Marla Ruzicka, a 28-year-old political activist, was killed in Iraq on April 16 when a suicide bomber attacked a convoy of contractors on the airport road, blowing up the Mercedes she was in with her translator Faiz Al-Salaam. Ruzicka, whose ebullience earned her the nickname “Bubbles,” suffered burns over 90 percent of her body. Her last words, according to the medic who attended her, were, “I’m alive.”
Her tragic death was a tribute to her bravery since she knew the risks and her fate was thus almost predictable. Nine months earlier she had written in her online journal: “The ride is not pleasant. Military convoys passing every moment. Faiz and I hold our breath.” It was her third year of working the perilous epicenters of the War on Terror. She was in country on this occasion in behalf of the organization she had created a year earlier – the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), which in its practice meant civilian victims of America’s wars to bring freedom to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Yet Ruzicka was a more interesting political study than so stark a summary suggests. In the last year of her short life, she had moved away from the agendas and organizations of extreme left that had originally directed her life path to the war zones in order to establish a path of her own. In her new endeavor she was guided partly by her genuine concern for the defenseless victims of the conflict and partly by political forces that continued to exploit those concerns.
Unlike Rachel Corrie, who lost her life in Gaza serving a solidarity movement with terrorists and who consequently became a martyr for the anti-American cause, Marla Ruzicka was respected and mourned not only by the left but by supporters of the war who knew her, and even by members of the Bush administration and military whom she first harrangued and then petitioned and who ended up in a partially voluntary cooperation with her endeavors.
“Marla Ruzicka decided to work within the system,” complained the editor of the pro-terrorist website Counterpunch.org, Alexander Cockburn, a longtime supporter of America’s totalitarian enemies. “Both in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he groused, “in furtherance of her humanitarian schemes, Marla Ruzicka elected a stance of studious neutrality in ascribing responsibility for the victims of U.S. bombings and ground fire.”
Indeed, even before she broke free of the Cockburn Left, Marla had told one antiwar reporter who interviewed her in Afghanistan in 2002 that, “many of the families she had contacted were so pleased with the results of the bombing that they were reluctant to come forward to demand compensation.” Yet despite her good heart and winsome honesty, which might have led her to more far-reaching second thoughts than she had, she remained on a course by opponents of the war until her fateful encounter with terrorists who, as Christopher Hitchens observed, “couldn’t have known they were murdering her, but then neither could they have cared.”
Marla Ruzicka was the daughter of San Francisco Republicans. She was seduced as a 15-year-old high school student by veteran communist Medea Benjamin, who inspired her to join a movement presenting itself as a “human rights” campaign, but that was actually pimping for the sadistic dictator Fidel Castro and his island gulag. Benjamin herself had spent five years as a resident in Castro’s police state, exulting on her return to the Bay Area that her life in Cuba as a supporter and beneficiary of one of the world’s most repressive regimes made her feel as though she “had died and gone to heaven.”
Marla’s involvement with Benjamin began when she set up a speech at her high school for a Castro propagandist employed by the organization Global Exchange, a front for Communist causes billing itself as movement for equality and social justice. Benjamin was its founder and Queen bee. The focus of the organization was the creation of “person-to-person” relationships between revolutionary tourists like Marla Ruzicka and the “victims” of American persecution in the Third World. As a teenager Marla Ruzicka made four trips to Benjamin’s earthly utopia, not to observe the fine points of totalitarian rule, nor the misery it created for citizen prisoners, but to take in its Potemkin image as a monument of “social justice.”
The speech Marla arranged was a ritual denunciation of America’s anti-Communist foreign policy and economic boycott of the Castro regime – as if the boycott and not Castro had reduced Cuba to Honduras-level poverty from its position before his seizure of power as the second richest country in all of Latin America. What the Castro propagandist did not tell his high school listeners was that even with the U.S. boycott, Cuba is free to trade with the entire world, including all of Latin America; its problem is that it has nothing to trade, since its dictator has destroyed the incentive of his subjects to produce.
The propaganda offered up to the high school students paralleled the later claims of radicals that Washington’s sanctions against Iraq were responsible for the starvation of 500,000 Iraqi children, when in fact Washington had provided billions of dollars to feed Iraqi children through the Oil-for-Food program, which the Iraqi dictator (and his UN accomplices) had stolen to enrich themselves and to buy allies for the monster regime.
Marla herself was suspended from school for leading a protest against the first Gulf War to stop Saddam’s rape of Kuwait. By the time she walked across her high school stage to receive a diploma, her “idealistic” missions were so well known to her classmates that someone in the audience shouted, “Go out and save the world, Marla!”
