Sunday, January 15, 2006

Expendable Lives

Reports of a U.S. air attack on a Pakistani village that took civilian lives, while its intended target, Osama bin Laden's second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri, was absent, is another example of an accepted consequence of war: that there is always going to be "collateral damage", and innocent people are going to die.

"Collateral damage"-- a term apparently coined by former secretary of state Colin Powell -- sanitizes an ugly fact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: thousands, perhaps over a hundred thousand, civilians have been killed, many by Iraqi, Afghani, and Pakistani insurgents, but many thousands more by American bombs, guns, and missiles. This begs the question: If the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are supposed to make the American people safer, then do we really believe that we are to save the life of a child in the United States by accepting the death of a child in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or in a Pashtun village in Pakistan? Are the lives of American people inherently more valuable than the lives of the citizens of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan?

We've extended this idea to other conflicts; we condemn terrorist bombings which take innocent Israeli lives, and yet are strangely silent when Israel mounts an attack on a suspected Hamas leader, killing innocent children in the process. And yet both actions are wrong; both actions are horrific. We pick a side in a conflict and supply arms and other support to that side, many times without any thought to the result. The gassing of Iraqi civilians by Saddam Hussein wouldn't have happened but for the supply of that gas by current secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld representing an earlier administration. Other conflicts around the world have escalated to horrifying proportions because each side was supplied arms and ammunition by other countries.

I agonzied over my own views as the build-up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan occurred; I didn't want to see anyone die in an ugly, unnecessary war, yet at the same time I was profoundly disturbed by the suffering of the Iraqi people under Saddam Hussein's murderous rule, and the insane abuse of women in Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban. I didn't want to ignore the plight of the individuals in these two countries.

But there has to be a better way to work for justice and humane treatment for the world's citizens than to declare a war which will inevitably lead to the deaths of many of those we are supposedly trying to help. We need to raise our own consciousness, and that of leaders and citizens in other countries, to find a peaceful and effective way to protect ourselves while opposing policies of murder, torture, and violence.

Fundamentalist Christians love to talk about Armageddon, the ultimate battle between good and evil, and some even use the concept as a justification to go to war. But maybe Armageddon isn't a conflict between "us" and "them", but between the instincts of good and evil in our own natures; and maybe part of the ultimate victory over evil will come when we no longer accept war as either inevitable or acceptable.

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