Towards A Good Samaritan World

Monday, January 31, 2005


Many eloquent words of celebration have been written today. I will not add to them. Instead, I think this is a fitting moment to remember on all those who are no longer with us to celebrate them.

It is a time to reflect on the over 1400 US soldiers who served and died in Iraq. Today, their cause has been vindicated, and the goal for which they gave their lives has come much nearer to fruition. But instead of witnessing the revolution that they helped to bring about, they spent their last moments in a field or an alley, with the pain of a bullet or the shock of a grenade, leaving behind the question of why they did not fear pain and death as people are wont to do, and why they valued the welfare of others more than their own. The ancient mystery of courage.

It is a time to reflect on the 100,000 Iraqis who may have died in the past year and a half. While many of those were Baathist thugs or terrorists, many more were innocent civilians, killed as "collateral damage" by US forces, or murdered by Sadr's al-Mahdi army, by Baathist remnants, or by the soulless bloodlust of Musab al-Zarqawi's Monotheism and Jihad. Bush, Blair, and all those who made the decision for war knew that innocent people would die during the struggle, and decided that the struggle was worth it, and they were right to do so. But we must not forget the worth of those lives, or become hardened to the tragedy of their loss. There are bereaved mothers and fathers, wives and daughters and friends who can never fully forgive us in their hearts. That is the price of living by our convictions.

But most of all, it is a time to reflect on 1 to 6 million Iraqis, as well as Iranians and Kuwaitis, who are not here today because Saddam Hussein and his regime killed them. That their numbers are so uncertain is a chilling testament to the anonymity of victimhood to which he consigned them. A chilling example was reported in Samir Al-Khalil's Republic of Fear (1991):

The number of victims are not as important as the psychological atmosphere constantly being invoked… The pattern is for agents to pick someone up from work, or at night from his house. No explanations are proffered as there would be in an official killing. Unlike Central American "disappearances" in which the state denies complicity, the Ba'th give the event a macabre twist. What one assumes to be the corpse is brought back weeks or maybe months later and delivered to the head of the family in a sealed box. A death certificate is produced for signature to the effect that the person has died of fire, swimming, or other such accident. Someone is allowed to accompany police and box for a ceremony, but at no time is he or she permitted to see the corpse. The cost of the proceedings is demanded in advance, and the whole thing is over within a few hours of the first knock on the door… The lie that lives has replaced the grisly truth buried in the casket. (p. 64)

Now there is a new dawn of life and truth in Iraq, but why did the night that preceded it have to be so long? We could have overthrown Saddam twelve years ago. William Blake, walking through the streets of London, once lamented the "mind-forged manacles" that wrought misery upon its inhabitants. And it was mind-forged manacles that enchained the Iraqis: forged by the minds of those who "recognized" a tyranny, a system built upon fear, as a "sovereign" state.

The words "never again" have sometimes been spoken at such times. They seem the only fitting answer to the horrors wrought by totalitarianism, the only adequate declaration of regret. They are at once solemn and wildly ambitious to the point of dreaming. We said them after Auschwitz; but genocide happened again. And again. And again. We have no right on this day to say "Never again." Neither the world, nor we ourselves, could believe our promise.

Until we can, let us be temperate in our celebrations. We must be aware equally of the presences and of the absences; of this day when Iraqis freely expressed their desire for freedom and peace, and of the tens of thousands of days when they could not express themselves freely even to close friends and relatives for fear of informers, of torture chambers, of reprisals that might leave not only them, but also their families dead; of the visible voters who voiced their belief in democracy and rejected Iraq's dark past, and of the invisible ones, the voiceless dead, who constitute a judgment upon and a condemnation of Iraq's dark past which is more sacred, more absolute than any vote.


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