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Downing

Unless you've been there, you can never really know

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Were you there?

There's a dirgelike old spiritual that asks, "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" It goes through the stages of the passion asking that same question, "Were you there?" And then the chorus: "Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. / Were you there when they crucified my Lord?"

It's been running in my head since I read that Louisiana's attorney general, Charles C. Foti Jr., has brought murder charges against a doctor and two nurses who stayed behind with elderly, very sick patients in a hospital in New Orleans for the four hellish days after Hurricane Katrina hit. At least 34 people died that week in the dark, sweltering building surrounded by festering floodwaters.

Dr. Anna Pou and the nurses are accused of killing four of them with injections of morphine and a sedative.

"This is not euthanasia. This is plain and simple homicide," Foti has said.

Plain? Simple? Excuse me--was he there?

Has he even tried to imagine what it was like for the patients, for the skeletal staff that could have abandoned them, but didn't? Has he attempted to get his mind around the smells and sounds, the thoughts going through people's minds as the 100-degree days passed, and no help came? Well, we'll all have a chance to go back into those dark halls during the trial, and while I cringe thinking of what the witnesses will describe, I think it's good that we'll have that chance. (I also suspect that the case will be painfully embarrassing for the government, and that there are people in Washington, D.C., who'd like to strangle Foti for bringing the whole thing up.)

Also cheering up the front page last week was the war in Lebanon. As the country's fragile infrastructure was pounded to bits, an official of the American University of Beirut predicted that a nationwide shortage of fuel would soon shut down the only first-rate medical facility in the country, a 350-bed hospital run by the university.

"When the electricity goes, the hospital goes, too," he said on National Public Radio.

So the shelling is doing to Beirut what the storm did to New Orleans--reducing it to a Third World theater of suffering. Will the Lebanese be any more successful at getting the frail and sick moved out than we were in New Orleans? Probably. It's hard to imagine anyone doing a worse job. But of course, there'll be no place for those 350 sick people to go--there's no Houston in the Middle East.

The human suffering caused by Katrina was caused by force of nature, even if it was perpetuated by bureaucratic failure on a titanic scale; the suffering in the Middle East is a wholly human creation. As a species, we should be proud. As if being very old or sick or injured wasn't misery enough, as if a hospital with the lights and air-conditioning up and running weren't a dreadful enough place to be--we start wars that make it a perfect hell.

All of which makes me short-tempered with right-wing "intellectuals" like William Kristol, who was on TV last week talking about why we should start bombing Iran, because if we just got rid of the regime, the people would be on our side. (Ah yes, those grateful, friendly natives.)

This is not just willfully stupid--Hello? Iraq? Afghanistan? Ring any bells, Bill? It's evil. Incredibly, Kristol and his buds are still trying to whip up the yahoos who fantasize about dropping bombs and launching missiles, the armchair warriors who think war is a Saturday-morning cartoon with neat explosions. You'd think the neocons would be hiding under rocks at this point, ashamed of what they've done--instead, they're sitting in studios, looking smug and doing their level best to talk us into World War III.

What's the cure for these guys? A week carrying bed pans in Beirut? Some time on the ground in Saddam City?

In a reasonable world, talk-hawks would have to establish their war credentials, evidence of acquaintance with the reality of what they're rooting for. If I were queen, to rant on TV or radio or in the press in favor of war, you'd have to show, up front, that you were a vet, or had a child in the armed forces. Otherwise, you could just shut up and go away. Throughout history, old men have sent young people to war, and somehow these days, those young people are never the warmongers' children. Their kids scull for Harvard or intern on Wall Street--they don't spend their valuable time sweating in tents. Why should we listen to any of them?

We need leaders who can imagine physical suffering, who have reason to fear death and pain. We need leaders who were there.

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