In early December, another dreadful statistic — more than 3,500 dead — was made public, except this time the figure did not refer to the appalling mass grave at Ground Zero. No, this gruesome number described the civilian death toll so far in Afghanistan from America’s so-called “surgical” air strikes since Operation Enduring Freedom began.
Pulling together multiple accounts from a wide range of sources, University of New Hampshire Professor Marc W. Herold determined that these Afghani bystanders died from U.S. bombing runs, many of which directly hit villages scattered throughout the countryside. In his research, Herold discovered only rare or buried accounts of ongoing Afghan civilian deaths in the U.S. media, even though these appeared prominently and repeatedly in British, Canadian, French, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Australian news sources and in United Nations and humanitarian relief agency reports.
“People have to know that there is a human cost to war, and that this is a war with thousands of casualties,” says Herold. “These were poor people to begin with, and, on top of that, they had absolutely nothing to do with the events of September 11.”
This claim not only calls into doubt the military’s ongoing denials about Afghan deaths, it begs the question of just how many more innocents the Bush Administration is willing to sacrifice in its seemingly open-ended “war on terrorism.”
It’s worth recalling that administration officials have consistently urged Americans to be outraged at the mass murder of innocent civilians in New York and Washington at the hands of a band of merciless killers. But what are we to make of the thousands of innocents killed in Afghanistan at the hands of American bombers or the millions driven from their homes, only to find refuge in disease-ridden, food-scarce camps bordering Pakistan?
To justify all this, we are told to be proud of “smoking out” a few presumed terrorists from the caves of Tora Bora, installing a loose-knit band of anti-Taliban warlords to power, and making it possible once again for Afghan men to shave their beards without fear of imprisonment. But our overwhelming and lethal means of achieving these aims have basically given the green light to repressive governments the world over to use whatever violent methods they want against newly labeled “terrorists” in their midst.
Conveniently, all this war-making has also shunted aside much-needed reconsideration of America’s over-reliance on oil from the Middle East and Central Asia to fuel our careless consumption. Similarly forgotten are the widely held grievances about American foreign policy in the region — particularly our country’s maintenance of brutal sanctions against the Iraqi people, our effective bankrolling of Israel’s increasingly shameful military occupation in the Palestinian territories, our ongoing support of corrupt monarchies and dictatorships, our extensive training of paramilitaries and death squads, our unmatched weapons sales to thuggish rulers, and our continued stationing of bases and troops in Saudi Arabia (from which not only Osama bin Laden originated, but also 15 of the 19 airplane hijackers).
Since our imposing policies go largely unreported in the corporate-owned U.S. mass media, Americans are developing a false sense of innocence about what their government is doing in their name. In a new book called “9-11,” world-renowned political theorist Noam Chomsky notes that the United States is regarded in much of the world as a leading terrorist state due to its killing of several million civilians during the past few decades. In addition to the well-known case of Vietnam, Chomsky also lists Laos, Cambodia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, East Timor, Sudan, Iraq, and Yugoslavia as places where the U.S. government has been implicated. Unfortunately, Chomsky’s list is only the tip of the iceberg.
What’s worse is that despite claims to the contrary, little has changed about U.S. military policy since September 11. Excited by their high-powered, low-risk victory over the meager Taliban, a cadre of Pentagon officials and congressional leaders is hatching plans to attack a host of other impoverished nations said to be “harboring” terrorists, whether or not they have any connection to America’s worst terrorist tragedy. At the top of their list is renewed military action against an already devastated Iraq.
Amazingly, we still ask the question “Why do they hate us?” with a straight face.
In a recent visit to a hospital treating Afghan war victims in the Pakistani border town of Quetta, journalist Robert Fisk encountered a man named Mahmat who had been asleep in his home when a bomb from an American B-52 fell on his village of Kazikarez. “The plane flies so high that we cannot hear them and the mud roof fell on them,” Mahmat said, referring to his wife Rukia and their six children. He told Fisk that Rukia, who lay in the next room, did not yet know that her children were dead.
What was particularly disturbing to Fisk was the vision of desperate rage that he saw in Mahmat’s eyes. “I could see something terrible: he and the angry cousin beside him and the uncle and the wife’s brother in the hospital attacking Americans for the murders that they had inflicted on their family…”
We may not want to admit it, but thousands of Mahmats have been created in Afghanistan — and among sympathetic observers throughout the world — since America’s military onslaught began. With every escalation of this conflict, we’re practically inviting maniacal hatred to be unleashed again against Americans. And since those so moved will not likely have armies, navies, or air forces to command, their methods will be covert and their targets will be civilians.
It’s not too late to oppose the vengeful, militaristic policies of the Bush Administration and the Pentagon. We still have freedom of speech and assembly — at least for the time being. We need to exercise those rights now more than ever in defense of truly civilized values and to spark democratic debate — remember that? — about where our nation should be headed.
At a recent national forum on international relations, Jim Garrison, President of the State of the World Forum, remarked that “the only solution to hate is to stop the underlying causes that produce it, working within the community of nations to achieve goals that benefit the poor as well as the rich, the south as well as the north, the developing nations as well as those more advanced. Achieving this, America will fulfill the deepest yearning of one of its founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, who wrote that he believed the real destiny of America would not be about power; it would be about light.”
It is the height of patriotism to labor for justice as the true path to peace and security, not the quick-fix catharsis of revenge. That should be our real call to duty as Americans.
Aaron G. Lehmer is a writer and activist living in Arcata, California.