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Friday, August 15, 2008

Hooray for Jesse Helms


Former Senator Jesse Helms died last month on July 4th. He was reviled by most anyone with progressive views. During his five terms in the senate, he criticized the Civil Rights Act, school integration, and the Voting Rights Act. He opposed funding for AIDS, funding for the UN, gay rights, abortion, affirmative action, and government appointments of gay persons. His financial support was first and foremost from the tobacco industry.

Yesterday, I read something about him that totally surprised me. Helms was one of five senators who sponsored the Prevention of Genocide Act in September 1988. It was a bill that would have imposed hard-hitting sanctions against Iraq for Saddam Hussein's brutal gassing and genocidal attacks against the Kurds who lived in the rural north. This was before either of the Gulf Wars we fought against Iraq. During his eight-year war with Iran, Hussein demanded all Kurds leave their villages and live in concentrated ghetto towns he constructed further inland from the border. Those who didn't leave their homes were subject to mass executions. The army would take over a Kurd village, round up the men and boys and shoot them. Poison gas was dropped on numerous villages during an eighteen month campaign that extended past the Iraq-Iran armistice. Though the Reagan state department was aware of the campaign, it kept mum because we supported Iraq over Iran. There was no outcry from any quarter to stop the violence as Samantha Power documents in her gripping book, "A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide."

After the gassing of a large town, Halabja (3/88), the story finally started to become known. The bill was written by a staff member of Senator Claiborne Pell and Pell approached Helms, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relation Committee. Power writes in her book that Helms "and his wife had been moved by an encounter with three Kurds who were on hunger strikes to protest the Iraqi atrocities, whom they met through their church."

So for all the evils associated with Helms, there is at least one admirable act of leadership in the other column. I'm glad to know that. I'm glad to know that there is something to like about the Senator and that there was a way to reach him and motivate him to do the right thing.

As for the bill, it was passed by the Senate but killed in the House. The U.S. farm lobby prevailed. They did not want to lose all the revenue from their rice and wheat sales to Iraq. Eighteen months later, Hussein was emboldened enough to invade Kuwait.

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