Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Simple Gifts

I can't remember the last time I saw a California hippiechick anti-war activist and human-rights crusader praised by the Wall Street Journal editorial pages. I'll start counting again from today. On Tuesday, Robert L. Pollack, a WSJ senior editorial page writer, published a moving little eulogy to Marla Ruzicka, 28, who died in an insurgent attack in Iraq while working on her campaign to help innocent victims of that war.

In a cruel coincidence, she was collateral damage. A suicide bomber attacked a convoy of security contractors on the notorious airport road in Baghdad. Ruzicka's car was in the way, and it took the hit. She and her Iraqi co-worker died. None of the contractors was dangerously hurt.

Ruzicka had invested her adult life into coaxing people to see through the term "collateral damage." To her, it didn't so much matter who started the fight, it didn't so much matter how the hurt happened: she saw people, real people, with names and faces and families. And they've been wounded through no fault of their own, and we should help them.

Her young life took some time to reach that level of practical idealism. But that she reached it by 28 -- when many so-called progressives in their 70s still don't get it -- was a testimony to the woman and her virtues.

Pollack wrote, "The Marla I knew was no fan of the Bush administration. But she didn't indulge in cynicism or moral equivalence. She was actually there -- it should never have to be said about an 'aid' worker -- to help."

The "San Francisco Chronicle" describes her home community, Lakeport, Calif., as a "conservative rural town of 4,900." Ruzicka was elected student body president in middle school, where she led a walkout to protest the first Gulf War. At age 15, she hooked up with Global Exchange, a leftist advocacy group in San Francisco. According to the "New York Times," "In her early 20s [Ruzicka] was an angry activist, and once was hauled off by police after protesting during a speech by George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas."

She was well down the Rachel Corrie path. Then, gradually, something happened. She realized she really wanted to help people. And she realized what mattered was connecting people who needed help with those who had the ability to give it.

Ruzicka changed her tactics. Instead of bellyaching about the corporate media, she went to Afghanistan and befriended journalists in the foreign correspondent pool and lobbied them with a mix of charm and persistence to tell the stories of the civilians she was meeting. More importantly, she began connecting the civilian casualty survivors with -- not Bay-area anti-Bush activists who would put pictures of their amputations on snazzy posters -- but with U.S. military and government officials who had the cash in-country that could help.

"She had the ability to connect with the victims and to talk with the U.S. military and be acceptable and authentic to both," a co-worker said. "I think that was because she was concerned with the victims. It wasn't about the morality of the war, or the politics."

She had the chance to be strident. She had the chance to be a big-mouth. Instead, she chose to invest herself in actually helping, even if it meant passing up the urge to shout, "No blood for oil." Her father, Clifford, a civil engineer, put it like this:

"She had some rebel in her. She didn't like the status quo and wanted to change injustices where she found them. But she learned that she could be more effective by working with the U.S. She wowed the people in Washington and spurred them to do more."

The "New York Times" account of her life described a turning point:

In 2002, she attended a Senate hearing where Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld testified about Iraq. Afterward, she walked up and shook his hand.

"I didn't scream," she said recently. "I thanked him for testifying. And I started talking about civilian casualties," she said, laughing.

And she talked, and she knew he heard her. The "Washington Post" picks up the narrative:

When the Iraq war started, she formed the Campaign for Innocent Victims of Conflict, or CIVIC, deciding that she could accomplish more through less-partisan efforts. She started spending weeks at a time trying to track down the stories of Iraqis killed and wounded in the conflict.

Overseas, CIVIC was essentially a two-person operation, run by Ruzicka and Faiz Ali Salim, an Iraqi citizen. April Pedersen, who coordinated work in Washington, D.C., for CIVIC, said the pair found needy victims through Salim's contacts and through Ruzicka's hospital-by-hospital tallyings.

Ruzicka was a constant gadfly to the U.S. military, visiting officers again and again. People who worked with her described her methods as alternately wheedling, stern and flirtatious.

Her pressure campaign eventually won her friends in the military, and several high-ranking officers came to rely on her information as they doled out ever-increasing amounts of cash to victims' families.

According to the "Times," Ruzicka worked with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy to get $2.5 million for civilian victims in Afghanistan, and later, $10 million for victims in Iraq. Last week another $10 million was authorized for the Iraq program.

"She brought a spot of light to a very dim setting," said one friend. "She had this frenetic, youthful energy that made her just unstoppable." She came across as an innocent in some of the darkest, dirtiest places on earth.

But she strode in there deliberately, with her blonde, simple American demeanor, assured that there was no place else on earth she could do so much good and be true to herself.

'Tis the gift to be simple,
'Tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be

Even on the strident left, The Nation's eulogy noted the words of one of Ruzicka's myriad friends, author Peter Bergen:

"One really interesting thing is that Marla was very opposed to the Iraq war before it began, but once the war started I never heard her express any opinion about the war itself. Once the war started she just wanted to help people who were hurt, not engage in a debate about the merits of the war. Beneath her Californian happy-go-luck demeanor Marla was a very hardheaded realist about what needed to be done. The war happened. People were hurt. She wanted to help them. And an example of her realistic approach is how she worked in Afghanistan and Iraq compensating the families who died. Marla had no patience for people who demonstrated against the war, and did nothing else."

I can't remember the last time I read a whole paragraph of "The Nation" and every word rang true. I'll start counting again from today.

I've learned to respect people who devote their energy to being "for" something, and have little respect left for people who only know what they're against. Any cause, any position on any matter, may be expressed, and lived, as a positive or a negative passion. To be against the American war in Iraq. To be for the non-combatant Iraqi people. A shade of difference, to some, but what a world of difference lies in how each statement is lived. I'm in awe of the mental and moral muscle that Marla Ruzicka brought to bear on what she believed.

And I'm not alone. It made her a figure of respect not only in anti-war groups, but among the U.S. military and political workers, and the Wilsonian Americans like the WSJ editorial writers, who routinely scorn people who hold her positions on, say, Palestine or Cuba.

To be a supporter of what the U.S. is trying to help the Iraqi people accomplish, even to the point of supporting a war in which it is statistically certain some innocent people will die, is a mental calculus that involves you in a deep responsibility. It's our duty, we who back this so-far largely military effort, to not only insist to the world that the U.S. has high ideals, but to ensure that our government's policies in fact live up to those ideals.

As "Wall Street Journal" elsewhere notes, "the cause Ruzicka embraced for antiwar reasons is probably helpful to the American war effort. Compensating the innocent victims of war helps to prove that America is in Afghanistan and Iraq as a liberator, not a conqueror."

"God bless her pure soul, she was trying to help us," Haj Natheer Bashir told the "Los Angeles Times." He's the brother-in-law of an Iraqi teenager Ruzicka was trying to evacuate to the San Francisco Bay area for surgery. "She was just a kind lady."

The "New York Times" describes her death:

A U.S. Army officer who arrived on the scene shortly after the bomber struck said that Ruzicka's car was engulfed in flames, and that she was still alive and conscious, with burns over 90 percent of her body.

A medic on the scene treated her, said the officer, Brig. Gen. Karl Horst, and heard her last words.

"I'm alive," she said.

Checks in Marla Ruzicka's memory may be sent to CIVIC, P.O. Box 1189, Lakeport, CA 95453.

Labels: , ,