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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

September 9, 2003
   Vol. 1, No. 24

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

You want who to do what? Well, par-don me!

By Joan Chittister,OSB

When my mother found my impertinence absolutely too incredible to believe, she had the ominous habit of saying over and over again, "Pardon me? Par-don me!" There was a heavy accent on the first syllable, a question built into the last. I thought I couldn't possibly get far enough away from that kind of disdain soon enough to suit me. Then about a week ago, I heard myself saying the very same thing, the very same way. "We want what?" I thought. "Pardon me!"

I'm still trying to figure it all out -- and my fear is that I have.

There is no doubt in my mind that international relations are surely different in quality and content than most interpersonal engagements purport to be. But how different? After all, the individuals involved are still human beings, aren't they? With feelings? And brains? So tell me how it is that simply because the conflict in question is global it doesn't have something, however small, to do with being sensible.

For instance: As I understand it, we -- the United States -- decided that the United Nations erred when member countries argued that they had not yet seen enough "proof" of Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" to justify invading the place. (Never mind for now that it seems that they were right and we were wrong. After all, we quickly came up with new reasons for going in: The Kurds, the Shiites and the Iraqi economy.)

What's more, both U.N. inspectors and the Security Council judged, in contrast to us, that since a lot of countries don't fulfill U.N. mandates -- starting with the United States -- a breach of contract that was more than 12 years old and not clearly proven did not now justify military action.

The United States and minor contingents from a few other nations -- called euphemistically 'The Coalition of the Willing" -- invaded Iraq anyway, the disapproval of the international community demonstrated in both streets and parliaments around the world, be damned. Instead, playground politics dominated the scene. Pushed, we pushed back. So, maybe we did push the wrong people about the wrong things? Who cares? We showed them.

International heads turned everywhere. Having survived the Cold War, the world now found itself facing a single behemoth with the urge to reshape the rest of the world in its own image. Whole groups of people in Europe, let alone the Muslim world, began to mourn the loss of the Soviet Union and the balance of power one superpower had been able to exert on another one.

But we persisted. We waded into the Middle East, virtually alone, righteous, devil-may-care, all guns blazing. We guaranteed "shock and awe" to anyone anywhere whom we might accuse of harboring in its midst those who dared to agree with those who dared to confront us. And we cut through Iraq like butter -- giving rise to the notion that the rest of the world may have been right in the first place: Iraq wasn't much of a threat at all. Shame on us.

But shame is not an American virtue.

So now the behemoth is back. Only this time, what we want the United Nations to do is to clean up the mess we made for them, for us and for the world.

We are now insisting that countries who refused to be part of our invading army become part of our occupying one. We want them to keep the peace that we disturbed and subdue what we can't -- the spirit of resistance in an invaded nation, the spirit of madness in an angry one, the spirit of religious fundamentalism in a secularized one. Or, to put it another way, we had the party, trashed the apartment and now we want the neighbors who refused to be part of the debacle in the first place to come in and clean up the mess.

Pardon me?

The United Nations may do it, of course, if for no other reason than to restore order and trust to the people of Iraq whose economy is shattered, whose security is ruptured, whose lives and culture lay in waste and whose internal unity, whatever once shaped it, lies now at the mercy of warring factions everywhere.

Why would we do such an incredible thing? What could possibly drive us to this kind of international brazenness?

One explanation, of course, is honor. We did what no one else would do: We removed a dictator from office. The problem with that explanation is that we ourselves supported and maintained so many of them -- Marcos, Noriega, the Shah, Pinochet, Somoza and, oh yes, Saddam Hussein.

Another explanation, on the other hand, just might be a peculiar brand of defeat. The kind that declares having won a papier-mâché war and then has to admit losing the peace. The kind that leaves a country without clean water, electricity, oil, medical help and jobs for years. The kind that leads people to miss what they just lost in their lives: good order, however high the price.

We know that unless someone gets us out of this hole, we're in it politically, militarily and financially for a long, long time. Maybe all the way through a presidential election in fact. And maybe even beyond. Meanwhile, whatever reason we had for going into Iraq in the first place keeps getting dimmer and less justifiable by the day. Meanwhile, our own economy and culture and integrity begin to deteriorate for we-can't-remember-what. Meanwhile, terrorists are still out there somewhere, we're told, and Saddam Hussein is not. Meanwhile, it's costing us an average of $4 billion a month and one dead American soldier a day, never mind the thousands of wounded as well.

You would at least think, wouldn't you, that our British allies, so experienced in the loss of occupied territories would have warned us about the hubris of thinking that one people can govern another. But no, Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George Bush say that they are going "to stay the course." Par-don me? Who's staying the course? Them or us?

From where I stand, it looks more like its our schools, our medical system, our international credibility and our integrity, already long shattered, that will, in the long run, pay the price for this one -- both literally and morally. Maybe we need to remember the lesson from the Second Book of Chronicles: Solomon asked then for "the wisdom and knowledge it would take to govern a great people." Good idea. After all, shock and awe do not seem to be working.

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