son was doing his homework, and I pulled some pages from his homework book. He said, “Mommy, where are you going?” I jumped into my car, and I went up into what was supposed to be Provisional IRA territory, and I started banging on doors.
I was yelling at the women, “Sign this!”
One woman said, “What am I signing?”
I very quickly wrote on the top of the piece of paper, “Petition for Peace.”
I called a rally then. Well, that’s not exactly how it happened, but at the end of five or six hours, we had five thousand signatures for peace. It was rather like being the pied piper of Hamlin. All the women were feeling what I was feeling, and I just gave it a voice. We drove around the areas and worked hard to get the signatures, and I came back to my home.
I was sitting on my stairs in my own house, and the house was packed with women. I looked around saying, “How did this happen?” It was a miracle, you know.
So I asked myself, “What am I going to do with these signatures?” I didn’t have a clue. Not even a little one. “What am I going to do with these?” I said. “I guess we should let somebody know we have done this.”
I picked up the telephone, and I rang our local newspaper, which was the Irish News, and a wonderful man who was the night editor. “You’re never going to believe this,” I said. I didn’t believe it myself. Nobody would ever believe this. I told him where I was, where I lived, and what the women of my community had done.
I heard him yell: “Stop the front page! We have a new headline!”
The next morning, it was all over the front page. He asked if I was sure I wanted to give my name and address. I said: “Yeah! I am out, and I am going to stay out.”
Nonviolence is the weapon of the strong, not the weak. From that first headline, then I was brought into the BBC Television studios, I was shaking like a leaf. I had never done an interview in my life before. I never spoke in public in my life before, so I wasn’t expecting any of this. I went into the studio, and a wonderful man named Jon Snow interviewed me at lunchtime. During the interview, I asked the women of Ireland, North and South of the border, and the women of England, Scotland and Wales that if they felt as I did, would they join me in a rally at the spot where the children were killed?
After doing that interview, I said, “Mother of God, what have I done?”
Then my father calls, and he said, “I just saw you on television.” He knew nothing about what was happening. He said, “What have you done, Betty?” I didn’t know what I had done, either, to be honest with you.
I started praying, “Oh, sweet Mother Mary, please let somebody turn up at this rally.” But I thought to myself, “No, it’s only going to be me.”
My father came from a family of eight, and my mother came from a family of twelve, so I knew a few relatives. I got on the phone to call all my relatives, over and over, “Will you be there? Will you be there?”
Well, half of our family was in the IRA, and the other half was, well, you know. Ours was a split family. So my Uncle Bill, who was in the IRA, said, “No way.” On the contrary, I knew my cousin Frances would turn up. She had five children, so at least there would be seven of us at the rally. I absolutely had no idea what was about to happen. Even if you don’t believe in miracles, miracles do happen.
What happened was this. I was standing at the spot where I had called the rally, and I was thinking to myself, “Oh please, please, God, please, God, let somebody turn up.” Buses start to come — Catholic women and Protestant women had hired buses to get themselves to this rally. In one powerful act of love, they wiped out 850 years of mayhem, carnage, bigotry and hatred. How did they do that? They ran into each other’s arms, and it became a womb thing. A womb thing. Don’t you figure that if God had wanted man to procreate, he would have given them wombs? Go figure.
That’s what I love about [SGI president] Dr. Ikeda. He is such a profound man and woman. He has absolutely no fear of his feminine side, none whatsoever. He is wonderful, and he has such love for his wife that it shines. You men who think that I may be anti-man, that’s another myth. I love men enough to save their lives.
The peace movement in Ireland grew and flourished because it was born out of great pain and great emotion. We had a series of twelve rallies all over Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, the Republic of Ireland and Wales. When we would have a march in Belfast, we would have a march in Derry, we would have a march in London, and we would have a march in Manchester, and we would have a march in Glasgow, all coordinating with our marches.
And from whom did we learn how to march? My beloved Dr. Martin Luther King. How we loved that man in Ireland, because to be an Irish Catholic was to be a Black American. We couldn’t vote, we couldn’t own property, we had absolutely no rights.
When he was in Selma, Alabama, I was watching the television saying, “You go, Martin; you go, Martin,” not knowing that someday I would very quickly have to buy everything he wrote on how you do marches. Later I did, because I didn’t know anything about rallying, but a person who did and who was the closest to our situation was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King.
At one point, I was staying in the house of the burgomaster in Berlin, that’s the mayor of Berlin. As I was going to bed, he told me that the last person who slept in my bed was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, and the one before that was John F. Kennedy. I sat at the edge of the bed all night, just stroking the pillows. A few times, I would lift the pillow and say, “Martin’s head was on this.”
If we have to have men as heroes, that’s the kind of man I want to have as mine. Six hundred and fifty thousand civilians have been killed since this present Iraqi war began. Six hundred and fifty thousand! Those are not my figures. Those are the figures of The Lancet medical journal using credible methodology, which tells us 650,000 of our brothers and sisters in Iraq have been destroyed in this war. This is wrong! This is absolutely wrong!