On graduation Marla enrolled in World Friends College, under whose auspices she was sent to Cuba, Zimbabwe and other points of progressive interest for further radical studies. Her training included a trip to the West Bank to work with Palestinian “refugees” in Ramallah, the headquarters of Castro’s terrorist friend Yassir Arafat. One of her favorite quotes gleaned from these school years, according to a young leftist who knew her in Iraq was the Guevara cliché, “The revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.” It was a dictum that had inspired Che’s efforts to ignite “two, three…many Vietnams” before he was killed attempting to launch one of them in Bolivia. Marla’s entrance into the world of totalitarian radicalism was now complete.
In 1999, Marla’s organizing skills and close relationship with Benjamin led her to be tapped as a fundraiser for Rainforest Action Network, a group closely allied with Global Exchange and with organizational ties to eco-terrorists. Through these groups she also became involved in the anti-globalization movement, a collection of environmental radicals, Marxists, “social justice activists” and solidarity workers whose agenda was assisting terrorist movements in Latin America and other regions of the Third World with which Marla was already familiar. The anti-globalization movement was an ad hoc and incoherent reincarnation of the old Communist Internationals whose agenda was to obstruct and eventually destroy the international capitalist system, which its radicals regarded as the root cause of most of the world’s poverty and social ills.
In 1999, Medea Benjamin was busy with an agenda of her own as one of the strategic planners of the anti-globalization demonstrations designed to shut down Seattle which was hosting a meeting of the World Trade Organization. The demonstrations erupted in riots, with massive property damage. Two years later, the “Battle for Seattle” became the inspiration and the anti-globalization network the organizational basis for the antiwar movement that sprang up in the days following 9/11. Its agenda was to prevent an American military response to the terrorist attacks.
In 2000, Medea Benjamin ran for U.S. Senate in California on the Green Party ticket and Marla became her fundraiser. For the campaign, Benjamin produced the booklet I, Senator, her delusion of grandeur fantasizing the day she and other Green legislators would establish a socialist state following a series of grave national emergencies. In November 2000, Benjamin, Marla and a third Green Party activist were arrested when they tried to crash a Democratic Party campaign event and force Senator Dianne Feinstein into a public debate. Weeks later, Marla was in Florida as a Green Party accredited election observer, where she lamented the dearth of street protesters supporting Al Gore and told the World Socialist Website that Republicans “should be on the terrorist lists.”
When the anti-globalization radicals failed to prevent an American military response to 9/11, they re-mobilized to undermine the post-Taliban peace in Afghanistan. Global Exchange took a group of 9/11 families to the war torn country. Upon returning from the trip, Benjamin stated that George W. Bush “has responded to the violent attack of 9/11 with the notion of perpetual war – a war in Afghanistan that included dropping over 20,000 bombs, many of which missed their targets and led to the killing and maiming of thousands of civilians.”
In these activities Marla continued to serve as Benjamin’s right hand, traveling to Afghanistan with Global Exchange where she staged a protest outside the U.S. embassy assembling “dozens of mostly Pashtun tribesmen, some bandaged and limping, in front of its walls to demand compensation. The stunt, as the Guardian’s Rory Carroll recalled, “received wide coverage. Marla was becoming a media star, popping up on CNN and becoming the subject of a biography. ‘Publicity for the cause,’ she said, relishing the attention.”
In July of that year, she helped produce an official Global Exchange report claiming the allies had killed 800 civilians. The report made the front page of the New York Times – not surprising since the Times was already a leading organ of anti-Bush sentiment. Afghan President Hamid Karzai whose new government depended on America’s continued support was not amused and dismissed the figure as nearly twice the actual number.
By this time the Bush administration was moving into high gear to rein in one of the world’s worst outlaw regimes, a major supporter of global terrorists. (Saddam, as Stephen Hayes reports in The Connection, had recently hosted a world conference of terrorist organizations in Baghdad). As the Bush administration began mobilizing to enforce 11 years of toothless UN resolutions, which had been designed to prevent Saddam from violating the terms of the Gulf War truce, the antiwar movement also turned its attention to Iraq. Once again its agenda was tying America’s hands as the nation tried to deal with its enemies
The national antiwar demonstrations that followed 9/11 were held under the auspices of International ANSWER a front group for the Workers World Party, a Marxist-Leninist sect allied with North Korea’s Communist regime. Since International ANSWER openly defended the Saddam regime, it was an embarrassment to factions on the Left who knew better and to shrewder radicals like Medea Benjamin, who understood the obstacles such candor presented to building a broad antiwar coalition.
In November 2002, Benjamin organized a front group called Code Pink, posing as a grassroots organization of “women for peace.” Her partner in creating the organization was Jodie Evans, a principal funder of the Rainforest Action Network and also of the California Democratic Party. The core leadership of Code Pink had met in the 1980s in Nicaragua, where they had come to defend the dictatorship created by Castro protégés, which was being challenged by the Reagan administration.
