For the past two years I have been organizing and speaking out against
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
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,
was clear he had been listening.
In the talk, we had explained that nine years of sanctions had crippled
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
Although the U.S. government contends the brutal embargo is in place
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 Stateswe 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
Is the leader of Iraq good? he asked. No, I explained, he is a bad guy
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
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
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
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
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
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
license from the U.S. government to take humanitarian supplies to Iraq,
the group has been threatened with $163,000 in fines. Technically, Luke
liable for contributing to that “crime,” though I expect the Clinton
administration is not so vindictive that they would prosecute
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
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.
Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas
member of the Nowar Collective. He can be reached at