A Perspective On the Use of Poison Gas on Civilian Populations
July 22, 2002
On July 11, 2002, PBS began its ten-week “Wide Angle” documentary series with its first, grandiosely named, “Saddam’s Ultimate Solution”. The Kurds were the subject of the film. James P. Rubin, former spokesman for the Department of State, was the host of the program. Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, was at hand — supposedly as a disinterested expert but it soon became clear he was very interested in swaying the viewing Americans for the war effort — to shed light on a man, Saddam Hussein and his possible connections with America’s number one enemy, Osama Bin Laden.
I was nonplussed by what I saw. Seeing the Kurds fell down like dry leaves to their instant deaths was the immediate reason for my uneasiness. The larger issue was the use of our dead for a war that Mr. Perle predicted would come before President Bush’s next State of the Union address to the U.S. Congress. Wage your war, I found myself murmuring, but leave our dead alone. And the survivors, paraded like the zoo animals – with all kinds of ailments, seared skins, defective lungs, curved spines, impotent men, infertile women, teens looking older then senior citizens – all, it looked like, envied the lot of the dead, for the dead were now in peace, but their lot was one of perpetual suffering in an indifferent world that cared not in their recovery efforts but in using them as props for a war, and would quickly forget them, as soon as Mr. Ugly dictator, Saddam Hussein, is replaced with Mr. Pliable despot – we should soon find out who will qualify for the job.
Perhaps a Kurd, a vanquished side in this conflict, cannot be a good judge of what transpired in the course of that one hour documentary that showed hundreds of civilian Kurds frozen to death in their work places or living quarters from the use of chemical and biological weapons through a military operation called Al Anfal, a name as odious to the Kurds as Al Qaeda has become for the Americans. But a tormented Kurd hunted with the nightmarish memory of his kith who were summarily condemned to excruciating death might have something useful to say about the question that was the theme of the film: will the Americans be next? Mr. Perle was adamant that Osama Bin Laden would treat the Americans the way Saddam Hussein had treated the Kurds. Notwithstanding his charge, it was a pity that PBS did not provide an alternative view to counter him on his points.
So if I could pick on that mantra that became a ping-pong ball between Mr. Rubin and Mr. Perle, it is that Osama Bin Laden will use any weapon that comes his way irrespective of what Saddam does or does not do for a fellow Arab committed to restoring glory to the Arab name — sorry Mr. President, it is not about our freedoms at home. The man feels slighted, the Arab world impotent, the fruit of the land or should I say under the land siphoned to the far away lands defrauding the children of the soil of their rightful riches, the Arab rulers in bed with the adversaries of the true religion, and himself ready to take on the other super power since with a lot less experience he humbled the one closer to his old home, Afghanistan.
But perhaps I should relate another story, one from the dusty pages of history, to make a point about the clear and imminent danger that lurks in the horizon for the suspecting and unsuspecting Americans who are baffled with the conflicting messages that reach their ears or are paraded before their eyes on their television screens. My point is not to distance Saddam Hussein from Osama Bin Laden or bring him closer to the latter, but rather to note that there is a slight difference between the two and both would use any weapon against any enemy, perceived or real, if they felt that they could do so with impunity.
The story belongs to the annals of the Eastern Roman Empire and marks the end of European presence in Asia Minor. The Turks are the authors of this defeat and their victory has more to do with the perfidy of the Europeans than the bravery of their Janissaries. The Turkish victories on land were, to be sure, complete, and for a while it seemed, recognized no boundaries. They controlled Anatolia and Eastern Europe and were marching in all kinds of directions to the consternation of the world that surrounded the Mediterranean. But there was a problem, in the morning of their expansion, a large metropolis, Constantinople, defied their power and cast a shade on their greatness.
The Greek and the Roman inhabitants of the city were secure in their knowledge that their city would resist the possibility of an easy pluck by the Turks for their walls were high and secure and their enemies were ignorant of the infant science known as artillery at the time. But the defection of one Hungarian, known to posterity as Urban, to the Turkish side who knew of the dangerous knowledge of canon making tipped the scales in favor of the Turks. The Turkish Sultan, Mohammed the Second, ordered the creation of the largest foundry for the making of the biggest artillery the world had ever known. The test assured him of the imminence of his victory and he prepared for the glory of subduing the infidel post that had defied the power of his ancestors.
His super gun ready, the Turkish Sultan, laid siege to the city of Caesars on April 6, 1453. After Fifty-three days, the famed walls were breached, and Constantinople, finally, submitted to the Turks. The name Turk acquired a new appellation, “terrible”, throughout Europe. The mothers of nations that bordered the expanding Turkish Empire hushed their children to sleep with the news of the coming Turks. The father of Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, prayed God to save Europe from the Black Plague as well as the “terrible Turk”.
There is a school of thought in Islam that believes no promise can bind the faithful against the interest and duty of their religion. Osama Bin Laden, it is obvious to many, epitomizes this view of the Islamic religion. Just like Mohammed the Second, he will use any weapon for the glory of the true religion. Only a grave, it has now become clear, will bring a stop to this raw ambition.
Saddam Hussein, on the other hand, is harder to understand for he has portrayed himself as a thug, sometimes secular, sometimes socialist, usually despotic and lately a pious Muslim in a life that has spanned a mere 65 years. His decision to inscribe the words, God is Great, the battle cry of the Islamic faithful, on the Iraqi flag, after his defeat in the Gulf War, suggests his move towards the religion. So does his love of building great mosques in the midst of an embargo that has caused the deaths of thousands of children from malnutrition. Of course, for us Muslim Kurds, his use of the words, Al Anfal, meaning the spoils in Arabic, from a chapter heading inKoran, for a military operation to wipe us out from the face of the earth is the most unsettling thing about him.
The American officials who looked the other way when he gassed the Kurds are now finding themselves possibly cornered by him. They want to study the Kurds like experimental rats to protect themselves in case he acts like Mohammed the Second either directly or through his possible intermediary Osama Bin Laden. They have a right to lose sleep over both men.
The documentary made it very clear that both the western and eastern companies had provided Saddam Hussein with the technical know-how to make his chemical and biological weapons. After their use on the civilian Kurdish populations, these companies, through their governments, convinced the United Nations to withhold their names from the public domain. The Kurds are powerless to extract this information out of the world body. But if an American city is hit with these noxious fumes, I will be sorry for the dead as well as the hapless survivors, but also somewhat inadvertently relieved about the possibility of finding out, at long last, the names of these companies, perfidious modern day Urbans, who provided the butcher of Baghdad with his choice weapons to murder first the civilian Kurds and then the civilian Americans.