Don't 'Pray American'

When we pervasively dehumanize the enemy, we lose our moral rationale

If we forget Iraqis are human, it will be easier to kill them. That's why military leaders talk about killing tanks and destroying artillery, without dwelling on the possibility that there may have been a human or two operating the equipment.

I don't mind if soldiers view the enemy this way. We've asked our soldiers to kill, which is hard enough. To require that they contemplate the widows and orphans they will be creating is simply too much to ask.

But we should mind when American journalists and civilian leaders dehumanize the enemy. And it's beginning to happen. The New York Post runs a regular chart labeled "The Toll of the War." Under the sections for "dead" or "missing" it mentions only U.S. or allied soldiers. Dead Iraqi soldiers or civilians are apparently not part of the "toll."

The renewed bombing of Baghdad since Wednesday has brought more attention to civilian casualties, but we're still having a hard time talking about it. Talk show host Sean Hannity Thursday night excoriated Rep. Charles Rangel for saying Americans had "bombed women and children," which prompted Rangel to roll his eyes and say, "Ok, they're bombing themselves."

American TV networks seem to show fewer images of civilian fatalities than have Al Jazeera or the BBC. We seem more afraid of dead Iraqis than living ones, apparently anxious that the sight of carnage will turn us against the war. If so, our pro-war convictions are shaky indeed. If we truly believe that we're doing all we can to avoid hurting civilians, as I do, we should be willing to grieve for lost Iraqis.

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I'm not saying our extraordinarily brave American soldiers are bad for killing or injuring civilians. Civilian casualties are a fact of war and I do believe that it is mostly Saddam who has blood on his hands for the suffering of Iraqis, especially now that he's using his own people as human shields.

But it's one thing to say that the tragedy was brought about by Saddam Hussein, and another to say the tragedy doesn't exist.

We're even avoiding Iraqis in our prayers. Most national prayer efforts make no mention of Iraqis at all. Our old "Buy American" impulse has been replaced by a "Pray American" sensibility. President Bush has called on us to pray for American soldiers and their families. When Beliefnet set up its prayer circle area for the war, we reflexively decorated it with an American flag. The PresidentialPrayerteam.com, a popular prayer website, asks for prayers not only for our soldiers but not-exactly-in-the-line-of-fire men like Attorney General John Ashcroft and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card. Yet they suggest nothing for even suffering Iraqi children.

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Steven Waldman
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