I erred Friday when I said that we marked the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall the previous week. The anniversary took place last Monday.
A week after the wall collapsed, 20 years ago today, El Salvador terrorists broke into the home of six Jesuit priests and murdered them along with their housekeeper and her daughter who happened to be there at the time.
I lived in Kotzebue at the time and the parish priest was a Jesuit. His response was not to condemn the murders of his colleagues but to speculate on their theological beliefs. He did not explain why possibly holding unpopular theological beliefs was a capital offense. A fellow Catholic responded to the murders by accusing the victims of not being “even-handed” about people murdering them. Others cite national security and fighting communism, but don’t explain how murdering Catholic priests—the enemies of communism--fights communism and protects our national security
People uncomfortable with my remembrance of those crimes complain I am “living in the past” and I should let go and get on with my life. They are not so eager to register such complaints about commemorations of Pearl Harbor and 9/11.
But we remember history to learn from it and not to repeat it. So, I decided to mark this anniversary by reflecting on its lessons. What in this era of the so-called “war on terrorism” can I conclude about the reactions of the Kotzebue Jesuit, the fellow Catholic, and others to these terrorist acts?
When I was a little kid taught by nuns at St. Ephrem’s, I could not imagine any Catholic, much less a Catholic priest, responding with anything but complete horror and revulsion at the murders of six priests. But these days such murders draw little more than shoulder shrugs and eagerness to blame the victims, not the terrorists. It would be the moral equivalent of blaming New York and Washington, D.C. for 9/11; after all, New York was the home of the communist “Daily Worker” newspaper and Sen. Joseph R. Mc Carthy, R-Wisc. pointed out Washington was a nest of communists infiltrating our military.
That leads me to these questions: If we dismiss the eight murder victims of Nov. 1989 as mere “collateral damage” in the “war on communism,” what’s to stop us from considering the 13 murder victims at Fort Hood as mere “collateral damage” in the “war on terrorism?” If we blame the 13 murders on Islam, what’s to stop us from blaming the eight murders on Republicans? Which murderers and terrorists are responsible for their own behavior and which aren’t?
A couple of months ago, a fellow churchgoer offered a simple solution to the war on Afghanistan-- neutron bombs. Sure it would kill some innocent people, he conceded, but we could end the problem once and for all. That’s a wonderful idea, I responded, and added maybe we can end the methamphetamine problem in the Matsu valley once and for all with some neutron bombs. Sure you’d kill some innocent people, I conceded, but we’d take care of the problem once and for all. Well, he didn’t think the latter was such a good idea, but he didn’t explain why.
I suspect the answer is that he considers innocent Afghan lives more expendable than innocent American ones. Timothy McVeigh expressed regret at the number of little kids murdered in Oklahoma City, but he called them “collateral damage” in the war against our country’s enemy, the federal government. We didn’t buy that argument in Oklahoma City. Would we have bought it if he killed the same number of kids in Iraq or Afghanistan? Would he be condemned as a terrorist or revered as a hero? While we’re at it, were the lives taken in El Salvador 20 years ago worth less than the lives taken at Fort Hood this month?
At St. Ephrem’s, I was taught to revere all human life because we believed then all humans are made in the “image and likeness of God.” Today’s politicians consider such teaching “quaint” because, we’re told by ace spin doctor Frank Luntz, “9/11 changes everything.” Today the unspoken value appears to be that some human lives are, as George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” put it, “more equal than others.”
President Obama promised troops and their families at Elmendorf last week: “I will not risk your lives unless it is necessary to America’s vital interests.” But he didn’t identify such “vital interests.” Nor did he say which special interests get to identify those “vital interests.” Nor did he volunteer the price tag in money and lives—American and other—he is willing to pay. Such talk is cheap, like the high-sounding gobbledygook my critics like to spout about war being necessary to ensure our freedom. I wonder how many of my critics have sent their kids off to the wars they believe are necessary to ensure our freedom. If you don’t mind, I will not hold my breath waiting for an answer to that question.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, asked on the May 11, 1996 “Sixty Minutes” about the Clinton Administration sanctions which killed a half a million innocent Iraqi kids, said “I think, we think, it’s worth it.” Maybe it’s time for some war advocate with the guts to tell us how the money and lives we spend in Afghanistan and Iraq are “worth it” and at what point the money and lives we spend are no longer “worth it.” Before you buy a car or a house, you want to know how much exactly you will have to pay in money and what you get for your money. What’s wrong with asking the same question when we are spending human lives? Or is money worth more than a human life?