War Tax Resistance and Me

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by Aaron Falbel

In December of 1990, I became a war tax resister. Shortly before the Persian Gulf War (#1), I attended a peace rally on the Boston Common. Despite the impassioned speeches given by Howard Zinn, Daniel Ellsberg, and others that day, I had a sinking feeling that standing out in the cold for a few hours, chanting slogans, and marching through the streets of downtown Boston was not going to stop the war from happening. After all, why should President Bush care that my toes were frozen and my voice was growing hoarse. But sometime during that afternoon, a young woman handed me a half sheet of paper. On one side was a quote from Alexander Haig, Secretary of State, during the Reagan administration — “Let them march all they want, as long as they pay their taxes.” That quote hit me; it really hit me. On the other side of the paper was an announcement for a meeting to discuss how one could refuse to pay for the upcoming war and redirect the money to organizations that work for peace. The idea seemed so simple, so elegant, a child could understand it: don’t pay people to do bad things; pay them to do good things. I had been groping for a way to step up my level of resistance to US military violence, and this seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. I was determined not to be a mere bystander with respect to the impending war with Iraq, and WTR seemed to be a way to say “No!” in a manner the Al Haigs of the world would understand.

There were other, deeper, more personal reasons why WTR seemed “right” — right for me. Because of my family history, I feel that I have a special debt to pay to people of conscience, people who choose not to cooperate with state sponsored murder. My parents, grandparents, and other relatives were forced to flee Nazi occupied Europe during WWII. Being Jews, their lives were in danger, and on numerous occasions their lives were saved by people who protected and hid them, who warned them of raids and round-ups by the Gestapo and their collaborators, who provided them with false identity papers, and who eventually helped them enter Switzerland illegally and thus to relative safety. The people who did these things for my family took great risks. Some of their names I know from stories my grandparents told me; others remain anonymous. Their acts of compassion were strictly illegal: if they had been caught sheltering Jews, they could have been sent to the concentration camps along with the captured Jews, or even killed then and there. I cannot thank these people — most of them are probably dead by now, or very old. But to honor them, I can strive to be a little bit like them. I, too, can choose not to cooperate with murder, even if such non-cooperation is deemed illegal by the state — which it is in the case of WTR. Today, I am confronted by the same choice that confronted the gentile bystanders of Europe: Do I remain silent? Do I look the other way? Do I say “It’s not my problem”? Do I obediently pay war taxes so that others can kill in my name? Or do I say, “No!” and break the law in the hope of saving someone’s life? I owe it to the people who saved my family to choose this last option.

To become a war tax resister is, in some sense, to step into another world. “It will change your life,” a fellow resister said to me early on, “but it will be a blessing.” He was right. WTR has forced me to think about what is meant by the word “security.” In a society as heavily monetarized as ours, security often translates as “financial security.” Examining security has led me to ask the questions, what do I really need? What is truly my share? Are there ways of obtaining the things I really need without recourse to money?

What if the absolute “worst” happens and the IRS seizes my income and my savings? — not likely, because they are supposed to leave you with something to live on. But supposing it did happen. Would I be destitute? Homeless? Hungry? I think not. Friends and family would not let me live on the street, just as I would not let a friend or family member of mine become destitute in this way. People would help me out until I could get my life back together again. One would discover under such circumstances that security is not predicated by how much money one has in the bank or whether one has invested in various “insurance companies.” Rather, real security, to the extent that it exists at all, has more to do with mutual aid, with friends, family, community helping and supporting one another.

Furthermore, it must be acknowledged that, whatever the bad consequences are that could conceivably happen to me as a result of WTR, they are nowhere near as bad as what happens to people who are on the receiving end of U.S. (or U.S. sponsored) militarism. The risks of not paying war taxes are overshadowed by the risks of paying them. I’ve decided that I would rather suffer than be complicit in the suffering of others-or worse, be an accessory to murder. Still, even as a war tax resister, my hands are not clean…

Indeed, WTR has made me think about the violence inherent in our economy, the myriad connections between money, greed, and violence. The more aware I become of the violence connected with economic activity — virtually all economic activity — the more I strive to live outside the mainstream economy — a difficult struggle, to say the least. This awareness, I feel, is the greatest gift, the greatest blessing, of WTR. If I have the courage to act on it, it brings me closer to the type of nonviolence that Gandhi lived and talked about: what my friends the Nelsons have termed “the nonviolence of daily living.” WTR has helped me to live a more examined life, to seek out the root causes of war and violence and not just react to its ugly, outward manifestations. This has led me, more recently, to conclude that WTR, though necessary, is not enough. War taxes indeed constitute one of the principal resources of war, but they are not the source of war.

The true source of war in our time, as I see it, is none other than the American Way of Life — a way of life founded on and maintained by taking through force things that do not rightly belong to us, whether that be Native American land, or the labor of people of color, or 50% of the world’s resources (used up by less than 5% of the world’s population), or access to the markets, and thus the money, of other nations worldwide. Many in the peace movement are familiar with the slogan, “no justice, no peace,” but if they really thought through the meaning of those words, they would have to confront the reality that we in this country cannot go on living the way we do. A mode of living dependent on exploitation and injustice cannot add up to peace, no matter how many streets are “taken to,” slogans chanted, songs sung, sit-ins sat, or even taxes redirected.

My understanding of nonviolence also forces me to admit that I am relatively powerless when it comes to changing the behavior of other people. My influence on others, while not zero, is quite limited. However, I have considerable latitude when it comes to changing my own behavior, and as far as this is concerned, I will have my hands full for a loooong while yet. But I credit WTR, and individual resisters I’ve met, for setting me on this long, fascinating, difficult, risky, arduous, rewarding, surprising, and ultimately liberating journey.

From the April/May 2003 issue of More Than a Paycheck.