Father Bill Foley, a Jesuit pediatrician who lives down the hall from me, has often struck me as one of the most intrepid men I’ve known. Even when he proposed to me that I accompany him and six others on a journey to Iraq over the Christmas holidays, I was somewhat awestruck by his boldness as I fretted over back problems and scheduling difficulties, which I finally and too easily interpreted as excuses not to go.
And here he was now, speaking to the Jesuit community upon his return, recounting his experience of the journey and the people he met, beginning with words I would never have expected from the likes of him. "I have never been so frightened in my life."
Although it had been his third trip to the Near East on behalf of the sick and dying children there, Bill Foley, steel nerves and all, had been scared. It was not because of infirmity or indisposition. He was not even frightened by the physical challenges of the long, arduous trek from Amman to Bagdad (made furtively overland, since our nation efficiently and effectively prohibits flying into Iraq).
Perhaps it was the fear of being caught or killed. If caught, Bill could have been subjected to 12 years in jail and a million-dollar fine. If killed, it might be in one of the ways the U.S. goverment fears if Americans travel to Iraq: They might be blown to smithereens by U.S. bombs. Or they might live to report the ugliness that is done in our names. This, no doubt, has led our State Department to do everything in its power to discourage John Paul II’s pilgrimage to Iraq’s holy historic places. "It would not be safe for him." Indeed.
If we have not bombed Iraq back to the stone age, we have certainly tried. While salaries of professionals like doctors, lawyers and teachers in Iraq were over $100,000 in 1990, they now make a few dollars a month. As for the physicians, they do not have even penicillin to treat the simplest of infections. What is more, the infrastructure of the country is ruined. Power stations are destroyed. Potable water is rare. There are no pencils and paper. Hospital equipment, no replacement parts being available, sits unused. Infant mortality, which was 0.1 per 1,000 in 1990, is now 40 per 1,000. The United Nations estimates 5,000 children die each month from causes like malnutrition, infection, dysentery and cancers.
Dr. Foley, who is the director of Boy’s Hope Girl’s Hope International, estimated that half the children he saw were suffering from mental retardation or delayed growth. Was this what frightened him?
Or was it the bombs? We still regularly drop explosives on this ancient Abrahamic land, especially if we think the no-fly borders we dictated have been crossed.
Worse than bombs, however, is the arrogance of ruthless power. In our efforts to topple Saddam Hussein, our government has called and raised the monstrosities he bet against his people. Abhorring his heartlessness to Iraqis, we have attempted to break their hearts. To bring him down, we have brought the poor, once again, to their knees. Apparently, from this position, they will overthrow our favorite iconic "foreign devil." The 60,000 children who die every year as the result of our sanctions are the collateral damage we are willing to sacrifice at the altar of our national ego. We thought we could "bring down Saddam" by wrecking his country and maiming his people, but rather than admit our sanctions have done nothing to dislodge the tyrant, rather than allow visitors to inspect the harm we have inflicted, we persist in the bull-headed policy of surrogate punishment.
Perhaps what really frightened Dr. Bill Foley was us. We go on, we ignore, we celebrate our Christmases, we plan our Lenten liturgies, we run our elections, and we persist in ignoring the voices who speak on behalf of the defenseless.
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example, has taken a stand against the sanctions imposed on Iraq. How is it that we Catholics seem not to know of it? How is it that we seem not to know even what is going on? Certainly we have been alerted. Shortly before Bill Foley’s journey to Iraq, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, president of the N.C.C.B., wrote the following:
After more than nine years of unparalleled and unmerited suffering, it is long past time to end the economic embargo against Iraq. Too many have suffered for too long. Efforts to mitigate the suffering inflicted by sanctions, namely the oil-for-food program, are important but insufficient. The comprehensive sanctions have long since ceased to be a morally acceptable tool of diplomacy, because they have inflicted indiscriminate and unacceptable suffering on the Iraqi people. They violate a fundamental principle of engagement in conflictstates may not seek to destroy a government or a military by targeting the innocent.
Dr. Bill Foley may have been frightened by his firsthand encounter with the evils done in our name. And many of us, like myself, may be intimidated by the prospect of responding to the voice of the poor. What is scarier still is the fact that so few seem willing even to listen.