There is a Persian proverb that says, “Esfah'n nesf-e jah'n ast” or "Esfahan is half the world.”
And there is the American zeitgeist that says, “Obliterate them.”
Esfahan is a modern Iranian metropolis of three and half million people. Situated at an ancient crossroads, Esfahan has embraced the great ebb and flow of human existence for more than ten centuries. Once one of the largest cities in the world, and more than once the capital of Persia, it is renowned for its Islamic architecture, with beautiful boulevards, covered bridges, palaces, mosques, and minarets.
Esfahan is also home to Iran’s largest nuclear reactor. Its university houses the country’s nuclear research program. Enough said.
“U.S. Weighing Readiness for Military Action Against Iran,” the Washington Post headline read on Friday. At a Pentagon news conference Friday afternoon, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair, Admiral Michael Mullen, said that the United States was considering "potential military courses of action" against Iran, and pointing to reserve capabilities in the Navy and Air Force said, "it would be a mistake to think that we are out of combat capability.”
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“A few days after the raid the sirens screamed again. The listless and heartsick survivors were showered this time with leaflets. I lost my copy of the epic,” writes Kurt Vonnegut, “but remember that it ran something like this: ‘To the people of Dresden: We were forced to bomb your city because of the heavy military traffic your railroad facilities have been carrying. We realize that we haven’t always hit our objectives. Destruction of anything other than military objectives was unintentional, unavoidable fortunes of war.’”
“The leaflet should have said, ‘We have hit every blessed church, hospital, school, museum, theater, your university, the zoo, and every apartment building in town, but we honestly weren’t trying hard to do it. C’est la guerre. So sorry.’”
Totally obliterate them. “That's a terrible thing to say, but those people who run Iran need to understand that,” says presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Candidate Obama assures us that he “will take no options off the table,” while candidate McCain sings, “Bomb, bomb, bomb. Bomb, bomb, Iran.” C’est la guerre. So sorry.
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Sixty years ago, as Europe lay in the ruins of war, Albert Camus was invited to the Dominican monastery in Latour-Maubourg. “What does the world expect of Christians?” the friars wanted to know. “What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today.”
German theologian and political activist Dorothee Soelle put it simply, “The truth is concrete.”
In 1948 at Latour-Maubourg, the Dominicans told Camus that the Catholic church had in fact spoken out, but that the arcane language of papal encyclicals had obscured the message. The Vatican had indeed signaled its condemnations, but by necessity through diplomatic indirection.
Last week, Josef Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, eschewed the oblique and chose to come to the United States in person. Traveling under the banner “Christ Our Hope,” his message took the form of a skillfully crafted literary inclusio, bracketed by the Willkommen of George Bush and the vaya con Dios of Dick Cheney. Into the vortex of an exquisite choreography vanished the wars of aggression, torture of innocents, destruction of civilizations, and desecration of law.
Camus told the Dominican friars, “When a Spanish bishop blesses political executions, he ceases to be a bishop or a Christian or even a man; he is a dog just like one who, backed by an ideology, orders that execution without doing the dirty work himself.”
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“It is with some regret,” Vonnegut writes, “that I here besmirch the nobility of our airmen, but boys, you killed an appalling lot of women and children. The shelter I have described and innumerable others like it were filled with them. We had to exhume their bodies and carry them to mass funeral pyres in the parks—so I know. The funeral pyre technique was abandoned when it became apparent how great was the toll. There was not enough labor to do it nicely, so a man with a flame thrower was sent down instead, and he cremated them where they lay. Buried alive, suffocated, crushed—men, women, and children indiscriminately killed. The method was impersonal, but the result was equally cruel and heartless. That, I am afraid, is a sickening truth.”
In December Boeing completed work on a project that was conceived here in St. Louis and put on the fast track by the Pentagon. Tested in the New Mexico desert last spring, the Massive Ordnance Penetrator or MOP is a 30,000-pound conventional weapon designed to penetrate 200 feet before exploding. The Senate approved $83 million to retrofit the B-2 Stealth bombers to make the delivery.
The line separating conventional and nuclear weapons has been systematically eroded. The Nuclear Posture Review of 2001 says "nuclear weapons... provide credible military options to deter a wide range of threats, including WMD and large-scale conventional military force ...U.S. military forces themselves, including nuclear forces will now be used to dissuade adversaries from undertaking military programs or operations that could threaten U.S. interests or those of allies and friends...” The National Security Strategy of 2006 adds that "the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively... using all elements of national power...Safe, credible and reliable nuclear forces continue to play a critical role..."
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a “limited” nuclear attack on the main Iranian underground site in Esfahan would result in three million people killed by radiation within two weeks and 35 million people exposed to dangerous levels of radiation in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
“The occupying Russians, when they discovered that we were Americans,” writes Vonnegut, “embraced us and congratulated us on the complete desolation our planes had wrought. We accepted their congratulations with good grace and proper modesty, but I felt then as I feel now, that I would have given my life to save Dresden for the World’s generations to come. That is how everyone should feel about every city on Earth.”
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“We are still waiting, and I am waiting,” said Camus, “for a grouping of all those who refuse to be dogs and are resolved to pay the price that must be paid so that a human can be something more than a dog.”
Last Sunday a small group of us stood in front of the Catholic cathedral in St. Louis for a few hours with a model of the Massive Ordnance Penetrator. While the pope was preaching at Yankee Stadium, we held a banner calling for him to go to Esfahan to begin the creation of an Iran Peace Shield. It was a small beginning. Conversations were opened. One young man disdainfully reminded us that we were in front of church, while an older women making her way slowly up the steps with a cane looked up at the MOP and said, “What? Attack Iran? We can’t do that!”
“How can you excoriate the pope and make an appeal to him at the same time,” we’ve been asked. As human beings, how can we not? As the humanist Vonnegut said, “If Christ hadn't delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn't want to be a human being. I'd just as soon be a rattlesnake.”
The crude reality is that our weapons of mass destruction, both nuclear and conventional, are prepared for an assault on Iran. Our warships are in the gulf. Our planes are on standby. And all of this is consummate human folly.
Some who are knowledgeable say that nothing save pure dumb luck can change the course upon which the United States government and its military have embarked. We can’t live with that. We are taking steps to escalate the appeal, not only to the pope but to anyone of a stature who’s presence in Esfahan would serve as a real deterrent to the launching of an assault by the United States. To put it simply, Dick Cheney would not drop an MOP on Josef Ratzinger’s head. To whom else can we make our appeal? We are going to make the appeal as noisily and with as much public disruption as we can muster. And we urge everyone else reading these words to do the same. Make your own appeal to those you with whom you have connections wherever and however you can. Disrupt things. We believe that we can create an effective shield with people in Esfahan and with noise everywhere.
Will we give our lives for Esfahan?
Andrew Wimmer is a member of the Center for Theology and Social Analysis in St. Louis. The Iran Peace Shield is an action coming to birth. Will you join us? The website is skeletal at the moment but will be taking shape over the coming days at www.iranpeaceshield.org. We invite your comments via email to email@example.com.