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Action Alert 

Lambs to the Slaughter: It Can Never Be Acceptable to Sacrifice Civilians on the Altar of Military Expediency

21 October 2001

What to do about anthrax? Last week's News Of The World advises buying cat litter and a bag of flour to soak up spores. Ignoring the Safeway option, Professor Stephen Hawking proposes a new planet. Bio-warfare will extinguish the human race within this century, he argues, unless we colonize fresh galaxies. For now, Armageddon remains some way off. Anthrax, a weapon as clumsy as a lump-hammer, has killed one man; 20,000 Americans die of flu every year.

Even so, no one opens an envelope without fearing white powder enclosed by a talcum terrorist, al-Qaeda or (in the unlikely theory of anti-Iraq hawks) Saddam Hussein's pharmaceutical wing. Psychiatrist Simon Wessely warns in the British Medical Journal that a pandemic of fear-induced illness looms.

But panic is also social Prozac and a balm for stress. If we are worrying about Cipro availability or spores in the gas bill, we are less likely to be preoccupied by erosion of civil liberties, or meltdown in Bethlehem, or the fact that the West's best friends, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, are skittles vulnerable to being toppled by Islamic fundamentalism. Fear stops us questioning the imprecision of this war, and doom-mongering distracts attention from those for whom the end really is nigh. Or so the Bush alliance must hope.

Clare Short's dismissal of the aid agencies working in Afghanistan as 'emotional' can-rattlers seeking to put a spin on catastrophe offers a new window on political priorities. From the outset, we were invited to believe that compassion and warfare would be interwoven. Ms Short certainly seemed to think so. A week after the World Trade Center bombings, the International Development Secretary told my colleague, Andrew Rawnsley, that 'it would be unbearable if the response was a lot more innocent people losing their lives'.

So what's a lot? Beyond civilian casualties, tens of thousands of Afghans will almost certainly die this winter and millions more will suffer. They will, as ever, be women and children; the weakest, the poorest and those Tony Blair branded as 'our cause' in his conference speech. Its humanitarian passages struck one reader as 'emotional pornography'. I thought her letter exaggerated. Now I am not so sure. Suspending air strikes to deliver aid was never a simple option. Mary Robinson, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, might have thought that her plea for a pause (in effect a cessation, when winter closes in) would be heeded. Some aid agencies were, privately, less optimistic.

They had hoped for a humanitarian concession, such as the safe corridors for aid previously suggested by the Prime Minister. Instead, the response was a patronizing putdown from a Secretary of State who seems to regard petitioners for a break in the airstrikes as naive or manipulative or both. Ms Short may be right in thinking that bombing will produce a safer, kinder society in Afghanistan, although that can be no more than wishful speculation.

The NGOS, naturally, will be putting their case as volubly as possible. They are, however, absolutely right both to defend the dying and to dispute Ms Short's assertion that 'the bombing doesn't prevent us from getting the food in'. That runs directly counter to evidence from the most experienced operators in the region and their Afghan colleagues on the ground.

Ms Short's deputy, Hilary Benn, is correct in saying that the 500 tons of World Food Program aid being driven into Afghanistan has now risen to 1,700 tons, the UN daily target. But the WFP is only the deliverer to six storage points. The agencies charged with distribution from those depots say that truckers are now too frightened of bombs to move much of the food to its intended destination. According to the emergencies co-ordinator for Christian Aid, agencies will have to raise their workload 200 times to avert humanitarian disaster.

No one likes to admit that midnight has passed, but aid workers are saying for the first time that they can no longer do the job. If the moonscape of the Afghan hills ran to coffins, last week's refusal of intervention would have tapped the final nail into many caskets.

According to UNICEF in Islamabad, up to 100,000 children will die before spring as a direct result of war. Politicians could, at the very least, be humble in the face of impending catastrophe. How easy, instead, to pin all blame on the Taliban. Although Ms Short is right to highlight their cruelty, Blair has been rebuked by the WFP for alleging, wrongly, that Taliban looters were severely disrupting food supplies. Also, detestable as the Taliban are, they did not offer Afghan refugees raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens or whatever lightly specified humanitarian extras the Government deems proper for a just war.

It is time now for better analysis of how lives might be saved. As the ground war begins, it is essential that the UN is allowed to create a framework of aid corridors and safe havens in which agencies can work. Blair has assured us that war and compassion can mesh. Now he and Bush will have to show us how. It is not good enough to hint, as skeptics do, that Afghan children are born to die, war or no war; 300,000 children would have perished anyway this year. The additional toll of 100,000, predicted by UNICEF, will be down to us.

Already pictures filter out of infants shivering in tents; of dying children with blood-crusted faces. They are the price that must be paid. The tariff is set, unless Short, the conscience of the Cabinet, and Blair, the conscience of the world, decree the deal unfair. To sacrifice so many lives on the altar of a better tomorrow is the act either of the supremely confident or the desperately unsure.

In the absence of a clear vision of how a new Afghanistan might be, old truisms still apply. Killing, as John Stuart Mill knew, is an act of omission as well as commission. For thousands to die, in a dubious cause with uncertain aims, already appalls the 16 per cent who opposed war from the start. There are more doubters now. Labour back-benchers stir, belatedly, in protest.

The mood is changing and the catalyst is fear. We smoke more, drink more and bring forward our wedding dates. A plane gets held up because spilt caster sugar on the cabin floor looks like anthrax. But unease is not the indulgence of the hysterical. It is also a testament to the preciousness of life and the only useful byproduct of a war that has taught us little, beyond how death will look.

In an age where trust and faith in God and governments are forfeit, humanity, expressed through fear, is the last bond of the race. We stare at the nightmare, however remote, of our own children suffering in this conflict. We are faced with the growing certainty that other people's children are already marked to die. Perhaps Western governments really believe that we, through solipsism or ignorance, will endorse mass martyrdom in the name of military expediency. If so, they are wrong.

Mary Riddell.
Published in the Observer.
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001.

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