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One Tiny Little Creature

… Ivan said with emotion … “Tell me yourself directly, I challenge you—reply: imagine that you yourself are erecting the edifice of human fortune with the goal of, at the finale, making people happy, or at least giving them peace and quiet, but that in order to do it, it would be necessary and unavoidable to torture to death only one tiny little creature … and on its unavenged tears to found that edifice, would you agree to be the architect on those conditions, tell me and tell me truly?”

“No, I would not agree,” Alyosha said quietly.

—The Brothers Karamazov,
Fyodor Dostoevsky

On a Saturday morning in September, at the Al-Mansour Pediatric Hospital in Baghdad, mothers sat as usual on bare mattresses next to children languishing with leukemia and cancer. The youngsters are not getting adequate chemotherapy; the U.S.-led embargo continues to block some crucial medications. Walking through the cancer ward, I remembered the response from then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when, during a 60 Minutes interview that aired on May 12, 1996, CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl asked: “We have heard that a half a million children have died…. Is the price worth it?” Albright replied: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.”

So typical of us to ask if the “price” is worth it. The question itself is kind of crazy, although we ask and answer it all the time. What does it cost us to kill an Iraqi child? And who is paying this price? Shouldn’t this kind of question be directed to the child’s parents? Or—God help us—do we literally mean what it cost in dollars and cents?

Let’s take time out for a moment to ponder the impracticalities of the hour, the non-military, the non-public-policy, the non-national-defense aspects of the killing we are girding ourselves up to do. Let’s be silly and spend a minute or two on the moral foundation for sending the unmanned bomber drones out to romp about Iraq with lethal effect. Let’s be unrealistic and look at two questions: the first concerns killing civilians, and the second concerns torturing that child, Dostoevsky’s tiny little creature.

The agony, the death and maiming of non-soldiers, be they children or anyone else, is justified under the doctrine of collateral damage. As long as those doing the killing are not aiming at noncombatants, the accidental death or disfigurement of those noncombatants is regrettable but not culpable. Over a period of time a lot of people who have no part in the battle can die. Most of the tens of millions who perished in the wars of the 20th century were civilians, a hefty percentage of whom were not deliberately slaughtered.

The doctrine of collateral damage, as it is spun out from time to time at the Pentagon press office lectern by Donald Rumsfeld, admits of no qualifications or exceptions. No culpability to the killers, only to the government of the killed. If, for example, Saddam Hussein were to put anti-aircraft equipment in a kindergarten, the blame for the subsequent deaths of the children from a nicely aimed smart bomb, which did no damage to nearby homes, would be Hussein’s alone. There is no balancing of goods and bads, no criterion of military urgency, no corollary to the collateral damage doctrine enumerating situations in which it would be better to leave Hussein’s guns intact than to fire on the human shields.

That kind of consideration is inadmissible since not shooting increases the danger to your own people, your own pilots, and no country has been more successful at killing without being killed than the United States. There is no chivalry, no code of pagan warrior nobility in advanced forms of American war-making. The thought of endangering oneself to save an innocent has no place in electronic soldiering.

But the morality of collateral damage doesn’t go to the question Ivan poses to his brother Alyosha. The nub of that question is, will you torture a child, if that is what you must do to make people, all people, happy? This question arose the instant the United States announced it was going to war against Iraq, not only to disarm the country but to effect “regime change,” which is, of course, Newspeak for overthrowing the government.

Alyosha says he could not torture a child even if the result were the happiness of mankind. In short, torture of a child is in itself, an act of such wickedness that no circumstances, no rationalizations, no explanations can make it morally permissible. It’s just wrong.

A regime change war in Iraq will involve the torture of more than one child. (A child’s leg caught under a wall is as much torture as anything administered by a man with a thumbscrew.) Aloysha will not torture for a reason so powerful as human happiness. What would he say if Ivan asked him if he would torture a child for regime change? There is a goal less elevated than human happiness.

Assuming this is to be another war in which we suffer no losses which are not accidentally self-inflicted, it is the Iraqis on whom the death tax will be levied—so many in the prime of life, so many who are old and, I suppose, discardable, and so many children. We’re told it’s for a good cause, which, if they don’t understand now, they’ll understand later and thank us for.

Let’s not indulge in exaggeration. Let’s not call the impending fracasso in Iraq naked aggression. If anything this will be clothed aggression, bedecked in UN resolutions; press conferences; and infoblasts of truth, near truth, and screaming omissions. So let freedom’s war trumpets blare around the globe.

Whether or not the small noises made by the tortured child will be heard is hard to say.


Nicholas von Hoffman is a former columnist for the Washington Post and Point-Counterpoint commentator for CBS’s 60 Minutes. He is the author of many books, most recently Capitalist Fools: Tales of American Business, from Carnegie to Forbes to the Milken Gang (1992).

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