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Civilian Casualties: Theirs and Ours

by William Blum

The question is now upon us.

Who killed more innocent, defenseless people? The terrorists in the United States on September 11 with their crashing airplanes? Or the American government in Afghanistan the past ten weeks with their AGM-86D cruise missiles, their AGM-130 missiles, their 15,000 pound “daisy cutter” bombs, their depleted uranium, and their cluster bombs?

The count in New York and Washington is now a little over 3,000 and going down steadily. The total count of civilian dead in Afghanistan has been essentially ignored by American officials and the domestic media, but a painstaking compilation of domestic and international press reports by University of New Hampshire professor Marc Herold, hunting down the many incidents of 100-plus counts of the dead, the scores of dead, the dozens, and the smaller numbers, arrived at 3,767 through December 6, and still counting.

Ah, people say, but the terrorists purposely aimed to kill civilians (actually, many of the victims were military or military employees), while any non-combatant victims of the American bombings were completely accidental.

Whenever the United States goes into one of its periodic bombing frenzies and its missiles take the lives of numerous civilians, this is called “collateral damage” — inflicted by the Fates of War — for the real targets, we are invariably told, were military. But if day after day, in one country after another, the same scenario takes place — dropping lethal ordnance with the knowledge that large numbers of civilians will perish or be maimed, even without missiles going “astray” — what can one say about the intentions of the American military?

The best, the most charitable, thing that can be said is that they simply don’t care. They want to bomb and destroy for certain political ends and they don’t particularly care if the civilian population suffers grievously. Often, the US actually does want to cause the suffering, hoping that it will lead the people to turn against the government. This was a recurrent feature of the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. US/NATO officials freely admitted this again and again.

Now let’s look at the September 11 terrorist hijackers. They also had a political purpose: retaliation for decades of military, economic and political oppression imposed upon the Middle East by The American Empire. The buildings targeted by them were clearly not chosen at random. The Pentagon and World Trade Center represented the military and economic might of the United States, while the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania may well have been aiming for the political wing, the White House. Destruction of these institutions — powerful both symbolically and in actuality — was the purpose of the operation. And the resulting casualties? In the hijackers’ view, these people could be seen as collateral damage. The best, the most charitable, thing that can be said is that the hijackers simply didn’t care.

In reaction to some awful photos of Afghan victims of US bombing that appeared in the US media, the host of Fox News Channel’s “Special Report with Brit Hume”, in a November program, wondered why journalists should bother covering civilian deaths at all. “The question I have,” said Hume, “is civilian casualties are historically, by definition, a part of war, really. Should they be as big news as they’ve been?”

Mara Liasson from National Public Radio was direct: “No. Look, war is about killing people. Civilian casualties are unavoidable.”

Fox pundit and U.S. News & World Report columnist Michael Barone had no argument. “I think the real problem here is that this is poor news judgment on the part of some of these news organizations. Civilian casualties are not, as Mara says, news. The fact is that they accompany wars.”

But, if in fact the September 11 attacks were an act of war, as we’re told repeatedly, then the casualties of the World Trade Center were clearly civilian war casualties. Why then has the media devoted so much time to their deaths?

William Blum is the author of Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II and Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower. Portions of the books can be read at: superogue/homepage.htm (with a link to Killing Hope)

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