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Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
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Februray 3, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 42

  Common criterion: A problem Jesus would understand
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

In a part of the world where open-hearth cooking has only recently disappeared, there is an old saying that still has common currency. When the Irish want to make the point that one group has no right to call another group corrupt if they are both disfigured by the same substance, they say with a bit of huff, "Well, that's the pot calling the kettle black!" This week they're saying it again, and, it seems, with good reason.

The details are complex but the situation is clear.

At the height of the great parliamentary debates about British involvement in the war in Iraq, Tony Blair made the public statement that one of the major reasons for launching an invasion against Saddam Hussein was because he had missiles that could attack England within 45 minutes. No caveat given. No doubt entertained. If there were ever a time when missiles might be launched, of course, this was surely one of them. But no missiles came. No threats of any kind. And no proof of Blair's allegations either.

Later, BBC reporter Charles Gilligan, on an early morning talk show in London, cited a government official as having made the point that intelligence reports had been "sexed up" --knowingly exaggerated -- to justify the war in Iraq and that the government "probably knew it." The response from Tony Blair's Labor Party government and Alastair Campbell, his press secretary, approached outrage.

Gilligan apologized for the statement seven hours later. He admitted that the reference was not a direct quote. The interview had not been taped and his notes were not verbatim. But he argued, given what he'd been told in the interview, that implication could surely be drawn.

Alastair Campbell kept up his barrage against the BBC, however. In fact, he had already written nearly a dozen letters to the BBC protesting what he cited as other instances of anti-government bias in the British Broadcasting Corporation's handling of the Iraq story.

BBC's director general, Greg Dyke, would later admit that no, he had not taken Campbell's two memos on this particular incident as seriously as hindsight says he should have. He considered it just one more of Campbell's attempts to intimidate the BBC as a result of their failure to toe the party line. Instead, he stood with the great tradition of the Beeb for freedom from government interference. The BBC refused to back off the story.

The later attribution of the information to a shy, sensitive and perhaps fragile scientist, David Kelly, led soon after to Kelly's suicide. The incident shocked the country.

People demanded a public inquiry into the question of who leaked Kelly's name, making him the target of both political criticism and professional opprobrium. Most assumed that, in an attempt to discredit the man and so divert the question, it was the government itself.

The conclusion of Lord Hutton's inquiry into the subject exonerated Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell of any knowledgeable duplicity in the presentation of the government's case for war.

On the other hand, the Hutton Report excoriated the BBC for poor management practices and irresponsible journalism. "Unfounded," he called Gilligan's story.

But there's the problem. Everything that brought us to this point, we know now, was unfounded.

The whole war -- that is, if a government has the obligation to give real reasons for going to war -- was "unfounded." At least it wasn't founded on any of the arguments and little of the "evidence" they gave us.

Saddam Hussein and Iraq were not even linked to al-Qaeda, let alone a breeding ground, training center or source of government funding for it.

Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction -- as Saddam's scientists and also U.N. scientists, for that matter, had all agreed.

The proof we gave the international community for accusing Iraq of being an imminent danger was an aerial photo of one large trailer truck at the back door of a single small warehouse. (Consider for a moment that 40 years ago, with far less technical sophistication, we had pinpointed pictures of piles of Soviet missiles and launching sites in Cuba.)

And when it was all over and none of the reasons, none of the "intelligence" came anywhere near reality, when the national budget had been skewed for military might at the expense of an entire generation of social services, the government simply switched the reason for the invasion of Iraq from "imminent danger" to "Operation Iraqi liberation."

As a result, we have taken a country out of dictatorship and put it into chaos. We have destabilized the Middle East. We have made enemies everywhere and confused our allies everywhere. And in the middle of it all, high Vatican officials, the likes of Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, according to NCR's Rome reporter, John Allen, are now touting a theology of "pre-emptive war." (See The Word From Rome, Jan. 16.) On what certainty? Under what conditions? With what promise of civil order after the celebration of "mission accomplished"? Worse, if people in the Vatican are also beginning to buy the thought of noble invasions in spite of the dubious level on which this one was waged, we have clearly come a long way from Pope Paul VI's "No more war. War never again." Let alone Jesus.

The carelessly chosen, unscripted words of one reporter at 6 a.m. in the middle of one of the greatest debates in modern history have been used to attack the integrity and undermine the credibility of the world's most elite leader of the Fourth Estate. Tony Blair and members of his Labor government are ecstatic in the exoneration, triumphant in their newfound innocence. But questions remain. In one of the polls taken after the release of the Hutton Report, 16 percent of the respondents believed the government's innocence, 36 percent of the respondents believed the BBC and 49 percent believed neither.

From where I stand, the demand that journalists be accurate and honest is an important one. After all, their attributions and conclusions shape thought and bias, affect consciousness and contentions everywhere. But if that's the case, can anyone explain why the same criterion is not being applied to political leaders and governments whose pronouncements do the same? Whose mistakes -- if they are mistakes -- lead to far worse results?

I get it: That's "the pot calling the kettle black." Or maybe that's what Jesus meant, too, when he talked about "You brood of vipers and hypocrites."

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