Thursday, May 15, 2003

he mass graves found in Iraq are troubling, if not surprising. As others have pointed out, we've always known that Saddam killed a lot of people, and throughout much of that time he was doing it with the implicit or explicit blessings of the United States...and, to be fair, much of the west, especially during the Iran-Iraq war.

There is, however, a paradox at the core of the massive coverage of this situation. The terrible thing about mass graves and the hidden slaughter that prompts their usage is that they aren't either a new or exclusive thing. There are, no doubt, mass graves on every continent in the world, with the possible exception of North America. Certainly the South American rightist dictatorships that the United States backed in their fight against Communism left their countries riddled with them, and the Khmer Rouge were infamous for their pyramids of skulls. The only way that people heard about these travesties was, maybe, through some sort of leftist agitator. Therein lies the paradox- these mass graves are being used to justify the historically unique intervention of the United States by the supposedly unique evil of the Iraqi regime, yet the existence of these graves only shows that there was nothing unique about Saddam. His evil was a sadly common one.

Saddam was indeed the "tinpot dictator" that those opposed to his media transformation into Hitler reincarnated called him. He didn't appear to have much in the way of WMDs, and his megalomaniacal tendencies aren't exactly unique. It reminds us, however, that that term carries with it a whole series of horrors that a lot of people in the west are unfamiliar with, and that everybody else should be.

So the question is, what is to be done? (Ironically enough, that was the name of one of Lenin's best known books, and you know how well that turned out.) It is entirely illogical and devious to attempt to employ mass graves as an ex-post-facto justification for intervention, because the point is to prevent such things in the first place. By attempting to employ them (and the other horrors of dictatorship) as sole justification from the get-go, however, intellectual honesty implies that if its justification in one situation, it's justification in any other.

This drops Bush (and his supporters) right back into the "why Saddam" quandry. It prompts a choice- either intervene anywhere where mass graves and the like exist, or don't intervene at all. Choosing to intervene in one area and not another may grant someone the responsibility for ending horror in one area, but also carries with it the responsibility for continuing it in another. Yet it's impossible to intervene everywhere. Without some other form of justification, then, America is caught in a terrible and impossible quandry, where it decides who should live and who should die. Before this current war, that justification was national interest, but the intervention in Iraq is only barely in the national interests of the United States- it could (and likely has) prompted more terrorist attacks, bolster the cause of Islamism, and create a divided country at the center of the middle east. WMD was supposed to be the justification now, but that's come up empty. Multilateralism and respect for national sovereignty can be used as rules of thumb as to what's acceptable and what isn't, but that's been thrown out the window.

So the next time someone is "disappeared", the question will hang in the air.

"Why them, and not us"?

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