A war not covered
February 2, 2004 | More from Don Murray
This is the tale of two wars: the one in the headlines, and the one that isn't.
In Britain, it takes an act of will to miss the first one: "Civil War Breaks Out at BBC"; "Blair Fears He'll Be Hung Out to Dry over WMD"; "QC Chief Outlines Dyke Battle Plan". And on and on they go.
The Lord has spoken and the guns are firing. The Lord is Lord Hutton and his report was into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. David Kelly. Dr. Kelly was a British government scientist and a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq. He was an authority on biological weapons. Part of his work was to talk to journalists, to give them guidance on this complicated question.
One day last May he talked to Andrew Gilligan of the BBC. The result was a radio report that still reverberates. Gilligan said intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction had been "sexed up" in a famous British dossier published in September 2002. He also said a key element in the dossier a claim that Iraq's forces could launch such weapons on 45 minutes' notice was wrong and was included in the dossier by the prime minister's advisers against the will of intelligence chiefs.
The controversy escalated. The media sniffed out Dr. Kelly's name. The government confirmed he was a BBC source. He was called to testify before a House of Commons committee. Two days later, he walked into the woods and killed himself.
Lord Hutton heard evidence about all of this. His report slammed the BBC and all but absolved the government, both in drawing up the dossier and in dealing with Dr. Kelly before his death. The two top men at the BBC, chair Gavyn Davies and director-general Greg Dyke, were forced to resign. So was Andrew Gilligan.
And still the government reeled. There were, it appears, no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The Bush White House announced it would set up an inquiry into what went wrong. The British government of Tony Blair quickly said it would do the same. More headlines, more controversy.
And yet, and yet…
In the midst of this furious media battle, a man stood in a room at Canada House in London talking to several dozen people. This is what he said: "[T]he world continues to be obsessed by war, not disease. This is a pathological sickness, a grotesque double standard which the world embraces."
The man was Canada's Stephen Lewis, the United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. In recent years he has crisscrossed Africa and the world trying to marshal forces to fight the disease.
In the past two years, it's been a struggle. After September 11, 2001, the countries with the money and resources were severely distracted by the "war on terrorism." Lewis described it as a major achievement simply to get the attention of policymakers in Washington in the last year to fund and fight the AIDS battle. Another war, the one in Iraq, takes up far more of their time and billions more of their dollars.
And yet in the war Lewis wages, the enemy is winning. In tones of incredulity, he said that, on the African continent 20 years after AIDS was recognized as a major threat, "the pandemic rages unabated." The numbers are appalling: 25 million people with HIV in Africa; 17 million dead of the disease; 4.1 million with full-blown AIDS today; only 70,000 receiving treatment. And more: 67 per cent of AIDS sufferers in Africa between the ages of 15 and 24 are women and girls. The disease, he says, is relentlessly assaulting the fabric of society on that continent.
The stories Lewis told gave tragic clarity to the statistics. He talked of a group of grandmothers in Alexandra, South Africa, who called themselves the "go-go grannies." It is an upbeat title for a group of women caught in a bitter vise. They are burying their children and trying to take care of their grandchildren. One of the grandmothers simply cried and cried as she told her story: in the past three years she had buried all five of her children. And all of her grandchildren are HIV positive. In the next three years, she will probably bury them, too. The grandmothers must depend on themselves for help, encouragement and comfort.
Grandmothers stripped of their descendants; children alone, stripped of their parents. Lewis called an orphanage in Zambia that he visited "a constellation of horror." There are 11 million orphans in Africa now; by 2010, there may be 20 million orphans. The horror is of a continent where the normal succession of generations has been ripped apart and where children live with and tremble before the omnipresence of death.
Lewis is a charismatic speaker; he told his bleak tale in a way that kept the people in the room transfixed.
And yet, and yet…
There were no headlines and almost no media interest. This, in journalistic parlance, was an "old" story.
Almost 70 years ago, a doctor and professor of epidemiology at Harvard wrote a book called Rats, Lice and History. His name was Hans Zinsser. In it he wrote: "…swords and lances, arrows, machine guns, and even high explosives have had far less power over the fates of nations than the typhus louse, the plague flea, and the yellow-fever mosquito…. War and conquest and that herd existence which is an accompaniment of what we call civilization have merely set the stage for these more powerful agents of human tragedy."
AIDS has now joined and leads this convoy of powerful agents of human tragedy. It has been described by one powerful man as "the greatest weapon of mass destruction." That man is Colin Powell, the American secretary of state.
But, ironically, other weapons and other wars now dominate the minds of the powerful of this world.