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On the twelfth year of the silent holocaust of Iraq sanctions, we at Voices in the Wilderness once again find ourselves, from August 3 to September 11, on a 40-day fast. We’re fasting to prevent a new onslaught against the people of Iraq while the old war continues. Today, August 22, 2002, more than a decade after the Gulf War ended, the bombs still fly, the children still die, and the lethal economic sanctions lynch an entire nation. Like Jim Crow and lynchings once were, U.S.-led economic sanctions are the law of the land.
As we stand, pace, dialog and leaflet and hold signs across from the United Nations, chartered to settle disputes and prevent war between nations, our nation crawls toward a seemingly unavoidable war against Iraq. Every weekday, 8am-1PM, we hand out 700 leaflets to NGO reps, UN workers, visitors from all over the world, and a good number of New Yorkers. The responses vary from contempt to curiosity, from hostility to hospitality, from ignore to engage, and every day Iraq hangs in an economic noose hanging from the gallows at 45th Street and 1st Avenue–the U.S. Mission to the UN.
Our good friend Denis Halliday, former assistant secretary-general of the UN, drops by our street corner on occasion. He brings a bit of sharp-witted insight and real world experiences to us street-corner peaceniks–always a learning experience, often a grim reality check. Denis, who resigned his post in Sept ’98 as humanitarian coordinator in Iraq in ’98, broke ranks with the United Nations because, in his own words, ” We are destroying an entire society. It is as simple and as terrifying as that.”
Denis didn’t end 24-year UN career to spend afternoons in a fenced enclosure with 7 fasters and a rotating roster of supporters and affiliates; his life today is a bit far removed from his former life of government offices, diplomats and politicians. With the freedom he didn’t have from within the UN, Halliday speaks with abrupt clarity of a caption. “We are willing to spend $70 billion killing Iraqis while 20% of the children in America go hungry, when we could be spending that $70 billion straightening things out at home,” Denis notes. The elephant is in the room, the emperor has no clothes, and the show must not go on.
What does the “Break Ranks” fast hopes to accomplish? It would take at least forty days to explain this. Skipping 120 meals on principal is not considered normal, but normal doesn’t make much sense nowadays. Spending half of our federal budget on war is considered normal. The killing of 1.5 million foreigners who don’t threaten us is considered “policy.” Serious problems in our own cities–poverty, homelessness, are as conventional as air and water. Last July, 8,333 homeless families in New York City sought shelter– up from 7,916 in June; a shortage of shelters brought many families to a Bronx jail for temporary housing. Is this normal?
The normal Iraq discussion–when to attack, how to attack, but not why to attack and whom are we attacking–and the old myths continue: there is no holocaust. Iraq sanctions have brought about some “hardship.” Saddam is a threat to America. Are we so clueless that we must look in the mirror to find the truth? That the source of this threat–terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and the use of these weapons–is our own back yards? Calling 600,000 dead children “hardship”–as often said in Washington–is a lie, and calling Iraq a threat to the U.S. is joke.
Sien Ahmed and Faez Judad should not have been denied cancer treatment. They should not have died in our names. We prevent a once modern society from being rebuilt, and it’s time to break ranks with the weapon aimed at the weakest and most vulnerable in that society. Were those hundreds of thousands of children a threat to my security? They weren’t even born when Iraq invaded Kuwait, but they are denied safe water, medicines and sanity by our government. They are denied their very lives by OUR government in OUR names. If this is considered normal, then it’s long past time to disagree.
Out of frustration, out of obligation, out of compassion and the desire to clearly articulate the truth when words fail, this fast is one way to argue outside the limitations of conventional debate. As Americans, we must shatter myths, foil political soothsayers, and create alternatives to the normal routines. We need to build bridges, petition both the American and Iraqi governments to engage in more diplomatic efforts, and do the person-to-person diplomacy that our elected officials won’t do, not that there aren’t opportunities.
In early August, Baghdad invited the U.S. congress to visit Iraq and spot-check suspected weapons development; why not accept the offer? It’s a start. Donald Rumsfeld said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Okay, well absence of truth isn’t evidence, either, and we’re going to war over what we DON’T know? Is the real fear that Iraq posses no weapons of mass destruction? With all the doublespeak and double standards, even a small bit of truth is a threat, and bearing witness is STILL a crime. For performing the works of mercy, Voices has been promised a $140,000 fine. Individual delegates, such as Bert Sacks and Randall Mullins, have been fined $10,ooo each. Is this legitimate? Is this is considered normal?
After 50 or so unlicensed delegations to Iraq, what do we bring back to America? Having been witness to a crime for which catchy slogans and fancy words are inadequate, how do we speak out with conviction? How do we disagree with thousands of babies and toddlers dying every month? How do we explain this under normal circumstances? We come home to a people who don’t have such in their language, where truth and witness might as well be speaking in tongues, where genocide scarcely makes an impression. How do you explain 1.5 million dead innocents to 280 million accessories to murder? As Americans, we all must bear some responsibility, and there is only one option: to “break ranks,” to disarm, to build bridges, to bring the faces and places and stories home, to carry some of Iraqi life home and live it.
People fast for health, they fast as their religion requires or encourages, and they fast because they have no food. But fast for Iraq? How do we make sense of this? From our street corner, from our daily lives, between the pages of the Post and the Daily News, our eyewitness is totally out of context. On Capitol Hill, everyday Iraqi life may as well be a myth buried under black magic (chemical and biological weapons), wicked witches (who foiled our weapons inspectors), and of course an evil king. To wake up from this fairy tale, we must break ranks with ourselves.
So let’s bring our normal, everyday lives to a halt for 40 days–our normal work, recreation and eating habits. There is no room for Iraqis in our normal lives, so let’s bring our normal lives to a halt for 40 days, let’s give up some of the benefit of normal life, and let’s, as Peter Maurin said, “take less, so that others can have more.”