by Richard M. Doerflinger
October 15, 2001
"Remember that the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan, among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eye of Almighty God as can be your own."
No, these words were not addressed to U.S. military leaders by a Catholic bishop or other religious leader in recent weeks. They were spoken by British politician William Gladstone, in 1879.
Gladstone was opposing prime minister Benjamin Disraeli's aggressive efforts to maintain the British empire around the world – efforts that sometimes led to military confrontations. In the instance at hand, British troops had moved into Afghanistan out of concern over the growing presence and influence of – who else? – the Russians. Gladstone was reminding his countrymen that dreams of empire can exact a cost in human life, and that in God's eyes each life is precious regardless of where it is found.
Times have changed. Today U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan are not extending an empire, but seeking to protect our own innocent people. Seeing Russia as the main threat there is obsolete (by a few years). But Gladstone's words cut across time and space, applying to an array of issues that face us now.
Shortly after finding the Gladstone quote, in Andre Maurois' biography of Disraeli, I had to travel by air to give a talk on another sanctity-of-life issue – that of human embryo research. Preparing to board the plane for my return to Washington, I watched as an airport security guard was summoned to the gate to search one of the other passengers. The man, of Middle Eastern appearance, waited patiently while his carry-on bag was emptied and searched, his body screened once again for signs of metal, and so on. I guessed the reason for this extra attention when he offered his passport as identification while boarding the plane – waiting just behind him in line, I saw that the passport was in Arabic.
We made our way down the aisle of the plane – me carrying my briefcase, him carrying his overnight bag and a plush animal, undoubtedly a gift for a young child. And as we passed some seated passengers, I saw expressions of distrust and even fear on their faces when they caught sight of the young man.
I found myself sympathizing with him, knowing that he would be subjected to such "racial profiling" for some time to come whenever he traveled in our country.
And – not to be self-righteous about the matter – when he picked up his bag and opened it during the flight, I glanced over from across the aisle to confirm that he was taking out his portable cassette player and not a box cutter.
The incident reminded me that our instinctive trust in and respect for other people might be among the casualties of the battle with terrorism, if we are not very careful. It is so easy to slip into an "us vs. them" mentality, to classify an entire group of human beings as a potential threat instead of as fellow humans with inviolable rights.
I was also reminded of some questions I've faced when speaking about human embryo research. Bedeviled by exaggerated claims that embryonic stem cells will provide magical cures for disease, some Americans are tempted to exclude the embryo from the human race. A few politicians have even suggested that being conceived outside the womb nullifies the sanctity of life, because "life begins in the womb, not in the Petri dish." The claim is seriously flawed as biology – but it probably makes it easier to sleep at night, if you want to be able to support stem cell research using these embryos.
By the same token, soldiers and executioners might sleep more easily if they could persuade themselves not to see certain people as human beings. More easily, but at what cost?
I had ended my talk on embryo research by quoting Pope John Paul II's recent address to the new U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. He warned that American ideals of freedom could not long survive "in a cultural climate that measures human dignity in strictly utilitarian terms." In the end, I said, we must respect the prisoner, the immigrant, and the unborn child not because we have calculated that they are currently worth more to us alive than dead – but simply because, when we look at any of "them," what we see is one of us. May God prevent our vision from becoming clouded.
(Mr. Doerflinger is Deputy Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.)