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Give Bill a break, and do something about Saddam, mother of all bullies.

One's heart aches for the eight killed in our recent attack on Iraq. If one was a cleaning woman, in the wrong place at the wrong time, we grieve for her. If one was an intelligence expert, he may still have hated Saddam's guts, may have seen his job as the least of several evils, may have had a family to feed, so we can grieve for him. And if one was an artist, as has been said, we grieve for the artist.

But we have only a limited amount of grief, a limited capacity to carry others' pain, to respond to evil with outrage. The dilemma is whom to expend our limited outrage or compassion on.

One difference between liberals and conservatives is who or what provokes their outrage or compassion, the unborn fetus or the death row inmate, this war or that peace. Meanwhile, during the seconds it takes to read this, untold innocent people are being tortured and killed, a bullet here, a knife to the throat there, or a piece of a U.S. smart bomb for the poor cleaning woman who yet had the good fortune to be killed by Clinton's strike and thus win more sympathizers.

The world can't face too much reality without going crazy. This gives the media and certain public people, such as politicians, a great opportunity to pick and choose the focus of the world's attention. Reality right now is Mogadishu and Baghdad and Bosnia, while in undiscovered corners of the globe the nameless die, and the silence in which they die is some kind of great sin of omission if not of commission.

Many liberals, grimly holding on to the hopes they had earlier pinned on Clinton, say he had no right to risk killing the eight. They are saying more, of course: about how countries and individuals should relate to each other, about pacifism, about the national security state, even about the purpose of life on earth.

But then there is the real world. In real life Saddam is a bully, a killer. I confess to being ambivalent during George Bush's war: One is not supposed to wish anyone's death, but I was in imminent danger of being elated if stray shrapnel should demolish the Baghdad butcher.

This attitude may be an outrage to the Fifth Commandment, to pacifism and other principles I hold in high esteem. But do I willingly let Saddam kill more Kurds tomorrow, for example eight? Or 8,000?

A new book called, appropriately, Cruelty and Silence, relates the story of a Kurdish child named Taimour. He and all the other villagers were crammed into trucks and taken to the Saudi border. They were then blindfolded, shoved into huge pits and machine-gunned to death. The child, though twice wounded, had the instinct to play dead. He later caught up with local Bedouins, and thus the story was told to a world already on anguish overload.

In the face of such inhumanity, tags such as liberal or conservative become meaningless, as many liberals' recent eagerness to bring some Serbs to overdue justice indicates.

Clinton can't prove that by bombing Baghdad and killing eight he saved the lives of eight or more now or later. Neither can anyone prove that by taking on Hitler the Allies saved more people than were killed.

You can't kill eight to save others, some will say, the old the-end-does-not-justify-the-means gambit. This takes us ever deeper into ethical niceties. Clinton can say his soldiers didn't set out to kill the eight. An unfortunate side effect, he can say. Collateral damage. And on the subject of niceties, let us not fret about the just-war theory. In 17 or so centuries, theologians and everyone else have virtually always managed to bend it to their purpose, their country or their cause.

There are better ways to fix the world than bombing Baghdad, the good guys say. Reform the unjust and cruel system. Teach peace. Teach conflict resolution. Teach idealism, even religion.

Hard to argue with that. The call to a nobler life has softened some really hard hearts and worked occasional wonders. But these ideals, too, are shifting sands. Yesterday, we thought we and Christopher Columbus had civilized America for humanity and God; today we're not so sure. Two years ago, we thought we had a new world order; the irony is, we do; it's at least as bad as the old one.

The thing is, life is savage. Almost every living thing kills or is killed by the living thing just above or below it on the survival-of-the-fittest chain. I heard a man on the radio - an expert - say a thousand million were killed by tuberculosis last century and this. It softens the blow that TB was at least an impersonal agent. But humans have, they say, killed approximately another hundred million humans in war in our century; not to mention all the other ways we killed one another.

What does redemption mean in such a world? Do we pray for Saddam and leave it at that? Fix the system? Do you think you can fix our particular system to satisfy you and Saddam? Saddam would have you for dinner. And do you for a minute, if we got rid of Saddam, he would be succeeded by Francis of Assisi or Martin Luther King Jr.?

Perhaps we have to start from scratch every day, specially today, making the world over. It seems we have finally, this century, given up on utopias. We all say on bad days that we hope for better days, but mostly we abuse the very idea of hope, which is not a sop for bad days but which kicks in, if it kicks in at all, when every solution on God's earth has failed and only the impossible will work, and perhaps that's where we are in this year of the Lord.

But to pick on Clinton because eight died (there are, many will say, other good reasons to pick on him, and perhaps there's the rub: Perhaps it's not so much the eight we bemoan as a bigger loss of innocence in a president we thought, for a magic while, could match the ideals we hungered for him to have and to implement), without offering a way to keep Saddam from killing innumerable, innocent, nameless others, leaves this suddenly wobbly liberal with the mother of all dilemmas.
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Author:Farrell, Michael J.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jul 16, 1993
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