The Compassionate Outlaw

For years, Seattles Bert Sacks has defied the law to visit Iraq. Now, he sits at home, watching.

Bert Sacks is a gentle soul, soft-spoken, an apostle of nonviolence, and, depending on whom you ask, either a defiant criminal or a compassionate hero.

Sacks, 61, has drawn local and national attention in recent years for his persistent defiance of a U.S. ban on travel to Iraq by Americans. Hes illegally delivered food, medical supplies, and other desperately needed humanitarian goods. In 1998, the U.S. Department of the Treasury sent Sacks notice of a $10,000 fine for his willful violations. Sacks not only refused to pay the fine, but, through the Fellowship of Reconciliation, he helped organize an ongoing campaign that encourages others to illegally contribute goods to future humanitarian delegations.

Sacks has visited Iraq nine times in the last six years. But now, missiles rain down on Iraq; internal resistance is rising; the prospect of an enormous humanitarian crisis looms. And Sacks sits in his quiet Seattle home, watching, one of the few nonimmigrants in Seattle with a clear idea of the places and people underneath those bombs.

Were living in The Truman Show, Sacks says, referring to the 1998 Jim Carrey movie. Its safe, its comfortable, and were in a bubbleand we have a choice as to whether we want to leave that world, because its not real.

Sacks wouldnt strike you as the type to make pop culture references. Tall, angular, and graying, he carries himself with a gravitas that suggests not only that he cares deeply about the Iraqis that U.S. actions have already killed (50,000 or more a year through a dozen years of sanctions, and now, as well, the victims of invasion) and those who may die soon, but that the rest of us should care, too.

Its hard to imagine that, as he puts it, In one lifetime I became an electronics and software engineer, lived the good life in California, had a used Mustang convertible and a girlfriend.

Sacks takes the Truman comparison seriously. Raised Jewish, he had been frustrated and angered by Israels actions toward Palestinians, but he had never considered Iraquntil the Gulf War. I remember watching the first Gulf War on television, and remember watching how the story was toldfrom up in the air, the laser-guided bombs, and the buildings being blown up, and nobody ever said one word about anybody being in the buildings, Sacks says, also evoking what the past couple of weeks have looked like. But unlike most of us, as the subsequent stories of suffering trickled out, Sacks went to see for himself.

I was nervous. It was the first time Id ever been in an Arab country. . . . And at the [Baghdad] airport I saw a 10-year-old kid selling a newspaper, and I suddenly thought: Hes a kid! Just like any other kid. Its gonna be OK. I met people just like any other peoplesome I liked, some I didnt likeand it really brought home that abstract notion that we are all one. Theyre human just like us.

Sacks was driven to act when most didnt, largely due to his embrace of an ethic of empathy and nonviolence. Hes passionate on the subject, even when it comes to leaders as well as ordinary people: We need to not just say the word peace, but can we look out at people like Bush or Saddam with a genuine feeling of compassion, [of] kindness? Can we do something that would help free those people as well as the Iraqis? Can we do that for the oppressors as well as the oppressed?

Sacks travels and his defiance of the ban on humanitarian shipments culminated recently with a trip to Iraq on which he helped inspire Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, to accompany him. By both mens accounts, the visit helped bolster McDermotts outspoken stand against invasion.

The enthusiastic reception McDermott now gets locally for his stand has been one of the high points of his activist years for Sacksknowing that there is widespread appreciation for McDermotts insistence upon describing life beyond the bubble, and knowing that I have had a piece, along with a good many other people, in helping make that [truth telling] happen.

People are hungry for that. Theyre being starved of that; when they get a taste, they start asking, How can I bring more of that into my life? The lesson we teach through most of our media is, You really dont want to know the truth. We are afraid the truth wont set us free, [that] the truth will make us miserable.

Now, as the bombs fall, Sacks is at home. But his time outside the bubble helps him pierce through it. We have lost the war already, Sacks says flatly. We are not being greeted as liberators. Everyone can see that. Our whole story line has fallen apart. People in the Arab world see us as an invader and as occupiers; the rest of the world sees us as forfeiting our moral leadership in the world.

Now its a question of how long it will take us inside the bubble to realize this.

Though thousands of miles away, Sacks remains devoted full time to spreading the word of the humanity of Iraqs people. And his suggestion for the rest of us at home echoes Gandhi, and activists throughout history.

My advice: Dont just sit and analyze. Do something.

gparrish@seattleweekly.com

 
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