Of death, numbers, and law


[Eds.: This column was originally submitted for the March 13th issue, but did not run due to space constraints.]

I attended the “War” debate on Thursday evening and would like to comment. Professor Goodman noted that in the Gulf War approximately 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and another 100,000 civilians died. He then asked how we would feel about a war with Iraq if we knew that 100,000 U.S. soldiers would die. The response was: “We won’t lose that many anyhow – so the point is irrelevant.” My mouth dropped: so this is what we’ve become.

Now of course we won’t lose that many American soldiers – that’s what the Kurds are for! We’ve been training and arming a handful of them for the past 6 weeks so that they can do all of our dirty work for us! This issue is one that requires a strong ability to talk out of both sides of one’s mouth at the same time:

“The Kurds!” we exclaim emphatically to CNN, “The poor Kurds! They’ve been gassed you know. Its time someone did something to help those poor Kurds!”

“The Kurds…” we cough, quietly pushing the military base assistance agreement across the desk to the Turkish officials, “…are all yours, just sign on the dotted line.”

“The Kurds!” we smile broadly with our arm around Kurdish liberation leaders. “We feel your pain. Here, take some guns!”

Mark my words, in three years from now this newly trained group will become “terrorists” that “need to be dealt with” when they begin to irritate the Turks or the U.S. regime in Iraq.

I recently went to see the movie “The Pianist,” about the German occupation and massacre of the Jewish population in Poland. My 28 year old Iranian friend was with me. For the final 45 minutes or so of the film this woman cried and sobbed uncontrollably. Her response is called human empathy. The truly sad part was she was one of two people in the full theater who did cry. So this is what we’ve become?

I watched the Jewish people being forced from their fine homes into a segregated portion of the city, where their comings and goings were strictly controlled, where they were forced to openly identify themselves as Jews, and where they were subject to intermittent violence at the will of the occupying force. As I sat there a picture came into my mind: Robert Fisk showing footage of the Jewish settlements and occupation of Palestine. What have we become indeed!

The single most significant action that the Bush administration could take right now to stop this train from derailing would be to actively pursue every possible avenue of international law to ensure peace in this world. Embrace and commit to the ICC. Restore much needed funding to the United Nations. Sign and ratify treaties. Assist in bringing international criminals to justice.

So what would we think if we knew that 100,000 American lives would be lost in Iraq? Well, our response to the deaths of 4000 people in N.Y., are an indication that we do care. Why are we only able to empathize when the face of those who suffer resembles our own?

Suffering will follow this attack. War is infinitely inappropriate to the task of eliminating one man. How many civilians need to die before Saddam is removed?

Losing another 100,000 Iraqi lives today means there will be another 100,000 children affected by this decision. These children will watch what decision the Western world makes about their future, and they will remember. We have alternatives. Amr suggested giving the money to the people. Let me add: feed them and educate them. Give them medical aid and keep their families and communities intact. Under such circumstances, change will come from within.

Whether Saddam is gone tomorrow or in 25 years, one of these children is going to become the new leader of Iraq. What kind of leader will this child become if they witness international efforts to embrace international law, democratic institutions and the rule of law, and to alleviate suffering in Iraq? Perhaps this child will become a leader that is engaged in multilateral processes; a leader that builds democratic institutions, who respects the rule of law and who will respond with empathy to the fundamental needs of fellow citizens.

What kind of leader will this child become after witnessing a systematic effort solve Iraq’s problems by buying friends, trampling on human rights, denigrating international cooperation and creating a humanitarian catastrophe? If he or she were to grow up maimed, orphaned, living on the streets and picking through radioactive waste to survive? Perhaps this child will become a leader that is cold, bitter, calculating, and an isolationist who gains and maintains power through violence, who regards the rule of law with arrogance, and who has learned to live alongside suffering and death without flinching. A leader without empathy. Let’s make a choice these children will remember with hope.

Annette Demers is a reference librarian for International, Foreign and Comparative Law at the Law School.

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