Phyllis Bennis: Building Communities of Peace and the Role of Civil Society

Peace is something that has to be fought for, not on the battlefield, but in peoples’ hearts and minds. That was Phyllis Bennis’ main point when she came to Hofstra to give her talk on the role of civil society in fostering peace.

According to Bennis, a writer, activist, and fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, the United States’ military budget will be $568 billion this year, and Nassau County will spend $5 million in taxes to pay for the Pentagon alone, which doesn’t include care for veterans, soldier salaries, or weapons. Bennis pointed out that the money we’re spending on our military could be spent on so many other things that would be far more beneficial to American citizens, such as education and healthcare.

If we want to see any significant change in our society, we have to start locally. Bennis says civil society must start by figuring out how to change the mindset of the powerful, so instead of focusing on military options to foreign issues, the leaders of our nation will turn to diplomacy and peaceful alternatives. This would trickle down to the media’s rhetoric, then to schools and the rest of the nation. That way we as a country can learn to reject the idea that war is our first and best option.

According to Bennis, civil society must define what it thinks foreign policy should look like in a concrete way. If we want peace, our foreign policy has to reflect that by supporting international law and accountability, human rights, and equality for all. This includes recognizing that terrorism can’t be stopped with violence, as more death and destruction will only create more terrorists. Bennis suggests that the best way to fight terrorism is to fight the mindset and circumstances that lead people to seeing terrorism and terrorist groups as their last options.

Bennis takes an idea from historian Howard Zinn that the United States is two countries at once; the one whose power and history is rooted in genocide and slavery, and the one whose people fought against genocide and slavery. But there have always been people who fought against violence in hatred. Now the rest of the world turns to us. We, as members of civil society, have a responsibility to build the movements that will lead to peace.

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