Betty Williams: "You can’t intellectualize death and destruction."

In my interview with the Nobel Peace Prize winner we discuss non-violence, peace, and advice for the youth. Photo: Betty Williams / File

WASHINGTON, May 27, 3013 – Betty Williams was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 after organizing thousands to peacefully demonstrate against the violence in Northern Ireland.


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Since receiving the award she has continued to be an outspoken advocate for non-violence, peace, and the protection of children across the planet. She has also continued her life’s mission through her organization World Centers of Compassion for Children International.

In our recent conversation we discussed the principles of non-violence, how Americans are beginning to protest, the wars overseas, and the advice she has for the youth.   

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Kevin Kelly: Discussing non-violence, you once said: “It is far harder to not hit somebody than it is to hit them.” Why do you believe that people, when in conflict or disagreement, have the first impulse to harm someone rather than respond with a peaceful alternative?


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Betty Williams: Kevin, the truth is when you lose your temper, you lose your temper, and if you are inclined to throw a fist, you have to really, really keep yourself in check because I remember many times when I was inclined to throw a fist.

I put myself number one on the list of saying that I just wanted to hit them, for what I have seen them do, and for what I felt for the feelings of other people. It’s just awful hard to keep your fists down.

The awful thing is if you happen to have a gun at the end of your fist. You can hurt somebody with your fist, but then you have the result of lifting the gun with the fist. We have to change that type of thinking if we are going to do anything to save this beautiful, wee planet that we live on.

We have to reprogram human beings to liken creation and not death and destruction. I don’t want to sound like a holy roller here, I’m not, I’ve committed sins, but surely when God says in the rules “thou shall not kill,” it’s very basic to me. I can’t quantify that with intellect. I mean it just is.


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Kelly: It should be our responsibility to condemn violence wherever it is committed, and regardless of who is committing it.

Williams: Absolutely. It’s not working for mankind, it’s not working for humankind, and it’s not working for anything, not the earth. Truly to God, we should have learned from all of this. Violence is no way forward. It is always a way backwards because when George Bush decided to launch the War in Iraq, those men who were then children looked up at the American planes bombing them or the British planes bombing them and said, “I’ll get him for that.”

It’s a sickening cycle of useless violence that goes nowhere except round and round. It gets fiercer, and we create bigger and better ways to destroy humanity. To me, that is madness Kevin. It’s just absolute insanity.

Kelly: Discussing some of the violence that persists throughout the world, what are your thoughts on the wars that began under Bush and are now continuing overseas under Obama in the Middle East?

Williams: I also see something else, and this is not to shake you off your train of thought because I absolutely agree with what you’re saying with Obama, Bush, etc. I go out and I see an enormous swearing of the human race, especially in the United States of America.

America has been brutalized by the leadership because you can’t do preemptive strikes and talk about democracy, they don’t live in the same box. You just can’t do it, but I feel a rising groundswell of people like yourself, that are just not as quiet anymore. They are a lot more verbal about how they’re feeling, and how they’re feeling about the banks, how they’re feeling about Wall Street, how they’re feeling.

We use to look at that mess … well, Americans particularly, would look at it and not see the faults, but I think now there is a powerful movement in the United States of America as to what is actually happening.

Don’t you feel that?

Kelly: What do you see happening in that change?

Williams: It’s a beautiful feeling because they are beginning to see what could be. America was a great exercise in democracy, and a great chance at doing it, but then it went so horribly wrong. What I see coming up in the United States is a goodness. That’s the truth in what I see and what I feel. I work with young people in the states through an organization called Peace Jam, and I’ve worked with hundreds of thousands of young people across the United States.

Actually, a couple of our people were injured in Columbine. The groundswell of the youth of the United States is palpable. We should be looking at that and working with what … not saying we all know the mistakes and the horrors and the absolute brutalness of attacking countries that are not able to arm themselves and defend themselves. I think the time has come in the United States that when the people are yelling, you’ve got to stop. America can’t be everybody’s policeman, and can’t say what’s wrong while we are doing wrong ourselves. It’s exactly the same in Ireland with the IRA, which is my tribe, the Irish Catholic.

Those are my tribe, and guess what? They were killing people, and they didn’t do it in my name as a Catholic. You don’t do that. You don’t speak for me. I see millions and millions of Americans who in their hearts feel that way now.

Excuse me, Mr. Obama you’re not speaking for me anymore. You people don’t speak for us anymore. That’s what I see.

Kelly: The drone strikes launched by the U.S. overseas have accidentally killed thousands of civilians in the process. What are your thoughts on innocent bystanders who have died as a result of these strikes?

Williams: It’s pretty horrendous. I was in Iraq; actually we buffed the embargo in Iraq, and flew in medicine and 15 tons of goods for children. What I saw on the ground, this is before the second war, what I saw on the ground … it’s indescribable. There is no way to describe it.

I went to a hospital and the United States and the United Nations had a list of embargoed goods and on that list were sanitary protections for women. Can you imagine, Kevin? Banning that? Shrouds to bury the dead, bicycles for children, disinfectants for hospitals. Who are these people? I mean mother of God. To ban that kind of thing is just so ludicrous and outrageous.

It’s beyond my comprehension, and that was done by the United States and the United Nations. We went to a hospital and in that hospital there were 200 children, all had cancer. Some of it not recognized ― they had never seen it before, this type whatever it was.

I’m not a medical person, so I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but I know that the doctor told me they needed four or five different drugs to address this particular cancer and that the embargo only allowed him three. When we were leaving the hospital I asked him if any of these children were going to make it. He said none, Mrs. Williams. None.

I died a million deaths going back in the plane from Iraq to Rome. It’s just ― even now I can hardly talk about that. This is so brutal. So inhuman. It’s beyond words, and that’s what we do to young men in the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. They all go in like John Wayne, God bless them, and they come out like “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” because they can’t handle it.

A righteous mind, probably good Christian boys, never saw an act of violence and they join the Army, they love their country. They have to go fight for America, I would die for America.  

What do we start living for … I can’t put nice words into that Kevin. There is no nice word.

Kelly: With so much uncertainty in the world, what advice would you give to the young people of this nation/generation?

Williams: Turn that uncertainty into certainty. Sometimes when people say to me that you can’t do it, I say would you get out of my way because you’re blocking me. Your attitude is it can’t be done, and my attitude is if there is a problem, then you’re definitely part of it.

Don’t stand there preaching at me and saying there is nothing you can do, because that’s a cop out. There is something that everybody can do. Everybody. One action a day will do it. Don’t tell me you love me. Show me. You can tell me you love me ‘till you’re hoarse, but if you don’t show me, then what the heck, I’m not going to believe you.

There’s no point in loving children unless you start saving them from us, simple as that. I’ve had to sit through these lectures with these highly intellectual human beings who are so educated they’re stupid. You can’t intellectualize death and destruction. We have to spin it around, and we’re doing it.

Everybody does it in their own way. You’re doing it in your way, and I’m doing it in mine.


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Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly is currently a college student majoring in History and Political Science. His writings have appeared in The Daily Local, Lew Rockwell.com’s blog, The Washington Times, Antiwar.com, and Freedom’s Phoenix Online Digital Magazine. He has been a popular guest political contributor to numerous national radio shows across the country, offering his perspective on a wide array of issues. 

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