No one said that dying had to be dull. “Screaming with fear, paralyzed children at a shelter for the physically disabled and mentally ill in Galle, Sri Lanka, lay helplessly in their beds as seawater surged around them.” The CNN report read like the screenplay of a horror film. A crippled girl grows up destitute in a home for the deaf, the blind, the insane, and, for good measure, the disabled elderly (what more could a kid wish for?) At the end of a short life spent wondering why no one ever looked out for her, the child reaches the final punctuation mark of her blessed existence and drowns glued to a wheelchair.
Tragedy should not be too clever. Mourning embraces the solemnity of death but recoils at an overzealous script. When fate appears to cross the thin line between cruelty and sadism, grief turns to anger. We expect the church organist at the funeral mass to interrupt Bach in mid-measure, look up to the sky, and shout “Come on!”
Voltaire had his “come on” moment in the wake of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, suggesting that God’s supreme goodness perhaps was not all it was cracked up to be. Religious irreverence is not much in fashion these days. But piety was not always so docile. History has been improbably kind to all sorts of figures who’ve had cross words with the Almighty. Think of Job, Jonah, Jeremiah, and Jesus on the cross-and that’s only for the J’s. Once or twice, the dispute even got out of hand: Nietzsche killed God; and Richard Rubenstein saw in Auschwitz confirmation of his death. Admittedly, to reconcile the Holocaust with a just and omnipotent god is an interesting variation on squaring the circle-or, since Miklós Laczkovich actually succeeded in doing just that , let us say, merely a reminder that gods may die but theological debates just never do.
My own reaction to the CNN report was not nearly as elevated. “Why would God behave like Don Rumsfeld?” I wondered. As the crippled child writhed in agony, I pictured God murmuring “Stuff happens.”
Woe unto me. To compare God to Rummy is worse than blasphemous: It’s unfair. After all, God did not cow the media into decorating our TV screens with the beatific smiles of preening peacocks reassuring us that smart waves drowned the terrorists, spared the innocent, amused the children, and provided much needed water to drought-prone regions. God gets accused of many things, including being dead, but lying is rarely one of them.
Mendacity, on the other hand, is the reserve currency of this administration. Its marketing hook: “You give us your votes; we give you our lies.” From the fictitious Saddam-al Qaeda axis to the rosy updates on the Switzerlandization of Iraq, from the bogus tales of WMD to the assurance that democracy is the future of the region (and always will be, would add the cynics), the giving has been, shall we say, generous.
The taking has been no less effusive. Although the hysterical rantings of prowar voices rarely exceeded, in dignity, the yapping of a chihuahua attacking a meatball, they met only the meekest resistance from an oleaginous mainstream media. The war hawks found powerful enablers in The New York Times, which was more than happy to echo the delusory yarn spun by the White House and pimp for Judith Miller’s Best Little Whorehouse in Babylon (where bling bling spells WMD).
Pimping being the fickle business that it is, it won’t be long before the In-Bush-We-Trust media gets in touch with its inner peacenik and points an accusing finger at the posse of visionary mediocrities who gave us a nasty case of Iraq syndrome. No doubt some of the neocons will balk at going to their graves with the word “loser” carved on a brass coffin plate; so watch for them to pull a McNamara on us and humbly beg for forgiveness. Being good souls, ie, suckers for smarmy group hugs, naturally we’ll oblige.
Were it so simple.
The abject surrender of the media fed a slew of illusions to the public, none more craven than the belief that he whom we kill must be killed. Yeah, yeah, we occasionally obliterate the wrong house and incinerate its occupants, but that’s just “friendly fire.” (A lovely phrase if there’s one: Let’s hear the surgeon who amputates the wrong leg inform his patient of his “friendly amputation.”) Minus the friendliness, however, our whiz-bang weapon wizardry never fails to separate the wheat from the chaff, the nursing mother from the crazed beheader. So goes the creed, anyway.
The Lancet-that well-known freedom hating rag-begs to differ. It estimates that our high-IQ, mensa-schmensa bombs have killed 100,000 civilians . Iraq Body Count, which plays the lowballing game by shunning projections, reports the deaths of 600 non-combatants during our latest goodwill tour of Fallujah (by now primed to be renamed Grozny on the Euphrates) .
