Colman McCarthy, founder, Center for Teaching Peace; The Washington Post columnist
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MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: This is Common Ground.
COLMAN McCARTHY: Here we have the number one problem in America and on the
planet—violence. Yet, how many schools are teaching, in a systematic way, alternatives to
DAVIDSON: Teaching peace is the topic on this edition of Common Ground.
Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced
by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
Colman McCarthy is my guest today. He is a columnist for The Washington Post, and he is
the founder and director of the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, DC. McCarthy has been
teaching courses in peacemaking at high schools and colleges for some 30 years, and I asked him
how he came into this field.
McCARTHY: I’ve been writing about the peace movement since, I guess, the 1960s. And I
began to wonder, can you teach peacemaking? If every government says it wants the peace, and
every human heart is yearning for it, can you teach it? So I called up a couple of the deep
thinkers here in town at the Brookings Institution and Cato and Heritage, all the heavy think
folks, and the shallow end of the think tanks. They wanted to have a conference and maybe in ten
years we would find out the answer after we got a little task force committee up and have a few
more conferences. I said, “Well, maybe we can do it a little bit quicker.” I went to a local high
school near my office, three blocks away, an inner city school where two of our boys went, and I
asked the principal, “Can I come in and teach a course on peacemaking?” She said, “Sure, give it
a try.” I have been doing it ever since. I have had 5,000 students over the years, since the
early 1980s. And I teach a daily high school class every morning here in Washington. We have
about 40 seniors in the class. I am also at Georgetown University Law School and Maryland
University. So I have had 5,000 students in the past 15 or 16 years. I can tell you I have found
out my answer. You can teach it. And number two, the students are hungry to learn about
both conflict resolution and mediation and peace studies, which is the literature theory and
DAVIDSON: How do you know that it has made a difference in the lives of those students?
McCARTHY: I hear back from a lot of them over the years. They always write back, “You
know, that was the one course that I remember.” And get a lot go into Peace Corps, I get a lot go
into Americorps now. I’m always pushing service. It’s one thing to have your head crammed with
ideas. Too many of us teachers, I’m afraid, we were so busy making the kids smart, make all A’s,
get aheadism, successism ethic, that they leave us idea rich but experience poor. So I always
tell the folks, “Listen, this semester we are going to get off campus. We are going to go work at
a battered women’s shelter, soup kitchen, a literacy program, and get some experiences and
service.” That’s where your life will have meaning.
DAVIDSON: Because you see that it makes a difference, that you as an individual make a
McCARTHY: Sure. Otherwise you can’t prove those 5,000 students of mine… we have had
5,000 less homicides in the world because they took the course. You can’t prove a negative, but
you do see results. It’s only one course out of 16 years. I mean, it’s crazy. Here we have the
number one problem in America and on the planet—violence. Yet, how many schools are teaching in
a systematic way alternatives to violence? Did you go to a high school where they taught you a
course in peace studies?
McCARTHY: You did not. I did not. But you went to a high school…
DAVIDSON: …although I had some teachers who’d probably would if they could.
McCARTHY: Yes, absolutely. But did you go to a high school where they required you to go
into an algebra course? Did you take algebra in high school?
McCARTHY: Yes. How often do you go home and talk with your husband about the latest
algebraic insight you have had? Do you do that?
DAVIDSON: (Laughter) I can’t help my high-school-aged daughter with her algebra!
McCARTHY: Exactly. So here it is irrelevant to our adulthood, but they make us take this
nonsense. And geometry. If you like algebra, fine… pi r² x bachazoids, crackazoids,
lunazoids, hemorrhoids… Who cares!! You ever see a help wanted ad for an algebraist? I haven’t.
But the world is crying out for peacemakers. We are not teaching the kids how to be the essential
thing. We have conflicts all our lives.
DAVIDSON: Besides teaching service, what are some of the essential ideas that you try to
get across in courses on peace and peacemaking?
