All voices raised (11/18/99)

Have you ever heard of an organization called "Voices in the Wilderness?" Yeah, me neither. At least, not before I talked to someone last weekend who had joined it. Isn't it interesting what your friends get up to when you haven't seen them in a while? Anyway, Voices in the Wilderness (VITW for short) is a national group that protests, in various ways, U.S. sanctions on Iraq, and seeks to bring them to an end. I found it interesting to talk to someone from a group with such a specific goal - whose job, literally, is to make their job obsolete.

On Nov. 10, Madeleine Albright was in Chicago to do a question and answer session before the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations about general matters. The public was admitted. The Chicago chapter of VITW showed up with signs and posters which they revealed at intervals, shouting questions towards Albright about the sanctions. They were all escorted out, and some were arrested.

I was curious about the whole event, and looked up the transcript of the session online. It's actually kind of funny - Albright starts her speech, interruped at odd intervals by "SHOUTED QUESTION: (Inaudible)," and becomes increasingly irritated at the interruptions. You can almost see security escorting the VITW members out. My first thought was, "Well, that's nice and brave of them. But I just can't see that they're doing any good; they're just being irritating." And then, guess what. Albright answered the question. Allow me to reiterate: she answered the question. VITW forced her to acknowledge their presence and the validity of their position.

And they do indeed have a considerable validity to their stance. In the first five years of the sanctions, "as many as 576,000 children . . . died as a result of sanctions imposed against Iraq by the United Nations Security Council, according to a report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)" (NY Times, 12/1/95). As can be imagined, the numbers have only risen since then. The sanctions prevent food and medicine from getting to those who need them, either through lack of the supplies themselves or through inability to transport or distribute supplies. It was statistics and information like this that members of VITW shouted at Albright during her talk.

Her answer - far from satisfactory, I believe - was that Saddam Hussein was keeping funds which were intended for humanitarian purposes. Of course, he doesn't have total control over these funds - they are kept in an escrow account by the U.N. Despite this, however, Voices in the Wilderness had the respect to withdraw, as requested, after she answered them. The remainder of the transcript is free of interruptions.

What really struct me, though, was not the worthiness of their cause - although I was a little surprised by my pretty much total ignorance of it after I did a little research - it was the fact that they acted on behalf of their cause and got a response. A response, mind you, from the Secretary of State. As a hopelessly idealistic and perpetually frustrated liberal, I thought this was incredible. You don't have to be a supporter of this or any particular related cause in order to be encouraged by this incident. You may have to be irritating, but you can make your voice heard and force a response to your issue, if you persevere.

So keep up the good fight. Or if you're too disillusioned by other groups to be in one, maybe you can start your own good fight. Voices in the Wilderness has only been around since 1996, and already they're making their presence known. Once more, dear friends, unto the breach.

More information on Voices in the Wilderness.

Transcript of Albright's session in Chicago.

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