News & Politics

Rescuing Private Lynch, Forgetting Rachel Corrie

It turns out that the lives of some US citizens are valued more than others. Nothing demonstrates this more starkly than the opposing responses to Rachel Corrie and Jessica Lynch.
Jessica Lynch and Rachel Corrie could have passed for sisters. Two all-American blondes, two destinies forever changed in a Middle East war zone. Private Jessica Lynch, the soldier, was born in Palestine, West Virginia. Rachel Corrie, the activist, died in Israeli-occupied Palestine.

Corrie was four years older than 19-year-old Lynch. Her body was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza seven days before Lynch was taken into Iraqi custody on March 23. Before she went to Iraq, Lynch organized a pen-pal program with a local kindergarten. Before Corrie left for Gaza, she organized a pen-pal program between kids in her hometown of Olympia, Washington, and children in Rafah.

Lynch went to Iraq as a soldier loyal to her government. Corrie went to Gaza to oppose the actions of her government. As a US citizen, she believed she had a special responsibility to defend Palestinians against US-built weapons, purchased with US aid to Israel. In letters home, she described how fresh water was being diverted from Gaza to Israeli settlements, how death was more normal than life. "This is what we pay for here," she wrote.

Unlike Lynch, Corrie did not go to Gaza to engage in combat: she went to try to thwart it. Along with her fellow members of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), she believed that the Israeli military's incursions could be slowed by the presence of highly visible "internationals." The killing of Palestinian civilians may have become commonplace, the thinking went, but Israel doesn't want the diplomatic or media scandals that would come if it killed a US student.

In a way, Corrie was harnessing the very thing that she disliked most about her country: the belief that American lives are worth more than any others -- and trying to use it to save a few Palestinian homes from demolition.

Believing her fluorescent orange jacket would serve as armor, Corrie stood in front of bulldozers, slept beside wells and escorted children to school. If suicide bombers turn their bodies into weapons of death, Corrie turned hers into the opposite -- a weapon of life, a "human shield."

When that Israeli bulldozer driver looked at Corrie's orange jacket and pressed the accelerator, her strategy failed. It turns out that the lives of some US citizens -- even beautiful, young, white women -- are valued more than others. And nothing demonstrates this more starkly than the opposing responses to Rachel Corrie and Pvt Jessica Lynch.

When the Pentagon announced Lynch's successful rescue, she became a hero, complete with "America loves Jessica" fridge magnets, stickers, tee-shirts, mugs, country songs and an NBC made-for-TV movie. According to former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, President George Bush was "full of joy for Jessica Lynch." Her rescue, we were told, was a testament to a core American value: as West Virginia senator Jay Rockefeller said to the Senate: "We take care of our people."

Do they? Rachel Corrie's death, which made the papers for two days and then virtually disappeared, has met with almost total official silence, despite the fact that eyewitnesses claim it was a deliberate act. President Bush has said nothing about a US citizen killed by a US-made bulldozer bought with US tax dollars. A US congressional resolution demanding an independent inquiry has been buried in committee, leaving the Israeli military's investigation -- which cleared itself of any wrongdoing -- as the only official investigation.

The ISM says that this non-response has sent a clear, and dangerous, signal. According to Olivia Jackson, a 25-year-old British citizen in Rafah: "After Rachel was killed, [the Israeli military] waited for the response from the American government and the response was pathetic. They know they can get away with it, and it has encouraged them to keep on going."

First there was Brian Avery, a 24-year-old US citizen shot in the face on April 5. Then Tom Hurndall, a British ISM activist shot in the head and left brain dead on April 11. Next was James Miller, the British cameraman shot dead while wearing a vest that said "TV." In all of these cases, eyewitnesses say the shooters were Israeli soldiers.

There is something else that Jessica Lynch and Rachel Corrie have in common: Both of their stories have been distorted by the military for its own purposes. According to the official story, Lynch was captured in a bloody gun battle, mistreated by sadistic Iraqi doctors, then rescued in another storm of bullets by heroic Navy Seals. In the past weeks, another version has emerged. The Iraqi doctors who treated Lynch found no evidence of battle wounds, and donated their own blood to save her life. Most embarrassing of all, witnesses have told the BBC that those daring Navy Seals already knew there were no Iraqi fighters left in the area when they stormed the hospital.

But while Lynch's story has been distorted to make its protagonists appear more heroic, Corrie's story has been posthumously twisted to make her, and her fellow ISM activists, appear sinister.

For months, the Israeli military had been looking for an excuse to get rid of the ISM "troublemakers." It found it in Asif Mohammed Hanif and Omar Khan Sharif, the two British suicide bombers. It turns out that they had attended a memorial service for Corrie in Rafah, a fact the Israeli military has seized on to link the ISM to terrorism. Members of ISM point out that the event was open to the public, and that they knew nothing of the British visitors' intentions.

In the past two weeks, half a dozen ISM activists have been arrested, several deported, and the organization's offices raided. The crackdown is spreading to all "internationals," meaning there are fewer people in the occupied territories to either witness the abuses or assist the victims. On Monday, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process told the security council that dozens of UN aid workers had been prevented from getting in and out of Gaza, calling it a violation of "Israel's international humanitarian law obligations."

On June 5 there will be a international day of action for Palestinian rights. One of the demands is for the UN to send a monitoring force into the occupied territories. Until that happens, many are determined to continue Corrie's work. More than 40 students at her former college, Evergreen State, Olympia, have signed up to go to Gaza with the ISM this summer.

So who is a hero? During the attack on Iraq, some of Corrie's friends emailed her picture to MSNBC asking that it be included on the station's "wall of heroes," along with Jessica Lynch. The network didn't comply, but Corrie is being honored in other ways. Her family has received more than 10,000 letters of support, communities across the country have organized memorial services and children from the occupied territories are being named Rachel. It's not a made-for-TV kind of tribute, but maybe that's for the best.

Naomi Klein 's most recent book is "Fences and Windows."