McCARTHY: I have an anthology of peace writings which I collected myself. And we study
Gandhi, King, Merton, Day, Musti(sp?), Jesus, Frances, Amos, Tolstoy, Einstein, Buddha, Sojourner
Truth, Ann Ballou(sp?) Jeannette Rankin, Jane Adams for starters. That’s the first day!!
DAVIDSON: (Laughter) Quite a reading list.
McCARTHY: The kids never hear of these folks. Usually the class intellectual jumps up,
“Gee, how did you hear of all those people? How come we haven’t heard of them?” You haven’t heard
of them because you go to American schools. I asked him, “Now, do you know who Ulysses S. Grant
is?” “Oh yeah, great Civil War general.” They knew all about the peace-breakers, but not the
peacemakers. So, it’s just one course to redress a little bit of the inequality of what they
DAVIDSON: They might have heard of Jesus, but maybe not all of his ideas.
McCARTHY: Yes, Jesus. They’re rough on him. But, you know, a lot of people don’t really
know that he was a radical rabbi who said no violence. You have guys like Pat Buchanan and
Robertson wanting to execute people on death row. That’s not the Christianity of the early
church. You have ROTC programs in the Catholic school system. That isn’t Christianity, that’s
nationalism. And the church has bought into it.
DAVIDSON: Gandhi was asked a lot (and Gandhi would be 125 or 126 years old), “If
nonviolence is so wonderful, why hasn’t it created this peaceable kingdom?”
McCARTHY: It hasn’t been tried. That’s one reason. It hasn’t been tried because very few
have studied it. We have 3,500 colleges in America, 28,000 thousand high schools, and 78,000
elementary schools. Few of those are teaching the basics of conflict resolution through
nonviolent force or peace studies. So we just put our kids through schools, we process them as
though they are slabs of cheese going to Mozzarella High trying to get into Velveeta University.
We don’t teach them how… but yet we graduate them and say, “Oh, go make a peaceful world now
children.” We get these graduation speakers, windbags, that come in and give these speeches, “Oh,
go make a peaceful world young Americans.” Of course, we didn’t tell you how to do it while we
had you here, but good luck.” We have a divorce rate of over 50 percent now in America. The
leading cause of injury among American women is being beaten at home by husband, boyfriend,
ex-husband, and ex-boyfriend. We have three times as many shelters for abused animals as for
It has always puzzled me in my courses whether in the law school at Georgetown Law or Maryland
High School, every semester without fail it’s always the women who understand the theories of
nonviolence much quicker than the men do. They write better papers. They ask more questions. They
want to read more books. And that puzzled me for a long time. I said, “I guess they have a little
peace gene in there floating around we don’t know about yet.” I asked my law school class, “Why
is that? Anybody got any theories?” One woman raised her hand and said, “Professor, let me
explain this one, because you are never going to get it on your own, obviously. The reason we
understand nonviolence quicker than men do is because we are victimized by violence. Victims
always want solutions much quicker.” And I’ve not forgotten it. That’s true.
We live in a male-dominant culture. Militarism is male-centered. We have a Congress that’s run by
the males. We raise our kids to be violent. We don’t tell them to go hit somebody, but Senator
Paul Simon from Illinois had hearings on television violence, and he found out that 95 percent of
all children’s TV programs have violent themes. Even before our kids are in school we are sending
them a message. “Got a problem? Go beat up somebody.” And if you beat up enough people, then we
will notice you and put you in prison.
DAVIDSON: Do you think schools are about the only place left where we can teach
McCARTHY: The first teachers of conflict resolution are the parents at home, if you have
parents. I work with a lot of elementary schoolers where 95 percent of the kids come from
fatherless families here in DC. The first ones that show us how to resolve our conflicts are the
adults we live with. They either show us one of two ways, either through violent force or through
nonviolent force. Children learn very quickly how to settle conflicts, from their parents. If
they shout at each other or if they hit each other, “Well, mommy and daddy must know what they
are doing,” says little, impressionable Billy or Jennifer at one year of age, “So I might as well
do it too. After all they know what they’re doing.”
DAVIDSON: There must not be any other alternative.
