Our Wrath Is Righteous - But Is it Right?

Suppose you live in a town in the Wild West. Call it Glory Gulch. An armed and dangerous killer, a wily career criminal who has eluded capture for years, is at large. The sheriff, under pressure from the towns-folk to see to their safety and security, decides to put the man's wife and children in jail.

“Your husband is a wicked and treacherous man,” he says to the woman, “so we're locking you and your kids up until he lays down his arms and turns himself in. Until then, we'll feed you all meager rations, and you can't have any medical care. We'll make sure he hears about how you're suffering for his crimes. That should make him surrender — and teach all bad guys a lesson about messing with the good people of Glory Gulch.”

As a result of the poor nutrition and inadequate care, one of the children dies. Who is to blame for the death — the criminal or the sheriff?

The sheriff, of course: A good end can never justify evil means.

Fast-forward to 2001. Replace “Wild West” with “Middle East” and the at-large killer with the president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein — a dictator who has used chemical warfare against a minority group in his own country, lobbed missiles at population centers in Israel and is even now attempting to develop weapons of mass destruction. One of the primary targets of those weapons, should they come to be created, would be his sworn enemy — the United States.

That threat is reason enough to do what we can to apprehend the criminal and protect ourselves. But does it justify putting the Iraqi people through protracted hardship?

Secretary of State Colin Powell has given some indication of a softening of U.S. trade sanctions aimed at Iraq. That's good. But will they be softened enough?

The United States has continued an embargo against the nation of Iraq that began before the Gulf War. The purpose has been to end the threat to peace the Iraqi government under Saddam poses to this region. This siege has resulted in the deaths of many innocent Iraqi civilians. So the question is: Is this action, like that of the sheriff of Glory Gulch, a case of murder — or does the threat posed by Hussein somehow justify the actions taken by the United States in conjunction with the United Nations?

Before we try to answer that question, let us examine the price the people of Iraq have paid for the embargo.

The People Pay

The World Food Organization and UNICEF have estimated that, over the past ten years, more than 1 million people have died as a result of the sanctions. Children under five account for half of these deaths.

UNICEF has reported a six-fold to eight-fold increase in the fatality rates in children due to diarrhea and pneumonia from 1991 to 1996. According to UNICEF, 50,000 adult deaths are caused by the sanction each year. Repeated bombings by the United States have rendered almost all of the water treatment plants inoperable. As a result of bombings directed at sewage treatment plants, raw sewage flows in the streets, causing much localized illness.

Meanwhile the United States routinely denies crucial medical supplies to Iraq. For example, we regularly ban the shipping of the spare parts needed to repair the water and sewage systems.

Our government has banned powdered baby formula because it has phosphates, which can be used to make bombs. We ban the chlorine needed for water purification because it can be used for chemical warfare. We do the same with many drugs as well. We allow life support machines to come into Iraq, but ban the computers needed to run them. We allow dentists' chairs, but ban the compressors needed to operate the drills. We allow insulin for diabetics, but ban the syringes needed to administer the medicine.

In other words, the embargo itself has proven to be a truly effective weapon of mass destruction.

In recent months, planes from various nations have begun landing in Baghdad on humanitarian missions. These flights are a positive trend, but as noted by Jesuit Father Simon Harak, a founding member of Voices in the Wilderness, an organization dedicated toward ending the United States-led Embargo against Iraq: “Occasional humanitarian flights from 40 different nations are not going to help 23 million people.”

Our embargo has proven an effective weapon of mass destruction.

That is because the infrastructure of Iraq has been laid waste by repeated bombing, and the United States continuously vetoes the shipment of the equipment needed to rebuild it. “As long as the infrastructure remains destroyed, there can never be any substantive recovery by Iraq,” says Father Simon, who also points out that the United States and United Kingdom have frequently bombed civilian targets.

In February he learned from Archbishop Djibrie Kassab, of the Catholic Archdiocese of Basra and Ur, that the bombing in Basra was so intense that the Catholic cathedral collapsed on Christmas Eve of 2000.

Lives of the Innocent

The embargo has killed or caused grievous suffering among hundreds of thousands of persons whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

During the last 11 years, three senior U.N. administrators of Iraqi relief aid — Denis Halliday, Hans von Sponek and Jutta Burghardt — have resigned in protest once they recognized the harm caused by the sanctions. Halliday calls the sanctions genocidal. “We are destroying an entire society,” he says. “It is as simple and as terrifying as that.”

But Madeline Albright, former secretary of state (under Bill Clinton) gave a different response. The “60 Minutes” correspondent Leslie Stahl once pointed out to her that the children who died as a result of the economic sanctions were reater in number than all of those who died in Hiroshima. Stahl asked, “Is the price worth it?”

Albright responded, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, is worth it.”

When does any price justify killing innocent children?

Pope John Paul II has spoken out repeatedly against the U.N. sanctions.

“The weak and the innocent cannot pay for mistakes for which they are not responsible,” said the Holy Father in a 1998 speech to diplomats. Why this response? Because of what the Catholic faith teaches us about the dignity of human life. According to this teaching, it is unjust to harm an innocent person or group of persons even when such an action is directed toward a good end.

The Holy Father's condemnation of the Iraqi embargo resonates with other Catholic moral teachings as well. After all, the same reverence for the dignity of life leads Catholics to defend life in the womb. Think of this: If it is unjust to try to harm an innocent person, then both the embargo and abortion are misguided responses. If the lives of the innocent must be respected in foreign lands, then they must be respected in the womb as well.

A heightened awareness of the dignity of human life can give rise to deeper questions than we are used to asking.

For those who already believe that the embargo is morally wrong, the question arises, “Aren't the unborn likewise guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time?” For those who already believe that the life of the unborn is sacred, the question is: “Aren't the lives of the citizens of Iraq — especially the children — precious in the eyes of God?”

And, right now, the question we need to be asking ourselves as Catholic Americans is this. “How would we want the world to respond if our families lived in Iraq?”

Leo White is a visiting professor of philosophy at LaSalle University in Philadelphia.