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26 July 2002
In early 1945, Hiram Bingham faced a tough decision: he could follow his government's orders to ignore the Nazi holocaust, thereby keeping his comfortable position as US vice-consul in Marseilles, or he could defy State Department policy by issuing life-saving US visas to French Jews and anti-Nazi activists. Bingham chose the latter, and as a result helped 2,500 escape persecution. Bingham's reward? He lost his post, was drummed out of the Service, and died almost penniless.
Fast forward to 2002, and Hiram Bingham is being feted as a hero. US secretary of state Colin Powell praised his risking "life and career" to do the right thing, and the American Foreign Service association recently gave Bingham a posthumous award for "constructive dissent."
"Constructive dissent" - now there's an interesting term, especially in these "you're with us or with the enemy" days of equating dissent with terrorism. It makes you wonder what kind of modern-day law breakers will be trumpeted as heroes 60 years down the road ... and which of our contemporary holocausts will be seen as worthy to have fought.
In 1986, a former nuclear technician in an Israeli plutonium processing plant had a tough choice: Mordechai Vanunu could stay quiet and keep his comfortable life, or risk it all by exposing the truth about Israel's nuclear program. Vanunu chose the latter and proved that, contrary to repeated denials, Israel was a fully nuclear state possessing hundreds of thermonuclear bombs, with accelerated clandestine manufacturing of further nuclear weapons. Vanunu's reward? A conviction of treason in an Israeli court, 12 years in solitary confinement, and a prison sentence that continues to this day.
As the world slouches towards all-out war in the Middle East, we continue to deny both the potential nuclear component, and its predictably devastating consequences. We read that war is necessary because Iraqis are evil and have mass weapons of destruction, and we're told not to worry our little heads about the accelerated US military build up in Jordan and elsewhere in the region.
But it doesn't take a genius to connect these dots. Under pressure to explain past shady business deals, Bush and Cheney need a military diversion; double prize for them in that removing Saddam Hussein would open up Iraq's rich oilfields (and profits) to their oil crony's Western corporations.
Meanwhile, Israel currently has 400 nuclear weapons (including a "boosted" bomb up to a thousand times stronger than a regular nuclear device) and Bush has helpfully declared that the US reserves the right to first use of nuclear weapons, even on non-nuclear states.
So how farfetched then is the scenario of a "Wag the Dog" US invasion of Iraq, the predictable mass uprising in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere in the Arab World, and a threatened Israel following Bush's lead in first strike with nuclear weapons?
How implausible is a coming Apocalypse?
One point is clear: if there ever were a time for constructive dissent, it's now. Staring down the barrel of the escalating Mid-East crisis, each of us has the responsibility to make sure our government prevents a cataclysmic disaster. The reward? It's the right thing to do.