McCARTHY: Exactly. If you come from a family where the parents do not hit each other or
shout at each other, that message gets across. They sit down and talk; and they discuss the
issues, that includes the kids when they’re old enough. That also educates them. The first
educators are the mother and father. They do not educate you about math when you are two years
old. They do not educate you about English grammar. But they do educate you about a lifelong
skill. And you will either be educated early in a positive way or a negative way.
DAVIDSON: Do you find much objection to teaching conflict resolution and peacemaking in
schools? Are there people who say you’re teaching values education, and we don’t want that in our
McCARTHY: I hear from a few right-wing cranks every now and then. They say, “Oh, you’re
one of those all antiwar, anti-Pentagon, hate-America bashers. We know what you left-wingers are
up to.” It is neither left wing nor right wing; it’s the whole bird. We have kids coming through
our schools, going to have families. You can talk all you want about how to deal with Bosnia or
Somalia or Libya or Grenada or Iraq, where we bombed those countries in the name of national
security, another lie. That’s irrelevant to most people’s lives. But how to get along with
somebody you are living with; e.g., your roommate, housemate, soulmate, teammate, lovemate,
whatever mate you want, Papermate® (laughter). Either you know how to deal with
that person and conflict is a word that is very simply understood. It means we have to change the
way we are doing things. It’s a neutral word. And in any conflict there’s not you against me,
it’s you and me against the problem. The problem is the problem.
DAVIDSON: That is a very basic premise in conflict resolution…
McCARTHY: …of course…
DAVIDSON: …setting the conflict aside from…
McCARTHY: …of course… from the personal…
DAVIDSON: …of course. But you’ve got to learn how to do that. You can’t be expected to
learn, you’re going to have to read about it, write about it, and study it. Maybe then you have
half a chance of doing it. We teach kids how to do their math. Every year we give them math
courses. Why? So when they’re 25, 35, and 55 you can fill out your IRS tax forms and get your
money in. How’s that for a conspiracy theory?
DAVIDSON: We will pause for a short break. You are listening to Common Ground. My
guest is Colman McCarthy, a columnist for The Washington Post, and the founder and
director of the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, DC. Transcripts and audiocassettes of
this program are available. At the end of the broadcast, I’ll give you details on how to order.
Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan
organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage
dialogue on world affairs.
DAVIDSON: At least in media representation it appears that we’re becoming a more violent
society. Do you think we are becoming a more violent society? And my follow-up to that is, are we
becoming too comfortable with violence?
McCARTHY: Sure we are.
DAVIDSON: Martin Luther King?
McCARTHY: Martin Luther King said in Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, one of his great
antiwar sermons, which you rarely hear referred to, because we like King to be our civil rights
leader, and not King the radical pacifist. He said in that speech, direct quote, “My government
is the world’s leading purveyor of violence.” He’s either right or wrong. The evidence suggests
he is emphatically right. Congress gives the Pentagon $700 million a day. Now, unless you’re an
astronomer, that number is too big for you. Seven hundred million dollars a day comes out to
about $11,000 a second, $1.5 million a minute. That might be how much money you earn…
DAVIDSON: …in a lifetime?
McCARTHY: …in a lifetime, if you get a good job. In just a minute. We have a war
preparation economy. Everybody who is a freshman in college this year was in kindergarten when
Reagan became president. All those kids know about is Libya, Grenada, Panama, Gulf I, Gulf II,
Gulf III, Somalia, Haiti, and now Bosnia. Getting ready to go to Taiwan, if you have to mix it up
there. Korea. And there is always Fidel Castro to hate. He is our old reliable hate object. He is
always there ready for us in case we have an emergency to hate somebody. So we are the leading
seller of arms in the world. We are the leading arms dealer. We sell weapons to 142 nations.
We’re number one. We’re about 70 percent of the global arms market, 90 percent of the wars and
conflicts in the world now. Either one side or the other is using US-supplied weapons. Often both
sides are using weapons. In Grenada 25 Americans were killed. Who killed them? Other Americans.