We have eight hundred thousand injured with only 10 percent of them getting any kind of medical help. I did a trip to Iraq, and we took 15 tons of goods for the children of Iraq.
I will walk you through one story — the story of the children of Iraq. Because of our work in Ireland, which started because of children, everybody thought I was an expert on children. I wasn’t then, but I am now. When we went to Iraq, we went to a hospital in which there were two hundred children all suffering from cancer. The mothers’ wombs had been infected since the first Gulf War. Children were being born with cancers that doctors couldn’t even recognize, different cancers altogether. The doctor knew that he would need five different medications to cure these children. Because of sanctions and embargos, he had only three. When we were leaving the hospital, I said to this doctor, who had been trained at Johns Hopkins, the top training in the world for cancer, “Doctor, how many of these children are going to live?”
He said, “Not one, not even one.”
Did those children deserve that? I don’t think so.
Saddam Hussein was a horrible despot, an awful human being. When September 11 happened, it will go down in infamy as one of the most ghastly acts of terrorism the world has ever known, but on that same day, 35,615 children in our world died from conditions of malnutrition and nobody said a word. The good news is that, after many years of working in Northern Ireland and worldwide for the cause of children, we are now World Centers of Compassion for Children International, my organization. I should say mine and Rusti Findley’s, the wind beneath my wings. We are building the first City of Peace in the world in the Basilicata region in Italy, beginning this year.
We have to have dreams, and we must have the capacity to make the dream a reality. When people told me in Ireland, “You can never do this,” I used to say, “Watch my smoke!” Don’t tell me I can’t do this, because I know that every single human being is capable of doing magnificent stuff, and there are no ordinary people. All people are extraordinary. God or Buddha or Allah or whatever we want to call that powerful force of love, powerful force of humanity and powerful force of goodness, made no ordinary people in the world. Everybody is different and extraordinary. Have you ever met an ordinary housewife? How many men here can multitask? Not a lot.
To each and every one of you, if you are not already involved in helping to change our world and make it a little bit better, from today make a solemn vow to yourself that you will become involved in changing the future that our world faces. Make that promise to yourself and remember that you are not ordinary. There is nobody in this room who has the same fingerprints. There is nobody in this room who has the same eyes. There is nobody in this room who has the same thought process. You are all absolutely individual. As Jody Williams, my coworker and fellow peace laureate says, “Violence is a choice; reject it no matter where it comes from.”
I said once to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, “When I am with you, I don’t know whether I am a good Buddhist or a bad Catholic.”
He said, “Same thing; good is good.”
I was with His Holiness last year in Dharamsala, and we did a peace jam in the Tibetan village. It was absolutely glorious. His Holiness and I have been friends for many years, for about twenty years. I worked for the freedom of Tibet and for the freedom of Burma, so I got to meet with all these wonderful people. His Holiness has an enormous sense of humor. He really loves a good belly laugh. I said to him the last time we were together, “You know, Your Holiness, it’s about time you married me.”
He scratched his head, he looked at me, and he said, “I think I need someone a little younger.”
If you don’t mind, I would like to read this little poem that I absolutely love. It’s called “A Dream.”
I dreamt of a world without sorrow,
and I dreamt of a world without hate.
I dreamt of a world of rejoicing,
and I awoke to find Christ at my gate.
I dreamt of a world without hunger,
and I dreamt of a world without war.
I dreamt of a world full of loving,
and awoke to find Allah at my door
I dreamt of a world without anger,
and I dreamt of a world without pride.
I dreamt of a world of compassion,
and I awoke to find Buddha at my side.
I dreamt of a world of tomorrow.
I dreamt of a world set apart.
I dreamt of a world full of glory,
and I awoke to find my creator in my heart.
Isn’t that beautiful? So let’s help our creator, whoever we believe him to be. Let’s help him build life and creation and not death and destruction.
This is the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Children. If you agree with it, sign off on it please. We want to take a billion signatures to the United Nations.
We, the Children of the World, assert our inalienable right to be heard and to have a political voice at the United Nations and at the highest levels of governments worldwide.
We, the Children of the World, must live with justice, with peace and freedom, but above all, with the dignity we deserve.
We, the Children of the World, require a Marshall Plan, a Geneva Convention, and a World Children’s Court of Human Rights, which meets regularly to listen to the testimonies as to what is actually happening to us. We intend to provide our own testimonies.
We, the Children of the World, demand the right to be taken to safe shelters in situations of war.
We, the Children of the World, consider hunger, disease, forced labor, and all forms of abuse and exploitation perpetrated upon us to be war.
We, the Children of the World, have had no political voice. We demand such a voice.
We, the Children of the World, will develop our own leadership and set an example that will show governments how to live in peace and with freedom.
We, the Children of the World, serve notice on our abusers and exploiters whomever they may be, that from this day hence, we will begin the task of holding you responsible for our suffering.
If you want to learn more about the Cities of Compassion, go to www.centersofcompassion.org. The site also includes the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Children.