In the Shadow of Rachel Corrie

In Ruckus [Vol. 7, Iss. 4, February 2004]

I never met Rachel. Indeed, the first time I ever heard of her was on the day of her death. Today, her name evokes instant recognition with anyone even mildly involved with human rights. Rachel died under an Israeli bulldozer in Palestine.

We hear about deaths every day. 20 000 people die in an earthquake in Iran – “Wow!” “That’s a lot, eh!?”. Seven more US soldiers down in Iraq – “Hey, are we over the September 11 total yet?” (Like faceless statistics? Check out I have nothing more to say about how and why Rachel died. I want to talk a little, instead, about how she lived.

Rachel grew up nearby: in the acclaimed hippie hangout of Olympia, Washington. I decided to go there and try to fit a personality to the pretty and determined face I’d seen on pro-Palestinian posters all over the U-District.

Needing to wake up and pull myself together, I decide I might as well do some interviews outside and inside Rachel’s favorite coffee shop. (Not a Starbucks. Rachel hated Starbucks. Ruckus hates Starbucks). “The Evergreen girl? I’ve heard of her …” “I didn’t know her personally, but …”. Most people in Olympia have heard of Rachel. Yet, I was surprised at how few people on the streets knew more than just the bare details. Ignorance and complacency: one of Rachel’s greatest exasperations, and one she shares with activists worldwide. Her death seems to have switched depressingly few people on to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, even in her hometown.

Hanging around the Capitol Building, pretending to do the tourist thing, my mind filled with thoughts about Rachel. There’s a large statue with the inscription:

“Greater Love

Hath No Man Than This

That A Man

Down His Life

For His Friends”

What made Rachel care? What is it that makes people look through the bullshit, through the constant barrage of SUV ads and FOX-NEWS and CNN and compulsory pledges of allegiance at school?

Is it family? Driving through fields of green to Rachel’s house. A great place to grow up, I think to myself. The kind of place where parents still forget to lock their doors when taking their kids for short hikes through the nearby mountains. I spend some time listening to the unconcerned chatter of water birds in a nearby estuary from the veranda, as Rachel did many times.

Checking out photos of Rachel growing up. Playing naked on the beach. Pink ballerina. Wrestling with her older brother. On top of the World Trade Center with her dad, wind blowing through her hair.

Interviewing her parents. My eyes catch the titles of books and journals on Palestine on the glass coffee table. Books that weren’t lying there a year ago.

It takes me less than 5 minutes to get emotional. Anyway, they’ve had too many professional interviews already. Forget professionalism. Crying together with her mother whilst looking over the last photos ever taken of Rachel. Walking back to the car from her house, having trouble walking straight. I’m not cut out for this job. I’ll stick to stories on countries, not people, I tell myself.

At Rachel’s old school. A project by eleven-year old Rachel in 5th grade makes me smile for the first time in a while: “I want to be a lawyer, a dancer, an actress, a mother, a wife, a children’s author, a distance runner, a poet,
a pianist, a pet store owner, an astronaut, an environmental and humanitarian activist, a psychiatrist, a ballet teacher, and the first woman president.”

Driving back through the foggy streets of downtown Olympia. Students of Rachel’s age playing guitar and singing out of the back of VW busses in parking lots which smell of weed rather than exhaust fumes.

Rachel had a good life. A warm and tight family. She knew she didn’t need to ask permission to go to Palestine, and could always count on support from back home. Not everyone in Gaza or the West Bank has a return ticket.

Understand – Rachel didn’t want to die. She was no suicide bomber. She was a 23-year-old girl who cared about life and people, and would let her mother pay for expensive sushi once in a while. Top marks in school. Serious about life and the things she believed in, but able to let loose with those who knew her. A listener. Unlike the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) bulldoze-operator, she was not “just following orders”. A hero? If that’s what you make of her. It’s what she makes of you that matters. Now perhaps more than ever.

Activism does not mean starting your life from scratch. Activism means thinking about stuff that matters.

“I think it is a good idea for us all to drop everything and devote our lives to making this stop. I don’t think it’s an extremist thing to do anymore. I still really want to dance around to Pat Benatar and have boyfriends and make
comics for my co-workers. But I also want this to stop.” -Rachel Corrie

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