War talk, economy making America look more like Iraq

(published in Speak Out in Religion Section of San Antonio Express-News, Saturday Feb. 1, 2003)
(edited from Street Scene in Iraq originally written 1/23/03)

BAGHDAD, Iraq - After almost twenty years of wars and sanctions, the streets of Baghdad are no longer sparkling but are still busy, teeming with life.

They are lined with buildings in all states of repair and disrepair. Former banks, credit unions, and large stores display only vacant dusty windows and silently anchor smaller merchants that continue to sell those goods that can be made in Iraq or easily imported.

Shoe vendors, furniture stores, and barber shops, are nestled together amid electronics and food stores in mid-block. Their shelves, while full, seem to offer only the same selections over again and again.

People of means still drive Mercedes and BMWs down the crowded avenues, vying with the taxis driven by many of those who were once middle-class. I stop to buy some nuts and popcorn from a street vendor. He politely fills my bags and takes, what I consider too little, 500 Iraqi Dinars - only 22 cents

The many neon signs in Arabic above the stores include one easily recognizable: the PS2 Store. I stop in front of this arcade and can almost feel the excitement of the dozens of people lining up to play PlayStation 2 games. I am continually surprised by what I find on the streets of Iraq.

What isn't surprising is passing by St. Raphael, a Catholic church that conducts a mass in English on Sunday evenings. The country has over 1 million Christians, and visitors from throughout the world.

Next to the Church is a hospital run by a Catholic order. The grounds are simple but well-kept and manicured. A beggar goes by on his hands. Even in the midst of their own poverty, people hand him money

The current malaise stems from the change in climate after a period of social investment from 1975-85 that made Iraq one of the most modern countries in the world. Iraq had tremendous surpluses due to its earlier nationalization of oil.

But changes in neighboring Iran left Iraq struggling to fend off a possible religious revolution with the full support (and expensive military equipment) of the United States. Iraq began a long series of wars with Iran and generated a costly deficit. Now it is a country struggling to support even a base-level economy for its 22 million inhabitants.

Is this what America could come to? Could American streets become this derelict and diminished?

During the 1990s, Americans were proud to see national budget deficits pared down while the country experienced an economic boom.
Today, budget surpluses are a thing of the past, the U.S. economy is on a spiraling downward and the single-minded focus of the current administration is on war.

How does America, the richest country in the world, find itself in such a situation? Are our leaders incompetent and misguided, or is it, as many Iraqis would say, "the will of God"? It must be the former since the God that I pray to is a creator, not a destroyer.

The night is still young as I walk back to my modest hotel. I sigh over the craziness that has brought me here, then say a silent prayer for another day that is ending without war.

Peace - Charlie


Charlie Jackson, founder of Texans for Peace, recently returned from his second trip to Iraq, undertaken through the Christian Peacemaker Teams organization of Chicago. He is a high-tech CEO and lives with his two sons in San Antonio.


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