Ha! So it comes back to us.
We have executions on death row. That’s another. We have a court that believes in executing
people. Last year was the record-setting year since 1977, and 56 executions on death row. That’s
more than one a week. We have a Chief Justice, Rehnquist, and a Commander in Chief, Clinton, who
not only wants to execute folks, but, “Hey, let’s do it quicker. Let’s cut down these habeas
appeals. Clinton just signed a bill that is going to cut down the habeas appeals. Hurry it up.
DAVIDSON: So you wouldn’t say justice is served by executions?
McCARTHY: It’s a violent solution to a problem. The same as hitting somebody or bombing
somebody. It goes into the abortion question also. That’s a violent solution to a problem. And
there’s also another violence which a lot of folks, particularly in your state (I know you’re
from Iowa), where they do a lot of killing of animals out there. Are you hungry? How do I solve
my little hunger problem? Well, let me kill an animal or hire someone to kill it at Iowa Beef. So
we kill about 12 million animals a day for food. I decided in high school I would never eat
animals. I think that’s a very easy thing to do, to resist that type of violence. Most people
think that’s kind of flaky. “Well, all right, I’ll go along with the other stuff, but hey, don’t
mess with my diet.” But we get messed up. So all of us are herbivores. We just don’t eat like
herbivores. And when we don’t eat like herbivores, you cause a little bit of mischief, which is
why the leading disease in America is heart disease. Ten times more people die of heart disease
than AIDS, but AIDS gets this enormous amount of attention. “Heart disease? Oh, I went and had a
heart attack.” And that’s why cardiologists are driving Cadillacs and going to two country clubs
and own three yachts. Their taking that gunk out of our hearts.
DAVIDSON: I wanted to talk about the roots of conflict, and if they’re any different
today than they ever have been.
McCARTHY: Sure. Western philosophy has always phrased the debate. It’s good against evil.
You’re either Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche. Ah yes, good against evil. That’s a very nice idea, because
there are always those evil people over there we have to worry about. We are the good folks.
Eastern philosophy—Buddhist, Hindus, Gandhi—they said, “No, it’s not good against evil, it’s
ignorance against awareness. That’s the debate.” Gandhi said, “You cannot make anybody good; you
can only create the conditions in which they would choose to be good.” That’s all we’re doing. If
you have a family, you want to create conditions where your goodness can flourish and grow. That
is why you partner off. It’s easier to do good with somebody who is going to help you do so.
Otherwise, we would be a world of hermits. But we have to study that and read about it, and
that’s what my Center for Teaching Peace does.
DAVIDSON: There is a lot of economic insecurity today, a lot of talk about globalization
of the economy. In the United States we see economic downsizing happening right and left, and our
president even talked this spring of the problem of corporate greed and CEOs…
McCARTHY: …sure, sure…
DAVIDSON: …who make 200 times what the average worker makes. How does that play into
the conflict that is occurring today?
McCARTHY: Capitalism, not to get into it overly much, is a system designed to legitimize
economic violence. There’s about 40,000 people dying a day in the world of malnutrition and
hunger says OXFAM International, an antihunger group in Boston. When you have a government like
the US government, which is spending $700 million a day on the war machine, weapons, personnel;
and 40,000 people are dying the same day. And that’s justified? That’s fairly close to economic
violence. Because you have people dying. We don’t see those folks dying every day. Oh, every once
in a while there’s a famine in Rwanda or Ethiopia, wherever that place is. People say we don’t
see it up close. As a result of that we will get too emphatic about changing our economic system
that shares wealth rather than sanctifies hoarding wealth.
DAVIDSON: Yes. The violence in American cities, and in the United States in general, is
being framed more and more often as a public health issue. Is that in the service of the cause of
McCARTHY: Usually when you mention violence in America you think of street thugs coming
up and mugging you. The fact of the matter is that for many years, in the 1980s and early 1990s,
most homicides were committed by people we know and not by strangers in the street. I think the
number is about 30 percent of the women who were killed in America are murdered by a man who once
promised to love them. But we worry about those muggers out on the street. That’s easy for the
upper classes. “Oh yeah, oh yeah. Let’s take care of those muggers out there. Let’s lock them up.
