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The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Let’s take the very, very long view of America’s decision to make health care available to eight million or more vulnerable and uninsured children. The crude political compromises that led to passage of imperfect health care reform might have obscured a grand achievement: an end to the sacrifice of American children on the altar of insurance industry greed and a moral setback for the bankrupt ideology that justified it.

So, let’s talk about Isaac, son of the Biblical patriarch Abraham, and Iphigenia, daughter of the ancient Greek King Agamemnon. These children lie beneath the sharpened butcher-blades of their fathers and warn humankind of the karmic catastrophe that is the willful sacrifice of children.

The images and narratives are deeply embedded in the roots of Western Civilization: Isaac and Abraham atop the dry, windswept land of Moriah; Iphigenia and Agamemnon across the waters on the rocky shore of Aulis. The “Binding of Isaac” was first written down in the 9th or 8th Century B.C. Iphigenia’s tragedy first appears in the Kypria, probably written in the 7th Century B.C. Both oral legends date to the far distant past of the Ancient Near East. Two great epics of Western culture pivot upon the theme of child murder.

Isaac and Iphigenia speak with literature’s most profoundly innocent voices. Isaac asks, “Father! Here is the fire and the wood but where is the sheep for the offering?” And Iphigenia: “I must say goodbye to the light.” Their words undam the heart and roll like a river through the troubled conscience of humankind.

Hear their voices as you consider this. In Crowley, Texas, the very week the health care reform bill was approved, Blue Cross/Blue Shield denied coverage to a newborn baby, Houston Tracy, saying he was born with an uncovered pre-existing condition. Without emergency heart surgery, Houston would die. One shudders to think that this ritual sacrifice was commonplace, and might be again if we are not vigilant.

And sacrifice it would have been, to Mammon and Moloch. Millions of children have been denied care to serve the profits of the health insurance industry. We are told the deaths are an actuarial necessity so that we may live, not so different from the ancient rationale of human sacrifice condemned by the Greeks, by the Hebrew Bible’s Yahweh and by Jesus. The Qur’an says flatly: “Kill not your children.” This ought to cause contented insurance actuaries to do a little soul searching, however much they want to gloat over a 2010 study that ranked them as holding the very best jobs in the country.

Despite the ethical injunctions, our history is strewn with the bones of children sacrificed to power-mad ambition or some ideology or another. Most of us honor the inherited moral imperative. Billions of children are raised in love and nurturance, one of our best proofs that goodness survives among us. Isaac was saved from Abraham’s cleaver; a ram took his place on the altar of death. According to legend (explored by Euripides), the goddess Artemis intervened in Iphigenia’s sacrifice, replaced her with a deer and spirited her away to Tauris.

Blue Cross/Blue Shield, facing a storm of bad publicity over Baby Houston, relented and paid for the child’s urgent care. Also, the health insurance industry backed off its threat to use a loophole in the reform bill to deny coverage to children. Innocent Isaac and Iphigenia live yet in our hearts, or in enough of our hearts that the insurance moguls drop their sharpened knives when caught in the act.

But this begs the question: how has the sacrifice of children continued at all, whether in war, by neglect, or by bureaucratic insurance company edict? “We’ll buy back our own harm with what is most dear to us,” said Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra, to Agamemnon. We have bought ourselves a lot of harm over the millennia.

Last year, UNICEF reported that global childhood deaths had fallen below nine million a year. Another UNICEF report tells us that between 1986 and 1996, two million children were killed in war. Four to five million were disabled and 12 million left homeless. I couldn’t find figures for the last 14 years, but it’s a safe bet that there’s been no decline.

The fundamentalists and absolutists will blame original sin for the slaughter, arguing that it’s the fault of those who refuse to follow their Law. Their oaths are hollow. It’s the fundamentalists and absolutists who are deeply implicated in the awful crimes. I can hear them screaming already at the question, but what is the moral difference between the free market fundamentalists of the insurance industry who have condemned children to death in the name of the Invisible Hand and those who bomb innocents in the name of Allah, or Yahweh, or Jesus, or the Fatherland?

“We’ll buy back our own harm with what is most dear to us,” Clytemnestra said. Her words are a warning to nations in war who shrug off the deaths of civilians, including children, with the euphemism, “collateral damage.” Violent zealots who blow up schools and markets in the name of their god or ideology should consider Agamemnon’s fate, as should insurance executives and their empowering politicians.

Today, we can celebrate some signs of an awakening, here and around the globe. According to UNICEF, the number of global, under-five deaths fell from 12.5 million in 1990 to 2008 less than 9 million in 2008. Global measles deaths have fallen 74 percent.

We should be proud of extending health care to millions of children once excluded. Still, it is just a beginning, an acknowledgment of a moral responsibility too long ignored by too many. The United States ranked last among the 21 developed nations in children’s well-being. Around the world, one billion children are deprived of services essential to survival and development.

The lion sleeps tonight, but the lion is not yet tamed. Maybe we should let the children sing that song to us.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith