Shame on us

In a Baghdad shop recently, a young man bent over to pick up an item and a badge identifying him as a civilian employed by the United States inadvertently fell from his pocket. It cost him his life.

The other night while watching television I listened and watched in horror to a an unheeded cry for help from dozens of Iraqi civilians, many now in hiding in neighboring Jordan, who desperately need U.S. help to escape terrorist retribution for the crime of having worked for America. The stories were heart wrenching not only from what might happen to them if forced to return to Iraq, but what it said about us these days.

When the Iraq war is over, if it ever is, one of the biggest tragedies will be what it has been done to this nation’s reputation for compassion and protection of civilians who stepped up at the risk of their own lives to give badly needed support to U.S. efforts.

Since the beginning of the invasion there have been more than 100,000 Iraqis who fit this description, working for the U.S. army and civilian government agencies a variety of important jobs from interpreters to clerks to janitors, mostly behind the anonymity required to protect their lives. When they have come to the attention of insurgents they have been forced to flee or be killed.

But the real disgrace lies in America’s refusal to speed up the process of awarding these Iraqi men and women the sanctuary and support needed to resume normal, productive lives. About the only word that comes to mind is abandonment. Only some 5,000 of these civilians have been admitted to the United States. In contrast more than 40,000 of those who performed the same work for Great Britain in its Iraqi operations have been granted asylum in England.

The answer to our reluctance in this and so many cases lies in the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorists accomplished far more than just the deaths of thousands in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field. What they destroyed was a basic part of the nation’s DNA — that genetic fabric that always made us the place to go when seeking aid, shelter, comfort and hope for a better life, that rewards and protects those who help us.

Now it seems we treat everyone the same, as a potential enemy. We regard even those who have performed vital services for us at their own peril as though they actually harbor a secret agenda, to ultimately gain sanctuary here for the purpose of doing us harm. While it is necessary to be prudent, we have gone far beyond that in our paranoia — the same extreme reaction that led us into this unholy mistake, destroyed a country, and left us suspecting anyone and anything with a Muslim sounding name. Our reaction created this monster, not the 9/11 terrorists who must be looking down from their promised paradise with all those virgins and laughing their heads off.

Xenophobia has become a national disease that truly threatens to undo our standing with those throughout the world who still believe in us. To deny through endless vetting the Iraqi men and women who have helped us for fear that there may be a terrorist among them is to deny the chances we always have taken as the Earth’s leading democracy. It is unconscionable not to reward those who have proven their loyalty.

Of course we face the possibility that one of those is in reality an ally of Osama bin Laden. We would be naove to think otherwise and not to take some precautions.

But is that a reason for preventing everybody access or slowing the process to the point that the problem disappears along with the heads of those we have stalled? It seems to me we never have been in control of our own destiny in the Middle East and certainly not since the invasion of Iraq. Saddam Hussein tugged our chain so long with false bravado and claims of annihilating force that it pulled everything down on his head including our own international standing.

Now we keep compounding the tragedy, making decisions that leave us morally bereft, like refusing to realize the obligation we have to those who viewed us as their saviors, offered us their services and now can only hide the fact or face brutal results. It’s time to make this right and to do so now.

(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)