Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Marla Remembered

Atlantic Review bills itself as a "press digest on transatlantic affairs edited by three German Fulbright alumni." Since I discovered it a few days ago, it's been provocative without being nasty and since I love both the U.S. and Germany and deplore the darkness that the German media weaves about America, I'm rooting for this site.

It was worth the discovery if for no other reason than this tribute to the most tragic death of 2005, Marla Ruzicka. That post linked to this excellent "Rolling Stone" article on her life.

I can't remember the last time I wrote the phrase "excellent 'Rolling Stone' article," since the damned thing seems unreadable to me now, the newsletter of the Bush Derangement Syndrome League. Yet one of the initial moving pieces written about Marla in the days after her death in April was penned by Robert L. Pollack, the neo-con Wall Street Journal senior editorial page writer.

It was one small part of what made Marla a modern secular saint that RS and WSJ could sing cheek to cheek about her.

Read the piece, if you have the time. Read it if you don't. And meet one of the most remarkable human beings we've shared the planet with.

The death barely rippled in the big media. The big papers noted it, but even at the end of the year, when the New York Times did its big magazine issue on the "lives they lived," hers wasn't in it. I wrote about her in April, but as I recall, there wasn't much notice of her in the blogosphere, either.

She utterly defies the partisan pigeonholes most people use to understand the Iraq war. Not because she didn't fit into any of them; at times she seemed to fit into almost all of them.

To a certain extent she was of the "Left Behind" faction, like me and many others who came to be disillusioned with the modern liberal position in American politics where we once saw ourselves standing. But I don't think she would have felt it like that. She wasn't leaving anything behind. She was growing beyond it, but trying to drag her old comrades with her into a broader view of life. Here's how the "Rolling Stone" article describes her awakening:

Through her experiences in Afghanistan, Ruzicka's politics, and views toward the war, had changed. Once a dedicated peace activist, she'd decided that war was terrible but in some cases inevitable, even justified. It was a conscious split between her and her mentors at Global Exchange, and her embrace of the people Medea Benjamin calls "the realists" signified a major shift not just in Ruzicka's political philosophy but in her life as well. For about the past ten years, Benjamin had been both a mentor and a mother to Ruzicka. But now, the two clashed on their views regarding the upcoming war with Iraq, something that became more apparent when Ruzicka joined Benjamin on a fact-finding tour in Baghdad just prior to the war. "She was working with people in D.C. who were saying the war is going to happen, let's help the people who will be hurt," says Benjamin. "I thought it was a mistake to think like that before civilians were even killed." Medea urged Ruzicka to return to the activist fold and come back to San Francisco to "join us with all her energy and all her incredible enthusiasm to do whatever we could to stop the war."

Shortly after Ruzicka's death, one of her myriad friends, author Peter Bergen, described it like this:

"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."

Here's part of what I wrote at the time:

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."

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.

At the time she was killed, Ruzicka was trying to help an Iraqi teenager get to America for surgery. After learning of her death, the boy's brother-in-law said, "God bless her pure soul, she was trying to help us. She was just a kind lady."

Amen, whatever your faith. She strode in 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

We will need so many more like her, and now there is one less.

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