Human Shields

There is much to be learned from and admired about those who have effectively used nonviolent resistance to produce political and social change. Mahatma Gandhi used such resistance to hasten Britain’s departure from India and was responsible for the development of much of the intellectual frame work of and practical techniques for nonviolent resistance. Gandhi’s experience informed the Rev. Martin Luther King’s nonviolent approach to civil rights for black Americans in the United States. Nations too can apply nonviolent pressure with success. Economic and political sanctions against South Africa played a role in the eventual collapse of apartheid. It is certainly not a coincidence that nonviolent techniques, calling upon the conscience of an oppressor, works when some conscience remains and when the political structures are democratic.

As honorable and heroic as nonviolent resistance can be, it is unlikely it could have been successfully applied to Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or some other totalitarian states. First, in the leadership of such states there is little or no residual conscience to call upon. Second, the media are controlled and there is little opportunity to touch the hearts of the masses, and even if hearts are touched there are no democratic structures to express the will of the people. Nonetheless, brave protests by the people certainly help hasten the fall of communism in Poland and the recent efforts to insure fair elections in the Ukraine.

Nonviolent resistance can also be employed cynically and frivolously. In the prelude to the Iraq War, there were a number of people who preened in front of the press, humbly identified themselves as “Truth Justice Peace Human Shield Action,” and setoff to Baghdad to act as human shields to protect Iraqis from the Americans and the British. As overt hostilities approached most of these erstwhile shields reconsidered their options, decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and scurried back to their home countries. Others realized they had made a mistake giving any comfort to Saddam’s regime. In truth, American and British weapons were targeted at military targets and humans shields in front of water plants or hospitals would have little to fear from Coalition forces. The fact that some would offer to be human shields is an implicit acknowledgement that Coalition forces would be reticent about striking civilian targets.

When Gandhi used nonviolent resistance against the British he declared that “Democracy, disciplined and enlightened, is the finest thing in the world.” By contrast, terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi fumed that, “We have declared a bitter war against democracy and all those who seek to enact it.” It is unlikely that such terrorists would have been very much moved by Gandhi’s techniques or likely to employ them. Those former human shields must have implicitly arrived at the same conclusion, because there are no human shields protecting schools or hospitals in Iraq now.

Where were those brave human shields on January 30, 2005 when Iraqis were going to the polls? Before the war, the spokesman for these heroes proclaimed, “Our strategy is potentially dangerous but that is the risk we must take in standing beside our brothers and sisters in Iraq.” Somehow now, standing with their Iraqis brothers and sisters in polling lines with the real possibility that someone might ignite a car bomb in the vicinity proved a little too risky. It was Iraqi soldiers and policemen that stood by Iraqi citizens as they voted, not self-important Lefties. It was American soldiers and Marines who helped Iraq stand up against the moral equivalent of the Klu Klux Klan.

During the Iraqi elections there was at least one person who genuinely qualifies as a human shield, 29-year-old Abdul Amir al-Shuwayli. Shuwayli was an Iraqi policeman guarding a polling place in Baghdad when he recognized a suicide bomber striding towards the polls. According to USA Today:

“Shuwayli threw his arms around the bomber and drove him backward about 50 feet into an intersection. The rush seemed to catch the suicide attacker by surprise. The bomber had a hand grenade but failed to throw it. A second or two passed before he detonated an explosive belt… The blast shredded Shuwayli, whose body took the brunt of the explosion. It also tore the bomber apart, leaving only his face intact.”

After the incident, as if in protest against the suicide bomber, more and more people came out to vote at the polling place Shuwayli protected. Shuwayli is now honored in the area as a martyr. Shuwayli’s sacrifice has not received quite the press coverage or attention as those pre-war human shields did. However, Shuwayli did far more for Iraqis than many others who are more adept at garnering attention than making accurate moral judgments.

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