Commentary: Human Shields That Have Made Their Way To Iraq This Week

Weekend Edition Saturday: February 22, 2003

listenScott Simon Essay: Human Shields


There are brave souls camped out this weekend in the Baghdad South Power Plant. They are 13 men and women from the United States, Western Europe and Australia who are staying at the power plant in the hope that it will discourage American and British planes from bombing it. They call themselves human shields. It might be easy to satirize these men and women--Many of them look and sound like people who are waiting for the doors to a Grateful Dead concert to open--but it's hard not to respect that they're prepared to live by, and possibly perish by, their convictions. The Iraqi government is trying to organize some of the scores of Western war protesters who've come to Baghdad. Officials are sending the protesters to locations around the country--power plants, bridges, factories--that in the words of Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, `We need to survive.'

The US government says that it regards the deployment of human shields as a crime. That's not a military strategy,' says Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. `It's murder.'

But one of those shields, Ken Nichols O'Keefe, told The New York Times this week, `They're not using me. I am here voluntarily.' What is Saddam Hussein supposed to say, `No, they can't do it'? Peace, like war, can sometimes make for unlovely allies. After his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein's soldiers rounded up hundreds of foreign workers and imprisoned them at military bases and industrial plants. The human shields of 2003 say they are putting their bodies in the line of potential fire to protect Iraqi civilians, not Saddam Hussein.

But Prime Minister Tony Blair wondered this week why some of the protesters in Iraq and around the world had never offered themselves as human shields to protect Iraqis, whom human rights groups say Saddam Hussein has imprisoned, slaughtered or tortured. `There has been no march for the victims of Saddam,' he said, `no righteous anger over the torture chambers which, if he is left in power, are left in being. I simply ask the marchers, however well-intentioned, to understand this: If there are 500,000 protesters, that is still less than the number of people whose deaths Saddam has been responsible for. If you want to find an outspoken opponent of government policy in Iraq, you can't look in the local press, but the prisons or cemeteries.'

The human shields can fairly say that they cannot change Iraqi government policies as much as they can change their own. Ironically, they rely on the fact that no matter how much they may dispute their own governments, a combination of public opinion, politics and conscience can bring about change. Are the human shields spending their bravery on a regime that deserves it?


Unidentified Man: (Singing) So shed your skin and let's get started. And you throw, yes, you throw, you throw your arms around me.

SIMON: And the time here on WEEKEND EDITION is now 18 minutes past the hour.

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