The dead of Iraq

As the impeachment process staggered on, one of the cruelest ironies was that there have been so many better reasons to impeach William Jefferson Clinton. If you're gonna remove this guy from office, don't do it because he cheated on his wife, or chronically hits on women, or lies about it. No, throw Clinton out because he lies about everything else, or because he's spent six years auctioning off public policy to the highest corporate bidders. Toss him for the welfare "reform" that threw millions into poverty, or for dramatically widening the gap between rich and poor, increasing military budgets with no credible enemies in sight, stonewalling international efforts to save the planet from global warming and ozone depletion, cynically encouraging a generation to fear its children, pushing the anti-labor free trade that has led to global economic crisis, or for doing more than any other president in modern history to strip the Bill of Rights.

Perhaps most of all, Bill Clinton should be impeached—and put on war-crimes trial—for economic sanctions that have callously, brutally, and intentionally resulted in the estimated deaths of more than 1 million Iraqi civilians, including (by UN estimate) at least 750,000 children, on his watch. The US-orchestrated economic sanctions against Iraq, like our periodic bombing forays against civilian targets, are the purest form of terrorism: targeting the lives of mass numbers of citizens to achieve a political goal completely beyond their influence. Clinton and his foreign-policy teams have done Saddam's work—manipulating or ignoring UN policy to kill his people—so he doesn't have to. Those people have no more control (less, actually) over what Saddam does than you or I have over Clinton. And they're dying—slowly, painfully, invisibly, in nearly incomprehensible numbers. Bill Clinton's willing mass sacrifice of civilian lives violates international law, US law, the Geneva convention, and any conceivable standard of moral decency.

Perhaps as appalling as Clinton's policy has been the utter lack of American public awareness of its effects. All told, more than a million people have died (credible estimates run as high as 2 million) because they were born in a country whose leader we don't like. The story of famine, loss of safe drinking water and other infrastructure, and lack of medical supplies and basic goods is an untold story in this country. In his 15-minute December speech announcing renewed bombing, Clinton mentioned the demonic "Saddam" 32 times, and the other 22 million Iraqis not once.

In the face of this atrocity, a few people have responded. A Chicago-based group called Voices in the Wilderness has now led 19 small delegations—including several with members from the Pacific Northwest—to Iraq, delivering food, toys, and medical supplies in defiance of sanctions. While these conscious acts of civil disobedience have made barely a dent in Iraq's misery—one delegation's $40,000 worth of basic medical supplies lasts the country about 15 minutes—they nevertheless allow the story to seep out.

In early December, just before the latest round of pointless, expensive, impeachment-defying bombing runs, a Voices delegation from the Pacific Northwest (the Rev. Randall Mullins and Bert Sacks of Seattle, Joe Zito of Tacoma, and Dan Handelman of Portland) received a "Prepenalty Notice" from the Clinton administration—its first such action ever. The Treasury Department is threatening to assess civil fines of $120,000 to the delegation, and $10,000 to $12,000 for each individual. Their crime? "Exportation of donated goods, including medical supplies and toys, to Iraq." Their real crime, of course, is trying to alleviate human suffering, witness it, and return to tell the story.

The notice was intended to be a deterrent, to prevent others from following in Voices' footsteps. It seems to have had the opposite effect. "The publicity attendant on the fine is a positive thing for us," says Sacks. "Now it's not just people living 8,000 miles away, but people living in Seattle who are affected." More and more attention is thus paid to the barbarism and random cruelty of US policy.

It's one thing to be aware that something so monstrous is being carried out; it's quite another to answer. Sacks and Mullins, the two Seattleites who have (so far) attracted the government's wrath, are both older, thoughtful, deeply religious men. They are intimidated neither by the difficulty of stopping sanctions nor by the threats of the Clinton administration. Both see their acts as a form of witness as well as direct intervention. Says Mullins, "You do it not for results but because the work has integrity and truth."

Even from a military standpoint, Clinton's Iraq policy makes no sense. It's impossible to prove a negative—that Iraqi weapons don't exist—and beyond impossible to prove that one has squashed the intent to build weapons. American conditions for ending the sanctions can't be met—there can never be enough inspections—and no amount of bombing or suffering can ever be shown to be sufficient. The real, unspoken point is that our torment of Iraq will not end until Saddam is murdered and replaced with a tyrant more to our taste.

In the meantime, at least 250 people—most of them children—die every day because of the sanctions. They are rapidly climbing the charts ranking the great war crimes in this, the bloodiest century in human history. Forget Bill Clinton's fling with Monica. Remember that he—just like Saddam before him—has orchestrated the cold-blooded slaughter of a generation. And remember that it's up to us to respond.

More information on humanitarian efforts to break the Iraq embargo is available at the Voices in the Wilderness Web site. In Seattle, call the Fellowship of Reconciliation at 206-789-5565.

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