The author is professor of English, Jadavpur University, Calcutta
Switching on the television around one o’clock on Monday, I caught the end of a report by the BBC correspondent, Daniel Lak, circumspectly attired in his bulletproof vest, interviewing some residents of an Iraqi city that may have been Tikrit. Close to the end of his interview, he was clearly not getting the answers he wanted. The residents, people on the street, kept on asking him why there was no law and order, no signs of a better life for Iraqis after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
On the defensive, Lak found himself repeating that it had only been five days since the “allies” took over. It was too early to put a better government in place. Then deciding, like Bush and Blair, that attack was superior to defence, he countered their questions with one of his own. Five days, five months, or five years ago, he said, they could not have stood on the street and answered a Western journalist’s questions. If they had revealed the “truth”, they would have been taken away and silenced. Wasn’t the fact that they could speak to him today a gain for them' Wasn’t it the sign of a better life'
The residents were clearly unimpressed by the question and its expected answer. One man spoke of what they had lost, of people whose homes had been destroyed, who had nothing to eat. Lak, desperate, said his question hadn’t been answered and asked it again, urging the interpreter to convey it to his recalcitrant listeners. Another man replied that they had no water, no food, no electricity, repeating the word electricity in English. Others tried to join in, not quite hostile but clearly angry, assailing the interpreter with their questions. At a loss, Lak cut the interview short, congratulating both the interpreter and his fellow-Iraqis on their “courage” in speaking to him in dangerous conditions.
I turned to CNN. If I had been repelled by Lak’s complacence, what I found here was horrific. This was a human-interest story about the fate of Ali Ismail Abbas, the Iraqi child whose tight-lipped, stoical face, eyes bright with tears, has been flashed around the world as one of the enduring images of this war’s cost in human pain. Ali, 12 years old, lost his whole family in the bombing of a civilian neighbourhood in Baghdad. He suffered terrible burns, and both his arms had to be amputated because of the extent of his injuries. In hospital, as first reported, he was distraught, asking why the Americans had killed his mother and father, whether the doctors could give him his arms back, what he would do without his hands.
The story was one that appealed to the Western press. Among so many killed, so many bloody and maimed babies, so many dead mothers, so many husbands and wives looking for the remains of their families, so many little girls and boys wide-eyed with pain and terror, the image of Ali Ismail Abbas made a space for itself, inducing well-meaning individuals to come forward with offers of help, newspapers to run appeals, even Blair to promise assistance.
A few days after the first stories were run, reports from the Baghdad hospital said he would die in the next few days of septic shock unless he got treatment unavailable in Iraq. Ali’s doctor, indeed, felt it would be better if the boy died soon, rather than endure more pain with no hope of improvement. He seemed a humane person. I found myself wishing, like him, for an early end to Ali’s suffering.
But Ali’s case had become by this time an occasion for a hugely public display of Western humanitarian concern. The CNN story I viewed was a salve to the West’s collective “conscience”. Ali was to be saved. He had been rushed to a special hospital in Kuwait. His burns were being treated with the latest antibiotics. Though still horrifically injured, he had already undergone a skin graft and would undergo more. His condition was no longer critical. Organizations from all over the world were offering to fit him with artificial limbs. The CNN report featured specialists on burns and plastic surgery, a woman who had lost her limbs in an accident speaking about the possibility of a good life even after such a disaster, a psychologist talking about the need to treat his trauma. In the midst of all this was footage of Ali himself, a small figure in bandages dwarfed by his hospital bed, groaning in pain, tears or sweat being wiped repeatedly from his pale face.
Iraq has many Alis. It had them from before the war, from a time when, as a result of UN sanctions, essential medicines were denied to the Iraqi populace. An appallingly large number of children then died. Is it surprising that Ali had to be flown to Kuwait to get the antibiotics he needed' What the United States of America and Britain want to do with Ali is more or less what they want to do with Iraq; destroy its structures and institutions, kill, maim and wound its people, then hold out the promise of humanitarian aid, reconstruction, a new and better life. This is the better life Daniel Lak was talking about in his BBC interview: the life where one is free to talk to Western reporters.
Lak’s interviewees knew from experience that the hungry are not free. They were not so naïve as to imagine that Western freedom comes without a price, or without the restrictions that the West may deem to be good for you. Words like truth, freedom and liberation, so far from meaning what we think, might turn out to mean collaboration and invasion and colonization. Like Ali with his prosthetic limbs, the new Iraq promised by Western democracies will be a country that has received horrific injuries at their hands, suffered a savage and barbaric mutilation of its people, its institutions, its heritage, only to have them reconstructed in a manner calculated to satisfy the “humanitarian” conscience.
What is appalling in all this is something beyond hypocrisy, beyond illegality, beyond the material interests that pushed the war through, beyond the knowledge that the governments which sent in their armies do not care about the loss of human lives or the looting of cultural treasures. These are shocking enough. But what Lak’s questions and Ali’s case demonstrate is the ease with which humane values can be pressed to the service of a rapacious and calculated barbarism.
In the coming months, we shall be hearing a great deal about the reconstruction of Iraq, about the humanitarian aid flowing through international agencies, about the relief workers, the adoption programmes, the setting-up of funds. As in the case of Afghanistan, more will be promised than provided, and in any case the planned reconstruction is already marked by the same venality that propelled the war. But the word, humanitarian, may still carry a positive charge, persuading many that good will come out of bad. The West will congratulate itself on its display of money and power in worthy projects like the rehabilitation of Ali Ismail Abbas, and the United Nations will turn its largely ineffective attention to channelling aid.
Perhaps it is time to lay the ghost of pity to rest. Humanitarianism, like its discredited relative humanism, is no more than a kind of reflex, the twinge that people feel in the presence of pain. It is productive of charity, but a charity directed as much towards oneself as towards another, enabling the giver to feel much better than the receiver. It is not an ethical principle, not a form of morality. It is therefore perfectly able to cooperate with the actions that produce it. As Blake pointed out, “Pity would be no more/ If we did not make somebody Poor/ And Mercy no more could be/ If all were as happy as we.” Saving Ali, like bringing “democracy” to Iraq, rides on the back of maiming Ali and selling arms to Saddam Hussein.