One of the few international documents signed by Israel and, for example, Iran or Iraq, is the one founding the World Health Organization and the ongoing commitment to fight illness. WHO was founded in 1946 and became a part of the United Nations in 1949. Its basic principle is quite simple, and more related to common sense than politics: the fight for health and against the illnesses that have decimated humanity, especially the poor, in the past. In Boccaccio's "Decameron," the wealthy found refuge in an aristocratic villa near Florence to protect themselves during the Black Death. The poor in the city had no escape.
The main victims of epidemics, and even scourges that are not epidemics – smallpox, leprosy, bubonic plague, pellagra, anthrax and all the other diseases – are the weak, the old, children and the poor. Fighting illness is in everyone's interest.
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So spreading disease, as Islamic extremism is doing today, is a violation of the most basic international convention. Even if somebody wages war against whomever they dislike, even if he destroys the existence and freedom of civilians by committing unspeakable acts of terrorism – like attacking skyscrapers or blowing up a discotheque or a pizza shop – well, it is different when they attack the very heart of this basic convention. When you spread anthrax or smallpox, then you lose your right to humanitarian treatment – they who spread illnesses are beyond any legitimate existence, because they attack life itself.
For instance, when Saddam Hussein complains that his people are suffering for political reasons (the lie continues that the American embargo is killing Iraqi children, not Saddam's criminal, mindless use of funds to build secret bunkers) or the Taliban show the world of their multitudes marching towards the borders, their reproaches are void of credibility. Saddam used mustard gas against the Iranians, nerve gas against the Kurds and today the anthrax factories might well be his. Bin Laden, guest of the Taliban, spreads poison to reintroduce anthrax and smallpox.
The Israeli secret service recently revealed with great reticence that extremist Palestinian groups have attempted to use chemical weapons and a widespread chemical terrorist attack was planned for Jerusalem. Anyone ready to transgress the basic principle that humanity must fight illness (like smallpox or anthrax) and infections (like those set off by nerve gas), puts put himself outside of humanity.
Much has been said about superior or inferior civilizations. Since the end of World War II, there has been agreement that, whatever their basic cultures and religions, democracies are superior to dictatorships. It is curious indeed to see this consensus disintegrating right now. It is of no importance that Turkey is a Muslim country if it is democratic, as indeed it is. We will have a disaster on our hands if we use a deplorable, multi-cultural rationale justifying pain and misery to accept the lack of freedom in non-Judeo-Christian civilizations.
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And we will have another disaster on our hands if we think that that any cause can justify terrorism, that your terrorist is my freedom fighter. A terrorist is someone who deliberately attacks civilian objectives with the aim of killing to spread terror. A terrorist is a commonplace enemy, because terror is the final violation of any form of civil coexistence, possible freedom, movement, education, jobs and just life.
Still, there is a legitimate debate under way today on the two basic issues of freedom and terrorism. Even when we think that the truth about terrorism and freedom has its own moral evidence, the discussion is legitimate. But beyond that, beyond any possible level of tolerability, we enter another world when there is the violation of the international contract to fight illness. We can have no pity in the face of this danger. Any sense of pity must be deadened.
When there is a danger of infecting the world with deadly diseases, we have to fight every war there is. There is no higher social or moral action than saving a child – not from some chance risk when a bomb is unfortunately dropped, but when a mortgage is placed on the lives of our children and grandchildren. Our children and grandchildren, for example, could now need vaccinations against smallpox – a disease that was eradicated, a victory for the entire world. Both Iraq and Israel were winners, for once. But no longer.