In December, as a UN deadline passed and war approached, Benjamin joined forces with Leslie Cagan, another pro-Castro communist (an actual member of the Party) to spearhead an alternative to International ANSWER. Called United for Peace and Justice, this new movement was described by the New York Times as a “moderate” antiwar coalition. Its members ranged from the Communist and Islamist Left to the National Council of Churches and the “rights coalition” of the Democratic Party.
In the crisis hour, Marla traveled to Iraq under the aegis of Code Pink, along with a delegation whose members intended to act as human shields to protest against the efforts of their own country to reign in one of the most criminal regimes of the modern era. Once the bombs began falling, however, the shields had second thoughts about becoming “collateral damage,” returning to their comfortable homes and dorm rooms.
When U.S. and British troops entered Iraq in March 2003, signaling the failure of the antiwar movement, Benjamin and Cagan created yet a new organization, Occupation Watch, and picked a pro-Saddam Iraqi to be their in country director. The first agenda of Occupation Watch was a leaf torn out of Jane Fonda’s Vietnam manual, which was to solicit American troops fighting for Iraqis’ freedom to defect by declaring themselves conscientious objectors.
In an article for the Left’s flagship publication The Nation, Benjamin spelled out her post Saddam agenda for the region, which included her desire to “link up with appropriate local and regional groups” and “channel the bursting anti-American sentiment overseas.” A secondary goal was to circulate news of the antiwar demonstrations at home with idea of demoralizing American troops. Occupation Watch promoted fanciful horror stories of civilian casualties deliberately caused by the Americans, claiming that American troops used the equivalent of napalm. (The site has changed dramatically in recent months, but the old website can still be viewed here.) Last December, as Marla left the organization, Code Pink raised $600,000 in cash and supplies for Fallujah refugees and sent it to as, “the other side,” in an “unjust war.” The solicitation letter to raise the aid was signed by California Democrat, Representative Henry Waxman,
Somewhere along the way, as the liberated citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq began to breathe the air of freedom, Marla Ruzicka had begun to realize the contradiction in which her comrades had ensnared her. Increasingly, the “other side” was patently grateful for America’s support in lifting the heavy burdens of repression and terror from the backs of the Iraqi people. By all reports, Marla parted ways amicably with Benjamin and the radicals still at war with the United States. According to the Contra-Costa Times, even after the creation of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, Marla “rarely maintained a permanent address, preferring to stay at the homes of friends such as [Medea] Benjamin.”
Marla came back to the United States to set up the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), an organization to carry on her work of identifying the victims of the war and getting her country to compensate them. Of course, there were many innocent victims of ongoing conflicts in the world, the most obvious being black Africans in the Sudan singled out for slaughter and slavery by its Muslim Arab rulers, or the Israeli civilians deliberately targeted by Palestinian suicide bombers. But Marla’s radical trajectory had set her on a course that would have prevented her from embracing the first of these humanitarian concerns and that made the second not a primary or even secondary agenda. All the instincts and prejudices she had developed in her 13-year apprenticeship in the Left returned her focus instead to Afghanistan and Iraq. Still, even in these familiar war zones, the most obvious civilian victims were those targeted by the terrorist forces not those unintentionally hit by the forces attempting to thwart them. But terrorists do not provide compensation for their victims.
These dynamics illustrated the way in which Marla’s humanitarian concerns were enmeshed in political agendas from which she could not (or did not think) to extricate them. Although to the disgust of anti-American radicals like Alexander Cockburn, “she elected a stance of studious neutrality in ascribing responsibility for the victims of U.S. bombings and ground fire,” her quest for compensation from the United States achieved a parallel political result. It was not exactly the equivalent of British volunteers tallying the number of civilians bombed by the RAF in Germany, but it was close enough, providing useful data for those conducting psychological warfare against the America’s “occupation” of Iraq.
In fact, as the forces of democracy made progress in Iraq, America’s alleged responsibility for “100,000 civilian casualties” increasingly became a principal indictment of the American presence on the part of radicals hoping to dispel the odor of their defense of the Saddam regime. If Saddam had killed 300,000 innocent Iraqis, well America had killed twice that number if you added the 100,000 to the 500,000 Iraqi children Bush had starved. To Marla’s credit she attempted to avoid serving the disreputable ends of her former comrades and angered them by arriving at a figure that was only one-tenth of their claim. But the overtones, which served those ends, were unavoidable.
Of course Marla had another option available if she so desired. This was to withdraw from the war zone and take time out for the kind of reflection about her agendas, that crusading passions like hers do not permit. She had been “in the struggle” since she was fifteen years old and was not about to stop now. As with many who commit themselves to the community of others, there was an element in her engagement of an escape from self. “Boyfriends came and went,” observed a Rory Carroll who knew her in Iraq, “but she often hinted at loneliness.” In a recent online journal entry Marla wrote: “I am young, and new at this and developing ways to cope, but in honesty I have tried red wine a little too much for medicine, deprived myself of sleep and felt extremely inadequate.” Commented the Guardian reporter: “The furious energy never abated. Lobbying, traveling, kickboxing and partying were her therapy.”
