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E. de la Vega: Who Will Speak for the Victims?

Who Will Speak for the Victims?

Why we need to shoot the moon in 2007.
By Elizabeth de la Vega
t r u t h o u t | Guest Contributor

Tuesday 19 December 2006

Last year during the holiday season, I wrote a piece called "Shoot the Moon and Forget About the Bell Curve," which was published at In it I asked: Is it futile - or foolish - to continue working to hold the Bush administration to account for defrauding the American people into war, even though the odds of success seemed slim given the Republican-controlled Congress. My answer was a resounding "No!" It is neither futile nor foolish to continue to push for justice despite seemingly intractable obstacles; on the contrary, we have no reasonable choice but to do so.

Twelve months later, it seems we have moved three steps forward and two steps back - or perhaps it is the other way around. Democrats routed the Republicans in an election that was a virtual clarion call for accountability and an end to this war. But now we have our new House leader Nancy Pelosi saying impeachment is "off the table" and Senator Harry Reid considering whether to send more troops to Iraq.

Okay. Maybe the Democrats are not listening, but does that mean we stop talking? No. It means we have to speak up - more loudly and more often. Maybe the Democrats are strategizing themselves into paralysis, but do we give up and say, fine, whatever you guys think is best? Of course not.

Persistence in the face of overwhelming odds is something I think about a lot at this time of year. It was six years ago that George W. Bush received his best Christmas gift ever - the presidency - from the United States Supreme Court. And every year since then, I've thought about the night of December 13, 2000, when the president made his formal acceptance speech. I remember it well: Bush speaking from the Texas House of Representatives about a bipartisan foreign policy and his plan to reunite the country. It's not that I was particularly interested in the president or even the election at that point. I wasn't. I had taken a leave of absence from my job as a federal prosecutor in San Jose and flown 3,000 miles across the country to be with my sister. So I watched the speech while sitting on a portable cot, looking at a hospital TV suspended from the ceiling, while my sister lay in a bed next to me amidst a tangle of tubes. She was dying.

Kathy was 38, a doctor who lived on Cape Cod with her husband and a 3-year-old son, when she was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer. Her prognosis was grim. Statistically, the majority of patients with her diagnosis live for only about six months. But some patients, those represented by a tiny fraction at the far edge of the bell curve, outlived the odds, and Kathy was determined to join that group. So what did she do? Everything. She had a mastectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy; she vomited, lost her hair, and her eyebrows. She took drugs that threw her into menopause, steroids that made her face swell up like a balloon, and herbs that tasted like dirt. She went to acupuncture, mind-body seminars, and Reiki treatments. She endured a cell replacement procedure that kept her isolated for 30 days. In other words, she shot the moon.

By the day of Bush's speech, Kathy's organs were failing. Her liver was, by then, so damaged that her doctors were astounded she could even speak coherently. But she was definitely able to talk that night, especially about Bush's speech. (She was extremely annoyed that it pre-empted The West Wing.) Kathy died three days later, six years after her initial diagnosis.

Throughout her ordeal, one of my sister's persistent concerns was what other people would think. Would her medical colleagues consider her irrational, if not crazy, to pursue treatments that were so uncomfortable and painful, not to mention unproven or improbable in terms of success? And what would her patients think? Kathy would call me regularly to talk about those questions.

In the end, though, she answered them herself. As long as there was uncertainty, the slightest possibility that she could land at the odds-defying edge of that bell curve and have a longer life, it made sense to her to do anything she could do, regardless of what others thought.

We can do no less when it comes to pushing for an end to the United States' invasion and occupation of Iraq. We can do no less when it comes to insisting that the Bush administration be held accountable for the fraud that led us there - and keeps us there. Why do I say this? The invasion of Iraq is both the product of a crime and a crime in and of itself. I do not use these terms casually or colloquially. The United States' war against Iraq is the fruit of a massive fraud perpetrated by our highest elected officials; it is also an illegal, unjustified war. Most important, these are not victimless crimes. Indeed, there are literally millions of victims, each of whom has suffered real and irreparable harm.

It is up to each of us to speak for them, and in doing so, to focus on the reality of their suffering, because it is reality that most powerfully counteracts the mass anesthetic that the Bush administration has used to keep people from questioning the war. While masquerading as hard-headed realists, the president and war hawks from both parties have been, at best, determined illusionists. They have shrouded the war in abstractions - victory, freedom, the spread of democracy - all of which are, ultimately (to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway in his World War I novel A Farewell to Arms) obscene, especially when juxtaposed against the concrete names of soldiers killed, Iraqis bombed, millions of Iraqis displaced, towns destroyed, and children maimed. The truth is that the closer you get to the reality of the war against Iraq and the lies that brought us there - and these are quite literally matters of life and death - the easier it is to know what to do: Shoot the moon and forget about the bell curve.

The most potent antidote to the obscenity of abstraction is fact. Focus on the facts. Make sure you get them right and don't overstate your case. Talk about the lies, the half-truths, deliberate misrepresentations, statements made with reckless disregard for the truth that sent us to Iraq. Talk about the hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis slaughtered, the soldiers killed and wounded, the families they've left behind. Don't play the administration's word games about civil war and torture: talk about waterboarding, humiliation, and beatings. Write letters, demonstrate, make calls, send emails, wear t-shirts, join groups, organize, talk to anyone who will listen and even people who won't. Demand hearings, advocate impeachment, push the Senate to analyze the administration's use of pre-war intelligence, call for a special prosecutor - and tell Congress it's time to bring the troops home. Don't worry about the odds.

What good does any of this do? The answer is we don't know - which is exactly why we have to do it.

Whether the victims of this crime are 8,000 miles away or eight miles away, they are our neighbors. And they need our help. We need to speak up for our neighbors.


Elizabeth de la Vega, a former federal prosecutor with more than 20 years of experience, is the author of the new book, United States v. George W. Bush et al. During her tenure with the Department of Justice, she was a member of the Organized Crime Strike Force and chief of the San Jose Branch of the US Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California. Her pieces have appeared in The Nation magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and Salon. She writes regularly for She may be contacted at ElizabethdelaVega @

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