BURLINGTON -- The National Security Act of 1947, which established the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency, also changed the name of the U.S. Department of War to the U.S. Department of Defense. With an Orwellian stroke of the pen, U.S. military muscle could now be used to further American foreign-policy goals using the justification that it was in the interest of protecting homeland security.
But now, a group of Vermonters has launched an effort to create a new governmental agency founded on the principles of nonviolent conflict resolution. "Vermonters for a Department of Peace" is a nascent grassroots campaign that is trying to set up a state agency in Montpelier that would coordinate and fund programs that reduce societal violence and promote a culture of respect, cooperation and safety. The group plans to draft a bill for the next legislative session and find lawmakers who are willing to sponsor it. They're holding the second of two meetings in Burlington on July 9 to discuss the idea and solicit suggestions from the public.
The Vermont initiative is part of a nationwide campaign to create departments of peace at both the state and federal levels. Currently, five other states are considering similar proposals, including New Mexico, where a state Department of Peace bill has been pending in the legislature since 2003.
The effort for a U.S. Department of Peace is being coordinated by the nonprofit group The Peace Alliance. The idea was spearheaded in 2001 by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to set up a federal peace agency in the executive branch. Its cabinet-level secretary would report directly to the president. Fifty-four members of Congress signed onto that bill, including Rep. Bernie Sanders. It is expected to be reintroduced in the House on September 14.
Dot Maver of Burlington is executive director of The Peace Alliance. "It's an idea whose time has come," she says. Maver is also the former national campaign manager of Kucinich's 2004 presidential campaign. Unlike the Department of Homeland Security, which coordinates intelligence gathering and security operations for thousands of federal, state and local agencies, there is no comparable government office that oversees and funds programs that reduce societal violence, Maver says.
A U.S. Department of Peace would have both domestic and international components, she adds. Internationally, the agency would focus on identifying and addressing the root causes of violence and armed conflict, such as poverty, racism, human-rights violations and economic injustice. Domestically, it would coordinate and fund programs with a proven record for reducing violent behavior, such as restorative-justice boards, school anti-bullying campaigns, elder- and child-abuse prevention programs and so on.
Putney resident Jon Schottland, who is helping to coordinate the Vermont campaign, says a state-level agency would be relatively inexpensive. "If we set aside just one dollar for every $200 that Vermont taxpayers send to Washington each year for the national defense budget, we could easily establish a Department of Peace here in Vermont," he says. As of May 2005, Vermont taxpayers contributed more than $316 million to the Iraq War alone, according to National Priorities Project in Northampton, Massachusetts.