Writing in the Tribune Colin McMahon was even more blunt: “Ruzicka's highs were unmatchable, torrents of words and energy and productivity. Her lows brought friends and family to exhaustion as they fought to pull her back to her feet. Ruzicka took medication and underwent therapy to find the right balance, and in a recent e-mail to a friend she wrote: ‘I can deal with this illness. There will be good days and bad days -- i just gotta fight them with love.’” She concluded a recent e-mail with the prophetic words, “I need angels in my life.” In this psychological silo, the missions she undertook provided a powerful updraft. Go out and save the world, Marla.
As it happened, by going “inside the system,” Marla was able to step onto a stage much larger and more intoxicating than any she had been on before. An antiwar tide had swept the Democratic Party after the fall of Baghdad, which was not anti-American so much as anti-Bush. During the 18 months since June 2003, this community of passionate intensities and its powerful media amplfiers had conducted a scorched earth campaign aimed at unseating the man who in its eyes was the deceitful author of the war Iraq. It had done this despite the fact that its hyperbolic cries – “Bush is a liar;” “he betrayed us;” the war is a “fraud” – were a more powerful force undermining America’s efforts to establish a postwar democracy in Iraq than any attack Medea Benjamin and her friends could possibly conceive.
The would-be usurpers of the Bush administration conducted their campaign by magnifying every American cost in the war and every American fault in Iraq, beginning with the body counts of the nation’s troops. They had a plausible interest in just the kind of statistics Marla could produce, though in the final event they did not actually play any serious role in these matters. But the apparent fit of Marla’s agendas with those of the domestic insurgency made funding for her new organization no problem at all. Money to operate was immediately supplied to her by the Open Society Institute, a personal instrument of George Soros, the anti-Bush, antiwar billionaire leader of the campaign to unseat the president.
Once her organization was funded, Marla headed for the offices of U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, D-VT, a warhorse of the Democratic Party Left and a veteran of its campaigns in the 1980s to prevent the Sandinista dictatorship from being toppled by the Reagan administration. Leahy was a vocal critic of the Bush administration’s conduct of the war in Iraq and with his help Marla was able to put a provision into an appropriations bill for $2.5 million to compensate victims in Afghanistan and another $10 million to rebuild homes and provide medical assistance in Iraq.
She also worked towards the establishment of an office within the State Department that would count the number of civilians America killed and compensate their families. However, noble in intent, if successful this innovation would establish a perpetual psyops project to further tie America’s hands in fighting its enemies.
In line with her new but not unfamiliar agenda, Marla changed her tactics and stopped screaming down her enemies in the administration. Previously her rowdy protests had gotten her ejected from speeches by Colin Powell and then-Texas Governor George W. Bush. But when she returned to Iraq as the head of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, she decided to use honey rather than vinegar. “Iraqis were sometimes taken aback by Ruzicka’s mix of flower child and union steward,” recalled Colin McMahon. “She passed out hugs to security guards. She called senior military officers ‘dude.,’” Her new tactics – and her powerful Democratic allies – caused General Tommy Franks (who had said, “We don’t do body counts”) to reverse his position on whether the United States would keep track of Iraqi civilian deaths.
In a December 2003 interview, Marla summarized her political change: “I decided not to take a position on the war but to try to do the right humanitarian thing. No one can heal the wounds that have been inflicted; you just have to recognize that people have been harmed.” One might expect a humanitarian to also recognize when people have been liberated from a monstrous tyranny, but no such concession came from Marla. On the other hand, according to the Washington Post, even her modest and incomplete statement alienated some of her former comrades, who accused her of helping the administration “clean up the mess.”
In the aftermath of Marla’s death, her Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict seems poised to return to the radical path she had somewhat left behind. The new director of Marla's organization, April Pedersen is described on its website as “a devoted human rights and social justice advocate,” formerly with the Institute for Policy Studies, a leftist think tank with close ties to Cuba and unsavory past relations with the Soviet bloc.
Marla’s body was barely cold when Medea Benjamin used it to promote her own agendas. The day after the attack, Benjamin drafted an official statement for her Global Exchange website urging Marla’s mourners to “continue the work she began” by supporting Benjamin’s organizations: Occupation Watch, Code Pink, Global Exchange, and Iraq Body Count. Benjamin spoke at Marla’s funeral the following Saturday, introducing Sean Penn. “Let's make something of her work and make it lasting,” she told the crowd of mourners. “Let's require the military [to] publicize civilian causalities.”
Even in death the vivacious, idealistic, troubled and intriguing young woman that Marla had been was still a tool of forces she could not control and never really understood.
We wish to thank Rocco DiPippo for the research he contributed to this article.