As we were working on putting together this week's cover story (See "See No Evil"), we received word that retired Seattle engineer Bert Sacks had become the first American to be fined by the U.S. Treasury for violating the long-standing economic sanctions against Iraq.
Sacks' crime? Technically, the government accuses him of "travel-related sanctions." His real crime, however, is distributing medicines -- simple antibiotics and anti-diarrheal medications -- to clinics desperately in need of the bare basics since the sanctions went into effect some 12 years ago. The government is demanding that Sacks pay $10,000 for his breach.
Sacks, as it turns out, was the leader of the Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility humanitarian delegation that took local photographer Jane McBee to Iraq in May. "He's the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet," said McBee, guiding us to a photograph of Sacks, playing with a group of Iraqi orphans.
It's no coincidence that the action by the U.S. Treasury, specifically the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control, the first such action taken in spite of hundreds of missions to Iraq by citizen activists over the past decade, happened now. From his ranch in Crawford, Texas, President George W. Bush this week issued a number of bullish statements indicating his growing eagerness to launch a military attack in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.
Any action by any citizen that can be viewed as undermining that effort will apparently be thwarted. A June 18 Seattle Post Intelligencer dispatch from Washington said: "The Treasury Department yesterday vowed to aggressively prosecute people who violate economic sanctions against Iraq despite complaints that the embargo isn't working and that it's causing deep suffering among children.
"'The Treasury Department has to enforce the law of the land, period,' a spokesman said. 'We don't do that selectively.'"
Historian Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States, sees it a little differently. In a statement issued shortly after Sacks' fine was announced, Zinn argued that "the punishment of a citizen for engaging in a humanitarian act -- bringing medicine to people in desperate need -- should not be accepted in a society claiming to believe in justice."
Zinn continued: "To disobey a law, when that law violates a fundamental human right, is part of the American democratic tradition. ... The right to food and medicine is something guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Eleanor Roosevelt helped frame in 1948, and to which our nation is a signatory. Any law or regulation which eliminates that right does not deserve to be obeyed, and those today who bring food and medicine to people in need should be honored, not punished."
Sacks has announced that he will not pay the fine. He hopes a hearing will be set in which he will have the opportunity not to defend his actions but to raise the issue of the legality of the sanctions. Meanwhile, he will continue to raise funds to purchase more medicines, which he plans to take to Iraq in July.
It's all more than a little disheartening. Even those who agree that Saddam Hussein must go continue to argue that civilians, especially children, shouldn't be the ones who suffer by our direct actions in Iraq. But that has been the case for more than a decade. UNICEF estimates that more than 500,000 children have died in Iraq as a direct result of our withholding the import of medicines, chemicals for purifying water, seeds, fertilizer and insecticides for agriculture, and numerous other necessary items.
Even more disheartening is the government's apparent position that peacekeeping and support for humanitarian efforts abroad are no longer the business of America. Just last week, reports Jim Lobe of the Washington, D.C.based Institute for Policy Studies, the Pentagon quietly made the decision to close the United States Army's Peacekeeping Institute (PKI), "the only government agency devoted to studying how to secure peace in failed nations or post-conflict situations." The closing of PKI is apparently part of a re-alignment of the military budget decreed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The agency has an annual budget of approximately $200,000 and a total staff of about ten people. A CNN report Tuesday night estimated Citizen Rumsfeld's personal wealth at around $200 million, even after getting rid of some $90 million in stocks last year to avoid scrutiny -- 1,000 times the budget of the PKI.
It all makes you wonder what, after all, are the priorities of the "greatest nation on Earth."