National Catholic Reporter
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Issue Date:  August 29, 2003

From the Editor’s Desk

Waking up to Rumsfeld

I was awakened Tuesday by the sound of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (can someone actually smirk with his voice?) answering questions about post-war Iraq. Actually, he didn’t answer much. He gave the same kind of glancing answers he usually gives during briefings at the Pentagon. But that kind of stand-up routine doesn’t go over very well on radio.

What piqued my interest was his explanation about the power shortage in Iraq. “I don’t think anyone anticipated the fragility of the Baghdad power system,” he said. “We knew we did not destroy that system in the bombing campaign. What became pretty clear is that for years the system had been decrepit. It had been under-invested in for three decades by the Saddam Hussein regime.”


I was beginning to understand how we blew the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction.

I am not an expert on Iraq or power grids, but I think it is hardly necessary to be expert in either to have an understanding of the fragility of the Baghdad power system. All you had to do is read the papers during the past decade.

The United States may not have damaged the power grid during the latest Iraq war, but we sure did during the first one in 1991 and we were proud of doing so back then.

Immediately after that war, we placed Iraq under the most severe sanctions any country has ever experienced. For years, the place was locked down. Nothing got in, certainly nothing with which to fix a power system. When I visited the country in 1999, rolling brownouts and blackouts were a daily occurrence. Sometimes traffic lights worked, sometimes they didn’t. Many of the public buildings -- hospitals and government buildings included -- simply went without electricity for hours at a time.

The fragility of Baghdad’s power system was no state secret.

Perhaps Rumsfeld knew as little as he said he did about the power system, though I find it difficult to believe. I think, instead, that his assertion about electricity fits the larger picture the administration is attempting to paint about postwar Iraq. If one were to take seriously most of the printed words of administration leaders since U.S. troops hit Baghdad, it would be easy to get the impression that, save for a few inevitable inconveniences, Iraq is just weeks away from a U.S.-style representative democracy.

The afternoon of the Rumsfeld interview, a truck bomb blew up the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad.

Tough to tell where this campaign goes from here.

“If there was any justice,” Jack Egan, the late Chicago monsignor and urban ministry mentor told NCR in 1996, “Phil would be the archbishop of New York.” He was referring to Fr. Philip Murnion, who died Aug. 19.

~ ~ ~

If there were failings of justice they were not Murnion’s doing. Quite the contrary. He spent the four decades of his priesthood working for justice, both in the church and in the world.

Murnion knew, and often served as consultant to, some of the most powerful in the church. Yet the skilled homilist and after-dinner speaker would frequently quote the wisdom of the men he lived with at the Holy Name Center for Homeless Men, leaving some to observe that the most articulate and insightful destitute resided in New York’s Bowery.

In Arthur Jones’ 1996 profile, Murnion spoke of his father, who when he died in 1941 left a widow and five children (Phil was just 3 years old). The children would pray: “Lord have mercy on Daddy. And Daddy dear, please pray for us.”

Lord, have mercy on Phil. And Phil dear, please pray for us.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, August 29, 2003

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