March 16, 2003 was a clear day in the Rafah refugee camp, Gaza Strip. The young woman from Washington had been there over six weeks with the International Solidarity Movement. The organization is dedicated to protecting Palestinian human rights in the Occupied Territories.
This time, the activists were trying to prevent a barrage of home demolitions. The Israeli Army, using American-made Caterpillar bulldozers, was leveling Palestinian houses. The aggression, they claimed, was necessary in order to widen the barren buffer zone between the Egyptian border and the rest of Gaza. They claimed weapons were being smuggled. To prevent this, they had to render dozens of families homeless.
The bulldozer was headed straight for the home of a pharmacist. The young woman from Washington, sporting a neon orange flak jacket, stood between the advancing machine and the house. In that one moment she stood, beautiful and defiant. A strong protector-figure, defending the defenseless. She didn’t budge. Surely the driver would stop. Maybe he wouldn’t stop for a Palestinian–but for a 23 year-old American girl–he would surely stop.
One moment she stood, beautiful and defiant. The next moment her body lie crumpled and broken, rendered unrecognizable by the crushing force of the bulldozer. Incredibly, the bulldozer then backed up, running over her a second time to make sure the job was finished.
The horrific images played over and over; on special reports and the evening news. The scene became no less sickening for all its repetition. Rachel Corrie became an instant household name.
I wrote an e-mail to my mother from Amman, Jordan, where I was living at the time. I expressed my outrage at the tragedy, admiration for Rachel mixed with hope that at least now the American public would pay attention to what was going on in Palestine.
I was aghast at her response: "Who is Rachel Corrie?"
"Who is Rachel Corrie?" Apparently, her murder was given only passing coverage in mainstream American media, if at all. A blurb or two in a few newspapers. A ten-second sound byte in the middle of a newscast, when most people get up to grab another cup of coffee.
But the cover-up of Rachel Corrie’s senseless death was far worse than a crime of omission. Killings in the Middle East–particularly when the perpetrators are Israeli–are routinely overlooked by American media. In Rachel’s case, however, repression of fact reached conspiratorial proportions.
The Israeli government brought no charges, ruling Rachel’s death "accidental." A House bill calling for a U.S. investigation died in committee. However, the greatest evidence of a full-scale information blackout regarding the life and death of Rachel Corrie was the attempted censorship of a play bearing her name.
Entitled "My Name is Rachel Corrie," the script was pieced together using Rachel’s earlier diaries and e-mails sent to her family while she was in Gaza. The show was highly acclaimed in London, winning numerous awards. Yet there was such opposition in New York that its opening day was postponed seven months. James C. Nicola, artistic director of the New York Theater Workshop, cancelled for fear of offending the Jewish community.
Eventually, free speech advocates and arts patrons succeeded in bringing "My Name is Rachel Corrie" to a different theater where it has met with good reviews. Performance dates have been extended for at least another month.
However, most of America is even more unaware of what goes on "off Broadway" than they are about what truly goes on in Palestine. So when I mentioned writing a tribute to Rachel Corrie marking the four-year anniversary of that horrible day in Gaza, it came as no surprise when my managing editor asked, "Who is Rachel Corrie?"
Name recognition is not so important; Rachel never intended to become famous. She simply made a commitment to an oppressed people, striving to improve their lives in some small way. Although her time was cut drastically short, she accomplished more in her chosen corner of the world than most people could in 100 years.
The Rachel Corrie Children and Youth Cultural Center now stands in Rafah. The Rachel Corrie Rebuilding Campaign has reconstructed the pharmacist’s home Rachel died trying to protect. And there are quite a few little girls named Rachel running around Gaza today.
God knows Rachel never intended to become a martyr. Her last e-mail to her father was bursting with plans to visit Sweden on her way back to the U.S., then return to Rafah and teach English. She also expressed dread at the thought of saying goodbye; not knowing if her Palestinian hosts would be alive when she returned.
As it turned out, the people she loved had to say goodbye to her first. She never got to visit Sweden, never got to teach English, never saw her parents again. A homicidal maniac driving a piece of American-made hardware saw to that.
Rachel Corrie’s body was crushed in Gaza four years ago; yet her legacy transcends the politics of fear, race, class and religious bigotry that the Israeli government and its American supporters use to crush justice and truth.
Perhaps in a premonition, Rachel wrote before leaving her home in Washington:
"We are all born and someday we’ll all die. Most likely to some degree alone. What if our aloneness isn’t a tragedy? What if our aloneness is what allows us to speak the truth without being afraid?"
The best tribute we can pay to Rachel Corrie, an American heroine, is to speak the truth without being afraid.