It was not possible to turn away in face of such suffering

ALICE STEINBACH

December 10, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

In the end, it was the pictures that compelled us to act: th fly-ridden faces of dying babies too weak to open their eyes, the starving bodies of 30-pound teen-agers with limbs as fragile as sticks, the walking skeletons of men and women whose blank eyes no longer convey even the slightest flicker of a life force.

In the end, it was not possible to look upon such pictures without thinking: This is the worst life can get.

And, in the end, it was not possible to turn away, to do nothing in the face of such suffering.

Which brings us to Operation Restore Hope. In what may be George Bush's finest hour, he explained his decision to intervene in Somalia in these simple but powerful words: "The people of Somalia, especially the children of Somalia, need our help. We're able to ease their suffering. We must help them live."

His message drew a positive response from the majority of Americans. A recent CBS News poll found that 72 percent of those surveyed support Operation Restore Hope.

Still, even among those who support such an effort, there are questions being raised as to where such a mission might lead the United States:

* Are we setting a precedent? If we come to the aid of Somalia, how can we then justify not doing the same for Bosnia or Liberia or Haiti?

* Should we be feeding starving people in other parts of the world when there are hungry people here in America?

* How do we get out of Somalia once the "humanitarian" mission is accomplished? Are we in any danger of falling into a Vietnam-type quagmire?

These are troubling issues, to be sure. But in thinking about how one could respond to them, it strikes me that the best way to answer such questions may be to raise a parallel set of questions:

* If you can't feed every starving person in the world, why bother to feed any at all?

* If you can't solve every problem in every troubled country in the world, why bother to solve one?

* If you can't predict with absolute certainty the outcome of an action -- even in a situation that seems likely to have a positive outcome -- wouldn't it be more prudent to remain inactive?

It seems to me there are consequences to weighing the consequences of any plan too cautiously for too long a time. Too many consultations and pilot projects and studies can lead to a paralysis of action. And, perhaps, a paralysis of the human spirit as well.

But Operation Restore Hope seems to have shaken loose the spirit of altruism in Americans. Even among some of those who are homeless and hungry themselves. When "Dateline NBC" recently asked a number of homeless people in New York City for their views on whether America should address hunger here before feeding the starving Somalis, most spoke out in favor of aiding the starving Africans.

And it is impressive and touching to hear the feelings expressed by some of the young Americans sent to Somalia as part of Operation Restore Hope. "It makes you feel good to do something for somebody else," said a Marine from Camp Pendleton. And a corporal from Texas who had just landed in Somalia summed up his feelings in very simple, human terms: "I feel we're doing right," he told an NBC reporter.

You don't often hear such plain language. In fact, we seem to live in a time when we are no longer very comfortable with the concept of "right" and "wrong." Ours is more a time of situational ethics and relative values.

But those who study the early years of childhood tell us that altruism -- the wish to do good -- is a deep, human drive; that even before the age of 2 there is an inborn readiness in all of us to be altruistic. Unfortunately, there is also a counter-drive to be selfish. And the nature of the mature person who emerges from the child, say psychoanalysts, is greatly shaped by whether altruism or selfishness becomes the dominant force.

Maybe I'm wrong but there seems to be a breeze of altruism in the air; one that could restore hope, perhaps, not only to starving Somalis but to dispirited Americans as well. It has been suggested by some politicians -- Republicans as well as Democrats -- that it may be time to redefine what our global role should be in a post-Cold War world.

In the end, Operation Restore Hope may not work. It may have consequences we won't like.

But in the end, it's still the right thing to do.

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