Published Thursday, July 23, 1992
For many of us our consciences are soothed when the United Nations imposes "sanctions" on a miscreant such as Serbia because the word "sanctions" connotes the quality of high moral ground. Its Latin root "sanction," after all, means "to make sacred." In Judeo-Christian terms, this sacredness, or "holiness," if you will, means a "set apartness" to denote certain places, things, ceremonies, times, seasons and even persons as "set apart from what is not divine."
When did imposing sanctions become punitive? "Serbs React with Anguish as the U.N. Sanctions Bite," says a recent New York Times article. Webster’s does not say when this shift in meaning of the word occurred. In the 10 meanings of "sanction" given, it pops up jarringly in eighth place: "a coercive measure adopted usu. By several nations in concert for forcing a nation violating international law to desist or yield to adjudication esp. by withholding loans or limiting trade relations or by military force or blockade."
I confess to being one of those who thought imposing sanctions was the humane way to go in dealing with Iraq, for instance, because valuing life, I thought at least sanctions do not kill. What I have learned, however, is that, yes, they do. Because of sanctions, the elderly do not get the medical services they need; children starve to death. In the same Times article, a Serbian editor of a news magazine said that with sanctions destroying the economy, he could not imagine what people were going to do when the foreign money they kept under the mattress ran out. The entire month’s salary of a Serbian woman who worked in a chemical plant would buy only 44 loaves of bread or three-quarters of a tank of gas.
I was brought to my senses by the comments of a remarkable woman named Vivian Stromberg, who heads a philanthropic group named MADRE. Having delivered milk and medicine to needy children as far afield as Iraq and Nicaragua, El Salvador and the Caribbean, MADRE also sponsored during the Gulf War the Mother Courage Peace Tour, which sensibly called for the use of human resources to support life, not to destroy it. Instead of sanctions, Stromberg advocates "negotiations," or simply put, arriving at a settlement by talking to each other.
Isn’t talking to each other the basis of effective parenting? Cutting off the commerce of unruly adolescents, for example, does nothing but create resentment. What child does not recognize its parents’ love in their willingness to confront the problems that arise by sitting down and taking as much time as necessary to hammer out, not the child, but the problems? What household is made happy by imposing on it sanctions?
The consequences of the brand of "set apartness" espoused by our current administration and imposed by U.N. sanctions remind me of a two-panel cartoon I saw many years ago.
In the first panel a fisherman was shown sawing a neat circle in a frozen lake into which he planned to drop his line. In the second panel, with the cut complete, all the ice on the lake had sunk along with the man and the only thing left floating was the hole.