Following the March 11, 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid, Secretary of State Colin Powell told ABC TV’s “This Week” that he hoped Europeans, recognizing that no one is immune, would dedicate themselves to “going after” terrorist organizations with military force, intelligence, and law enforcement. He said that all of us have to get together to defeat organizations determined to kill and destroy innocent people. He urged Spain not to step back from the war on terrorism.
I think a crucial step forward in coming to grips with terrorism requires that we ask ourselves why individuals, some of them young, rational people with their whole lives ahead of them, would hate the US and its allies so much that they would commit acts of massive destruction and end their own lives as well.
Shortly after US troops began occupying Iraq in April, 2003, a large contingent of western media people arrived in Baghdad. One young journalist said a more seasoned correspondent had told her to talk with me when she was ready to do a humanitarian story. One of the first stories she pursued was about a baby who’d been born in one of Saddam Hussein’s prisons. I suggested she might also explore stories about the hundreds of thousands of children who died because of economic sanctions. “Oh,” she said, “That was Saddam Hussein’s fault.” I mentioned that UN documents directly attributed the deaths of over 500,000 children under age 5 to the effects of economic sanctions. Her response was immediate: “Well, except now everyone knows that the UN was in bed with Saddam Hussein.”
US think tanks helped brief US journalists before they headed over to the war zone. Perhaps the complex US/UN relations during thirteen years of economic sanctions couldn’t have fit into convenient briefings. With deadlines to meet, electrical outages to cope with, and editors seeking stories about Saddam’s cruelties, who could expect this young, energetic reporter to delve into old analysis of yesteryear’s news?
But if Americans are ever going to understand what would motivate people to end their lives in the course of committing gruesomely destructive acts, we’ll have to “step back” from what the mainstream media dishes out to us, and strive for empathy, try to understand why terrorists believe it’s imperative to resist US domination. One way to develop empathy would be to revisit the history of Iraq under economic sanctions and military bombardment.
The logic of this history, on the part of the US leadership, seems to have been: “We had to starve you so that we could stop bombing you, and then we had to bomb you so that we could stop starving you.”
The entire façade of bureaucratic delays that made up the UN’s efforts in Iraq in the last years of the sanctions was absurd. Did any of the UN workers who struggled to provide minute documentation that Iraq wasn’t building bombs out of parts for water treatment plants, for example, really believe that the US cared about their work? After 5 years of “oil for food,” it was clear that the U.S. was simply interested in finding excuses to maintain sanctions. Despite repeated denials, and incredibly detailed levels of “monitoring” and documentation, by UN officials across every agency working in Iraq, the US continued to pretend that the Iraqi government could have solved the problems by distributing hoarded medicines and was solely responsible because it refused to use the money and medicine it had available. The truth was that no amount of medicine could have saved the lives of children, then, and still won’t be adequately effective, because Iraq’s infrastructure is so badly debilitated that even now infant mortality at the neonatal clinic in the Yarmuk Hospital in Baghdad is twice that of last year. And at Baghdad’s Central Teaching Hospital for Children, where gallons of raw sewage wash across the floors, the hospital’s doctors say “the hospital drinking water is contaminated” and “80 percent of patients leave with infections they did not have when they arrived.”(NYT “Chaos and War Leave Iraq’s Hospitals in Ruins” Jeffrey Gettleman, February 14 2004)
Many of the accounts about ways that Saddam Hussein’s regime engaged in smuggling and arranged “kickbacks” under the oil-for-food program were widely reported while Saddam Hussein’s regime was still in power. We should be scandalized by that regime’s choice to live luxuriously when they could have helped save the lives of innocent children. And we should be equally scandalized that the US used the UN to wage economic warfare against Iraq knowing full well that the sanctions would brutally and lethally punish innocent people, including children, who had no control over their government.
In Baghdad, a few days before the Shock and Awe war began, a woman whom I’ve known for seven years whispered “Believe me, Kathy, we want this war. All the people, they are tired of this life where we work so hard and still cannot feed our children.” A March 9, 2004 letter from her explains how betrayed and battered she now feels. “Today, we faced a horrible day. My partner, the engineer, was attacked by shooting. He was wounded by three shots and is in the hospital. We are not sure if he will live. This is Iraq today. This is what we pay for Mr. Bush and his freedom. We can’t move from place to place without shooting and bombing. We are like hostages in our own land. There is no safety, no jobs, no good water, no electricity. Everything is bad here. We are hopeless. We can’t protect our children.”
I wonder if people who flock to see Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” understand that the brutality Jesus suffered was the punishment for those convicted of insurrection against military occupation. Military occupation then and now is not much different. Imagine anyone in Iraq, Israel or Palestine, whether civilian or military, occupier or occupied, who survives a bombing, their limbs shattered, organs ripped open, flesh torn. Imagine arms aching for loved ones who’ll never return. Or imagine someone armless and yearning, like the woman whom Faith Fippinger wrote of who had given birth to a baby just before a US bomb tore off her arms during the Shock and Awe campaign. Other women helped the armless woman nurse the infant by crouching behind her and holding the baby to her breast.
I recently read about a woman who carried her sister-in-law’s newborn baby to a hospital where she had been advised that an incubator would be available. When she arrived, she learned another woman had arrived before her and the incubator was taken. A nurse tried to console the distraught woman, but her companion, the mother’s sister, was willing to try an alternative. Using a manual ventilator, she followed a nurse’s instructions: “ squeeze and let go, squeeze and let go, as long as she could. Shortly before dawn, after standing by the baby and working the respirator for eight hours, Mehdi’s arms gave out ” (Washington Post “Iraqi Hospitals on Life Support” March 5, 2004). The baby died of respiratory failure.
I don’t know anyone in Iraq who wasn’t relieved to see Saddam Hussein deposed. I’d like to be heartened by those who say they advocated warfare against Iraq because they wanted to save Iraqis from an abusive despot. But, I can’t help but wish that this profound care for Iraqi people could have been activated during the long years when Iraqis endured the most comprehensive state of siege ever imposed in modern history.
Why do some people in the Islamic world hate us so much? It’s a quick discussion. We take over and dominate other people’s societies. We set up client states in their regions and rely on these client states to house US bases and, as in the case with Israel, to punish neighboring states if they don’t submit to US aims. We foster double standards, condemning invasion and occupation when it suits us, (e.g., the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait) and yet undertaking or supporting murderous sanctions, invasions and occupations, while claiming to support and enhance democratic states. The role of the US and its client state, Israel, as occupiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine evokes rage and retaliation. Hideous and violent terrorist attacks will continue as long as we insist on taking other people’s precious and irreplaceable resources for cut rate prices. We should either begin paying fair prices, or find new ways to live in which we’re not so dependent on these resources.
I’ll have a refresher course in simple living during the late spring and summer of this year when I’ll be an inmate in a US federal prison for four months. The prison-industrial complex is a cruel extension of US war-making against the poor in our country, but I hope this prison sentence, for nonviolent trespass on US military installations, will serve me as an incubation period, a time of adjustment while living with less, and a time to hatch new ideas about how to live more simply after I leave the prison. I hope all of us will find ways to slow down, find more leisure time, and in our times of rest reflect very seriously on Secretary of State Colin Powell’s encouragement that we “get together to defeat organizations determined to kill and destroy innocent people.” I hope we can get together to nonviolently defeat US militarism, at home and abroad.