Even a child sees through Iraq policy

By Robert Jensen

Published in Dallas Morning News · August, 1999

[This article appeared in the Dallas Morning News, August 27, 1999, p. 29A.]

If only all the world had the conscience of a 7-year-old.

For the past two years I have been organizing and speaking out against the war on Iraq that the United States is waging through bombing and economic sanctions. One recent Sunday morning, a colleague and I spoke to a local group and appeared on cable access television about the issue. My 7-year-old son, Luke, sat through both appearances, seemingly more interested in his toys than in three hours of talk about the viciousness of U.S. foreign policy.

But over dinner that night, he started quizzing me about the issue, and it was clear he had been listening.

In the talk, we had explained that nine years of sanctions had crippled the Iraqi economy and were directly responsible for as many as 1 million civilian deaths from malnutrition and disease. On the heels of the devastation of Iraq’s health, sanitation and education infrastructure in the 1991 Gulf War, the sanctions were inducing deep poverty and preventing the rebuilding of the country.

Although the U.S. government contends the brutal embargo is in place to force Iraq to comply with weapons inspections, with perhaps the added goal of forcing the Iraqi people to overthrow the Hussein regime, the sanctions’ main mission is to send a message to the rest of the world: This is what happens when a country defies the United States we will destroy you. The U.S. right to dominate the resources of the Middle East, and the rest of the world, cannot be challenged.

In 1996 when interviewed on “60 Minutes,” Madeline Albright then ambassador to the United Nations and now secretary of state was asked if the deaths of a half-million children in Iraq were an acceptable price to pay for a policy. “I think this is a very hard choice,” Albright acknowledged, “but the price — we think the price is worth it.”

It is difficult to imagine any policy that is worth the deaths of a half-million children. That those children have died simply to shore up U.S. power is a crime against humanity that is impossible to justify.

If only government officials had the conscience of a 7-year-old.

At dinner, Luke asked questions. He’s going to a “normal” public school, where kids are trained to think the U.S. government doesn’t kill innocent people. He wants to believe what he is being taught about U.S. benevolence around the world, but he is willing to reject the mythology in light of the facts.

Is the leader of Iraq good? he asked. No, I explained, he is a bad guy who sometimes even hurts his own people, but that doesn’t mean the people should suffer even more under sanctions. Why don’t the Iraqis get rid of him? he asked. That’s complicated, I said, but right now the people of Iraq spend most of their time trying to stay alive and aren’t in a very good position to overthrow a government.

How do sanctions work? Why don’t other countries just sell Iraq things that they need? I explained that most of the world would like to see the sanctions lifted, but that the United States has more guns and power than anyone else, and so the United States generally gets what it wants.

Why don’t the people in Iraq just come and live here? he asked. When I told him that wasn’t possible, he asked if we could send some food and toys to Iraq. I said that the postal service wouldn’t let us mail anything of value to Iraq, but that a group in Chicago called Voices in the Wilderness made trips to Iraq and delivered medicine. It would be better to send Voices a donation, I said.

“That’s it,” Luke said. He ran to get his wallet and emptied out a 10-dollar bill and some coins. “I want to send it all to those people who are helping,” he said. I told Luke that he didn’t have to donate all his money, that it would be OK to give just some of what he had. But his mind was made up. He gathered together a few small toys to include in the package with the donation, dictated a letter, and drew a picture of himself so that the Voices folks would know who sent it.

I hesitated for a moment: Because Voices in the Wilderness has not sought a license from the U.S. government to take humanitarian supplies to Iraq, the group has been threatened with $163,000 in fines. Technically, Luke could be liable for contributing to that “crime,” though I expect the Clinton administration is not so vindictive that they would prosecute elementary-school kids.

Luke’s unprompted offer to help was particularly uplifting for me. At protests and talks for the past two years I have been listening to adults who tell me that they don’t care about the fate of Iraqis and that they hope that the sanctions squeeze them until Hussein is out, no matter how many innocent people die. Once while at a political event holding up a banner that read, “1 million dead from sanctions — how many will be enough?” a man walked by me, smirked, and said, “I don’t know — how about 2 million?”

If only all Americans had the conscience of a 7-year-old.