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Pious Nonsense By: Christopher Hitchens
Slate | Tuesday, March 11, 2003


An awful realization has been dawning upon the Bush White House. Christianity is a religion of peace. From every pulpit, an appalling ecumenicism is preached, which calls for "more time" at best and for a "hands-off Saddam" line at worst. The papal envoy to Iraq, Cardinal Etchegaray, has told us that Saddam Hussein "is doing everything to avoid war." With the addition only of a qualifying "this" as its penultimate word, that statement would actually have the merit of being true. I think we can all agree that Saddam likes the status quo to be undisturbed by any violence that is not his own.

However, the strongly implied corollary was that "war," if it should come, would be a strictly American responsibility. How else to interpret the remarks of Cardinal Solano, secretary of state to the Vatican, who recently bleated: "We want to say to America: Is it worth it to you? Won't you have, afterwards, decades of hostility in the Islamic world?" This solicitude for the feelings of pro-Saddam Muslims—of whom the leading faction is constituted by al-Qaida—is new for Holy Mother Church. More recently, the pope himself met with Tariq Aziz, who has for many years been the Christian (actually Chaldean Catholic) face of an openly national-socialist party. On these and other grounds, Aziz had a friendly audience with His Holiness before going to pose as a pacifist in St. Francis' old praying-ground at Assisi. Tariq Aziz's son was recently sentenced to 20 years in an Iraqi jail by Saddam Hussein—an effective means of reminding Saddam's suave envoy who is boss. (He does that all the time, by the way.) The Holy Father really ought to have asked to hear Aziz's confession. But perhaps he couldn't spare the time for such an arduous undertaking.

One wonders what it would take for the Vatican to condemn Saddam's regime. Baathism consecrates an entire country to the worship of a single human being. Its dictator has mosques named after himself. I'm not the expert on piety, but isn't there something blasphemous about this from an Islamic as well as a Christian viewpoint? I suppose if Saddam came out for partial-birth abortions or the ordination of women or the acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle he might be hit with a condemnation of some sort. (Until recently, one might have argued that his abuse of children would get him in hot water with the Vatican, too. But even that expectation now seems vain.)

In one way, the church's "peace at any price" policy is a historical improvement. The last instance I can find of Rome supporting a war was when it blessed Gen. Franco's invasion of Spain, at the head of an army of Muslim mercenaries who were armed and trained by Hitler and Mussolini. And everybody knows of the Crusades, which were launched against Christian 'heretics' as well as against Muslims and (invariably) the Jews. But one wonders how the theory of "just war," largely evolved by Catholic intellectuals such as Augustine and Aquinas, ever managed to endorse the use of force. As applied these days, it appears to commit everybody but Saddam Hussein to an absolute renunciation of violence.

You could see this paradox demonstrated last Sabbath morn on the New York Times op-ed page, by Jimmy Carter: peanut czar, home-builder, Nobel laureate, and Baptist big mouth. Reviewing "just-war" precepts, our former president considered the obligation of weaponry to discriminate between combatants and noncombatants. He then asserted:

Extensive aerial bombardment, even with precise accuracy, inevitably results in "collateral damage." General Tommy R. Franks, commander of American forces in the Persian Gulf, has expressed concern about many of the military targets being near hospitals, schools, mosques and private homes.

Where to begin? Under that condition, there are no circumstances in which a military intervention in Iraq could be justified. Someone could get killed. Then again, a man so deeply committed to Habitat for Humanity might ask what kind of habitat this is, where civilians are used as human shields and weapons of poison and disease are concealed under places of worship. Last time, Saddam even seized hundreds of foreign nationals in Kuwait and prepared to put them between retribution and himself. (The funniest news of the past week, incidentally, was the decision of the "human shield" volunteer activists to run away from Iraq. Most of them obviously didn't have the guts for it, but some of them, one hopes, had finally worked out what it was they were really shielding.)

Carter announced himself as "a Christian and as a president who was severely provoked by international crises." More accurate would have been "who provoked several severe international crises." It was the Carter administration that green-lighted, and later armed and aided, Saddam Hussein's distinctly unilateral invasion of Iran in 1979, an invasion that cost about a million and a half casualties, many of them civilian. I don't recall Carter being "provoked" by that at all. Incidentally, he describes the present American posture as "substantially unilateral," a piece of casuistry that wouldn't disgrace Cardinal Etchegaray himself.

Speaking of casuistry, Carter helpfully added that "American efforts to tie Iraq to the 9/11 terrorist attacks have been unconvincing." This might be narrowly true, with respect of the planning of the last attacks and given the use of the weak word "unconvincing." But the same day's New York Times carried a report with persuasive evidence of a substantial number of Bin-Ladenists on Iraqi soil. It's as hard to get into Iraq as it is to get out, and no Baathist official would make such a safe-haven decision without referring it to the leader.

As a member of Atheists for Regime Change, a small but resilient outfit, I can't say that any of this pious euphemism, illogic, and moral cowardice distresses me. It shows yet again that there is a fixed gulf between religion and ethics. I hope it's borne in mind by the president, next time he wants to make a speech implying that God is on the side of the United States (and its godless Constitution). The leading experts in the supernatural, including also the Archbishop of Canterbury, many rabbis, most imams, and Bush's own "United Methodists" appear to agree that this is not so. The Almighty seems, if anything, to have smiled on Saddam Hussein for a quarter of a century. If we want to assure ourselves of a true "coalition of the willing," we might consider making a pact with the devil.


Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.


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