And then there is the Iraqi girl, hands soaked in her dead father’s blood, whose little brother does not yet understand that his childhood has just come to an end.
Fearing for their lives, US soldiers killed the parents in the front seat of the family car. Demons will likely haunt their nights. Stuff happens. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, bless their souls, will sleep well tonight.
Wars never fail to produce their share of pithy lines. Tommy Franks made sure this one would be no exception. “We don’t do body counts,” crowed the general, who really meant to say that he does not do “dark-skinned body counts” (he counts the others just fine). Lucky for us that he doesn’t run a Swedish newspaper, or it would have splashed the headline: “Tsunami kills 2,000 Swedes-and a few locals.” To be fair, Franks remembered the last time he did body counts, Vietnam, and how well that ended. But today’s tactical thinking packs a wallop of self-righteous denial. We don’t tally the children we kill for the same reason monsters don’t buy mirrors: That’s how they go through life thinking they’re angels.
We’ve snuffed out innocent lives in numbers that insurgents and terrorists could only dream of. But we avert our eyes. We bury our heads in the sand and turn a blind eye to our moral cowardice, thus pulling off the amazing feat of being ostriches and chickens all at once. We owe this marvel of ornithology to the inexorable fragility of human illusions. To quote James Carroll, “we avert our eyes because the war is a moral abyss. If we dare to look, as Nietzsche said, the abyss stares back.” George Bush, the philosopher, has updated Berkeley’s riddle: Do Iraqi children scream when the bombs fall if there is no one in the White House to hear them?
The celebrity of the month, the tsunami victim, has hogged newspaper headlines nationwide with stomach-churning photo spreads of wailing mothers and floating cadavers. Like his unsung Iraqi brethren, the victim has reminded us that calamity always strikes the poor, the sick, and the helpless first. It’s invariably those with the least to lose who lose the most. At the great banquet of cataclysms, rich Westerners get served last. Bush would have us believe that we’ve suffered so much from terrorism the world owes us undying compassion. In truth, our induction into the Misery Hall of Fame is still a long way off. With our sustained assistance, however (coddling Saddam while he was gassing Iranians, slapping sanctions that killed half a million children, and fighting two wars in twelve years), Iraq made it on the first ballot. Who ever said that we didn’t have a big heart?
Not Condoleezza Rice: “I do agree that the tsunami was a wonderful opportunity to show not just the US government, but the heart of the American people, and I think it has paid great dividends for us” . And I just can’t wait for the next one, our top diplomat might have added.
While watching Colin Powell, pocket calculator in hand, add up the geopolitical benefits of our generosity and tell us how shocked, shocked he was by the tsunami’s devastation, I could almost hear the Beatitudes from The Gospel According to Dubya: “Blessed are the children whom the sea swallows, for they shall tug at our heartstrings. / Cursed are the children whom our bombs blow up, for they shall roam the dark alleys of our indifference.” We’ve been Iraq’s tsunami. But expect no charity drive, no minute of silence, no flag at half-staff: nothing that would allow shame to rear its ugly face.
With Bush’s reelection, America now has the president it deserves. And should you find that Lady Liberty, all dolled up with the latest in fashion from Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, looks a bit like a used up hooker, you won’t need to ask who hired her pimp: We did.
The liberation of Iraq began with smart flying bombs crashing over Baghdad. We should have known better. Liberations that start with a reenactment of 9/11 rarely end well.
This article and others are available on Professor Chazelle’s website.
 Laczkovich, M. Equidecomposability and discrepancy; a solution of Tarski’s circle-squaring problem, J. Reine Angew. Math. 404 (1990), 77-117.
 100,000 Civilian Deaths Estimated in Iraq, by Rob Stein, Washington Post, October 29, 2004.
 Iraq Body Count Falluja Archive, www.iraqbodycount.org, 2004. http://www.iraqbodycount.net/resources/falluja/
 Dr. Rice’s senate confirmation hearing, Agence France Presse, Tuesday, January 18, 2005. http://www.commondreams.org/headlines05/0118-08.htm