As one would reasonably expect, Grace Trevett's children are heartsick about their mother's intention to travel to Baghdad to become a "human shield." The 45-year-old mother of four is part of the latest convoy of British anti-war protestors on its way to Iraq. When they arrive, they'll join hundreds of other prospective human shields who plan to position themselves in front of potential Allied targets in a bid to forestall war.
Becoming a human shield has become the most extreme expression of fulminating anti-war sentiment. It's the protest gesture du jour, what the fashionable Western militant is up to this season now that anti-globalization seems so year 2000.
But, as is the case with many such trends, the underlying logic motivating the human shield movement is somewhat faulty, as an interview Trevett gave to The Sunday Telegraph on the weekend makes abundantly clear. "I am doing this to drive home the point that my life is equal to that of an Iraqi civilian," she said. "In order to make that point properly, I have to be prepared to die for my principles."
Now were Trevett about to embark on a trading-places program in which an Iraqi mother of four and her children travel safety to Stroud, Gloucestershire, in exchange for her presence in Iraq, perhaps her self-sacrifice would be understandable, even noble.
But her blithe willingness to sacrifice her life, and to leave her children motherless, to protest a war she disagrees with would suggest she considers the life of an Iraqi citizen worth very little indeed. It's even more baffling given her recent battle with cancer. "I faced the fragility of life and I came through with tremendous gratitude," she said.
So let's get this straight: To express gratitude for being alive, she's willing to die? Or does her confidence heading off to Baghdad stem from a sense of Western entitlement? Does she, like other Western human shields, not understand that she's taking a huge risk, one that will potentially create even more collateral damage and confusion in an already horrible landscape?
Probably not. Implicit in the human-shield gesture is the misbegotten faith that U.S.-led forces will not rain bombs down on their own -- that the "us" they represent will hold more sway than the "them" that is the Iraqi population.
This kind of moral hubris was best articulated by Cliff Kindy, an organizer for Christian Peacemakers, a group that has been active gathering seniors from Canada and U.S. to act as human shields. "You get about 500 grandmas and grandpas from around the world and you scatter them around Iraq and dare the U.S. to bomb them," Kindy told The Chicago Tribune. "That would give them a collective moral authority."
Establishing moral authority, rather than actually aiding Iraqi people, would appear to be the human shields' priority. For all of the talk of being equal to oppressed Iraqis, Kindy's comment makes clear that he believes the life of a few non-Iraqi grandpas and grandmas is of far more value.
What makes the human shields' naïveté particularly dangerous, however, is that, for all of their good intentions, they're protecting Saddam's regime rather than the Iraqi people. The shields, of course, will argue otherwise -- that their solidarity is with Iraqi civilians, a group that has been battered by decades of war and international sanctions and which deserves no further anguish. So why is it then that it's the Iraqi dictatorship -- one well- practised in employing its citizens, as well as Western hostages, as unwilling human shields -- that's so delighted by the Western human shield influx? They're laying on the red-carpet treatment, meeting Western human shields at the border and ferrying them to designated sites.
At these sites, paradoxically, the Western shields will share space with a growing number of Arab militants being sent there to purposefully defend Iraqi institutions. The contrast between these two groups would be laughable were the situation not so potentially calamitous.
The Western familiarity with human shield protest derives from tame and successful examples of activists using the technique to protest cruelty to animals or logging, whereas the Arab experience is that the human shield is an utterly expendable construct.
One man who did not live long enough to find that out was George Weber, a 73-year-old retired high school teacher from Chesley, Ont. Weber, who traveled to Baghdad in December as one of the Christian Peacemaker "grandpas," was killed in a traffic accident on a Iraq highway last week. The irony of the situation is inescapable. But would his death have served a greater purpose had he lived long enough to die as human shield? More sadly, no, a truth one hopes Grace Trevett's children will never know.