IRREGULAR TIMESETHICAL ISSUES IN WAR RESISTANCE
WHERE DO YOU DRAW THE LINE?

by Lars Svalbard

On March 20, 2003, the day after the United States began its attack on Iraq, Sand Francisco erupted in rage. Anti-war demonstrators swarmed downtown, practicing civil disobedience on a massive scale. Some blocked off traffic and public buildings. A few spraypainted graffiti and smashed windows. The police found themselves outnumbered and outmaneuvered, despite arresting over 1,300 people.

I wasn't there. For weeks, I had intended to go up to the city the day after the war started. But when the war finally did begin, I was out of town on an extended weekend and missed the whole thing.

I'm sorry to have missed all the fun. But on the other hand, not having been there gives me a chance to think some things over. Had I been there, driven by anger and swept up in the crowd, how far would I have gone? How far should I have gone?

IRREGULAR MATH: WHAT'S A LIFE WORTH?

Needless to say, people trying to get to work in San Francisco that day were less than pleased. Traffic was backed up for miles on all the highways coming into the city. Drivers were upset--yeah, the war may be wrong and all, but that's no reason to make ME wait in traffic.

Well, let's take a look at that with some irregular math. Let's say you were caught in traffic and forced to wait an hour. That's one hour out of your life that's gone for ever. Now let's say that the total number of Iraqis killed in this war comes out to about the same as in the last Gulf War--somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred thousand. Just for the sake of argument, we'll say their death in the war takes an average of thirty years off their lives. That's 100,000 people, multiplied by 30 years, multiplied by 365 days in a year, multiplied by 24 hours in a day, for a grand total of 26,280,000,000 hours taken from Iraqis' lives. The claim that the war in Iraq isn't worth an hour of your time is based on the implicit assumption that you are over twenty-six billion times more important than an Iraqi.

Sadly, that sounds like a pretty accurate reflection of American values. Twenty-eight hundred Americans died on 9/11, and we were all in shock. For us, from that day forward, the world forever changed. Foreign policy and domestic priorities got a dramatic overhaul. Letterman and Leno suspended their shows for weeks, and left out the jokes when they first came back. It was no time for kidding around. On the other hand, over a million Iraqis have died over the last twelve years as a result of our bombings and sanctions, and it's business as usual for us here. No hours of somber reflection on the comedy shows; no misty-eyed interviews with Barbara Walters to see how the families are coping with their losses.

SO WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT IT?

One of the strongest arguments in favor of blocking off traffic and otherwise disrupting a city is that it SHOULDN'T be business as usual. There's a certain moral absurdity inherent in the American experience of war. Some country halfway around the world is transformed into a living hell, while all that happens over here is that we get a new TV show for a couple of weeks called "Desert Storm," "Just Cause," or "Operation Iraqi Freedom." The radical imbalance of consequences puts us into a surreal ethical vacuum. For us, the war is an electronic illusion we can turn off whenever we want. The Iraqis suffering by the millions aren't real to us.

Disruptive demonstrations bring real-life consequences home. If you're stuck in traffic, it's really happening to you, and you can't turn it off. If a demonstration can bring a billionth of the consequences of the war to America and nobody gets seriously hurt, couldn't we use a little dose of reality?

On the other hand, even a billionth of the consequences of war brings real suffering. People miss work and lose money. Some of the people caught in traffic are nurses, doctors, teachers and social workers. If they don't get to work, there are serious negative consequences.

So what DO you do? For the last six months, I've been writing and calling the President, Senators, and Representatives. I've attended nine peaceful law-abiding demonstrations, four of which were really huge. These all had an impact, and I'm glad I did them. But at the end of the day, "President" Bush just brushed it all aside with the flip comment that "democracy is a wonderful thing." (Not that he should change his policies based on what the people want...) When you've got a "president" doing something so flagrantly immoral in the face of American opinion and world opinion, maybe action is called for that MAKES people listen. What form that action should take, though, is a murky moral judgment.

The bottom line is, when you live in a country where the government is behaving unethically, it's hard to act in a way that is moral and productive.



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