Three strikes and you’re out” That has an appealing simplicity, the politicians create it, pander
DAVIDSON: I want to turn to some international topics. This past year we marked the
five-year anniversary of the United States entry into the Persian Gulf War. George Bush,
president at the time, said one lesson from that war was that we kicked the Vietnam Syndrome.
What do you think the United States accomplished? Or learned?
McCARTHY: We learned that we can still get away with massacring innocent civilians and
not have really too many people in America concerned about that. We had the biggest bombing run
in US history. And you kept hearing it from Schwarzkopf and the other generals, “It’s just going
to be surgical strikes.” Ha! Remember that phrase?
McCARTHY: It was surgical all right. You had to go into the hospitals and put back arms
and limbs through surgery. So it was an obscene war. It was one-sided. The Iraqis had no Air
Force. There wasn’t one Iraqi plane that came up to take on the US Air Force. So it was clearly
DAVIDSON: The United Nations is very much involved in the sanctions against Iraq. It was
imposed by Security Council resolution. Now the United Nations has been around for 50 years.
What’s your view of the United Nations record?
McCARTHY: The United Nations is composed of governments that believe in violence. So I
have little regard for this collection of governments that most of whom have armies and enormous
budgets. As long as you have 40,000 people dying a day of hunger in the world (and that goes on
and on and on) and as long as you have the collective arms budget (I think it’s about 800 billion
a year), you can’t place much faith in those governments. Well, I say, “Okay, my gosh. It’s more
hopeless than I thought.” Or you say, “Where is change going to come from?” Change comes from
below, it does not come from above. Most every social reform in the world started from below. It
didn’t come from Caesar or the pharaohs or the presidents or kings. We know that.
DAVIDSON: It came from the people on the ground.
McCARTHY: Yes. It came from below. So our problem is a solution. And that in a very small
way is why I go into a daily high school class every morning. I go all over the country trying to
get schools to get these courses. In 500 years we may see a little bit of progress, if we hurry.
So we all have a small role to play. We are all overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems, and
we want quick fixes. Send in NATO troops! Troops do not solve conflicts; they worsen conflicts.
Armies worsen conflicts. We know that. If war was effective as a means of conflict resolution, we
would have had harmony, love, and justice eons ago.
DAVIDSON: Do you think the NATO troops who are there now implementing the Dayton peace
agreement could be useful if they were used in conjunction with other peacemaking techniques?
McCarthy: As long as you bring guns with you, you can’t do it. Otherwise we would have
had, peace eons ago. On your spending, when the US government spends $700 million a day, which is
two and one-half times more than what the Peace Corps spends in a year, there’s an imbalance
there. You will never really have any radical change as long as that imbalance is there. And, you
know, it keeps on going.
DAVIDSON: One last question. It’s on the war crimes tribunals that have now started
holding trials on war crimes in Bosnia. Do you see those as being useful to providing real
McCARTHY: Picking on one, two lone thugs is fine. It’s good theater. It makes the evening
news. But to me the war crimes are done by deliberate, cold-minded legislators who keep on
funding armies. Here in Congress in Washington you have the warlords. The warlords are in the
White House ordering up the militarism. That’s the problem. It’s done. Some countries, Bosnian
thug, he’s following orders, they take orders, but the same ethic prevails. We believe in it. We
bomb Libya, Grenada, Panama, the Gulf. But those aren’t war crimes, that’s defending freedom. Ha!
Hey, wait a minute. There are about 35,000 people dying a month from wars and conflicts. Most of
those supplied by US weapons. If you want to talk about war crimes, let us focus where the real
DAVIDSON: Colman McCarthy has been my guest on Common Ground. He’s the founder and
the director of the Center for Teaching Peace, located in Washington, DC. He is also a columnist
for The Washington Post. For Common Ground, I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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