Flimsy Shields

On the logic of putting yourself in harm's way


No doubt there were human shields in Iraq over the past few months who were completely sane. No doubt by now, they've all gone home. Meanwhile, new recruits are still arriving: Today 30-odd South African activists were trying to get into Iraq via Jordan. With war anticipated at any hour, these guys are just in time.

Otherwise put, they're tragically late: They won't have the several weeks of interaction with the Iraqi government that drove dozens of activists back home. In the words of one former naïf, speaking to The Christian Science Monitor, "A lot of shields were thinking it was black and white, and that we were on the side of good like Che Guevara. But it's not black and white at all."

One could argue that the media haven't given human shields a fair shake, homing in on the fruitcakes and reveling in quotes like this one from an Iraqi Foreign Ministry official: "We have a bad impression of the human shields. Some of them are crazy."

But doesn't there seem to be something objectively insane about volunteering to be a human shield, at least at this late date, however sure you are of the unjustness of invading Iraq? Aren't there a million and one far better ways to devote your life to peace and human well being than to throw yourself into a missile shower? As blogger and Reason Contributing Editor Charles Oliver has pointed out, to the extent that the U.S. military cares, places like orphanages already have human shields, otherwise known as orphans.

I scoured the news, wanting to understand the psychology that advances such a futile course of action. I was heartened to learn that many shields left the country when they realized (rather belatedly) that their presence wouldn't prevent war.

Among the diehards still sticking around, I expected to read about loners, who had little to lose by traveling to Iraq. But that's not what I found; plenty were leaving behind jobs and families.

Take this woman, part of the South African crew: "Do you think I am not shit-scared of this? I am leaving my son whom I love dearly and would do everything to protect. My insurance policy won't pay out for a death that is war related and if the insured have put themselves at risk. I have a lot to lose by leaving." I wonder if someday, in the event of her death, her son might ask himself why his mother was so quick to sacrifice the personal for the political.

But perhaps the most cynical dismissal of human shields has come from within Iraq. In a post titled "Human Shields Bashing #124," Iraqi blogger "Salam Pax" reacts to news that shields have left hotels to assume their posts as civilian protectors, "No no, just stay in your hotels, buy souvenirs and make fun of the backward ways of these Iraqis, hope you sent all your friends postcards telling them about the pita and tahini you have been eating while strolling around Baghdad, you tourists. Did you take enough pictures of children begging in the streets to show your friends back home how much you care about the plight of the poor in the third world. Bet they were all shaking hands and promising to see each other at the next 'worthy cause' party."

Such a caustic reading can be tempting, but when you're confronted with the fact that human shields actually do put their lives on the line, it's hard to feel anything other than despair.