Every day for several months, the New York Times did what should always be done when a tragedy is summed up in a statistic: It gave us miniature portraits of the human beings who died on September 11—their names, photos, glimmers of their personalities, their idiosyncrasies, how friends and loved ones remember them.
As the director of the New York Historical Society said: “The peculiar genius of it was to put a human face on numbers that are unimaginable to most of us…. It’s so obvious that every one of them was a person who deserved to live a full and successful and happy life. You see what was lost.”
I was deeply moved, reading those intimate sketches—”A Poet of Bensonhurst…A Friend, A Sister…Someone to Lean On…Laughter, Win or Lose…” I thought: Those who celebrated the grisly deaths of the people in the twin towers and the Pentagon as a blow to symbols of American dominance in the world—what if, instead of symbols, they could see, up close, the faces of those who lost their lives? I wonder if they would have second thoughts, second feelings.
Then it occurred to me: What if all those Americans who declare their support for Bush’s “war on terrorism” could see, instead of those elusive symbols—Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda—the real human beings who have died under our bombs? I do believe they would have second thoughts.
There are those on the left, normally compassionate people whose instincts go against war, who were, surprisingly, seduced by early Administration assurances and consoled themselves with words like “limited” military action and “measured” response. I think they, too, if confronted with the magnitude of the human suffering caused by the war in Afghanistan, would have second thoughts.
True, there are those in Washington and around the country who would not be moved, who are eager—like their counterparts elsewhere in the world—to kill for some cause. But most Americans would begin to understand that we have been waging a war on ordinary men, women and children. And that these human beings have died because they happened to live in Afghan villages in the vicinity of vaguely defined “military targets,” and that the bombing that destroyed their lives is in no way a war on terrorism, because it has no chance of ending terrorism and is itself a form of terrorism.
But how can this be done—this turning of ciphers into human beings? In contrast with the vignettes about the the victims featured in the New York Times, there are few available details about the dead men, women and children in Afghanistan.
We would need to study the scattered news reports, usually in the inside sections of the Times and the Washington Post, but also in the international press—Reuters; the London Times, Guardian and Independent; and Agence France-Presse.
These reports have been mostly out of sight of the general public (indeed, virtually never reported on national television, where most Americans get their news), and so dispersed as to reinforce the idea that the bombing of civilians has been an infrequent event, a freak accident, an unfortunate mistake.
Listen to the language of the Pentagon: “We cannot confirm the report…civilian casualties are inevitable…we don’t know if they were our weapons…it was an accident…incorrect coordinates had been entered…they are deliberately putting civilians in our bombing targets…the village was a legitimate military target…it just didn’t happen…we regret any loss of civilian life.”
“Collateral damage,” Timothy McVeigh said, using a Pentagon expression, when asked about the children who died when he bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City. After reports of the bombing of one village, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said, “We take extraordinary care…. There is unintended damage. There is collateral damage. Thus far, it has been extremely limited.” The Agence France-Presse reporter quoting her said: “Refugees arriving in Pakistan suggested otherwise. Several recounted how twenty people, including nine children, had been killed as they tried to flee an attack on the southern Afghan town of Tirin Kot.”
Listening to the repeated excuses given by Bush, Rumsfeld and others, one recalls Colin Powell’s reply at the end of the Gulf War, when questioned about Iraqi casualties: “That is really not a matter I am terribly interested in.” If, indeed, a strict definition of the word “deliberate” does not apply to the bombs dropped on the civilians of Afghanistan, then we can offer, thinking back to Powell’s statement, an alternate characterization: “a reckless disregard for human life.”
The denials of the Pentagon are uttered confidently half a world away in Washington. But there are on-the-spot press reports from the villages, from hospitals where the wounded lie and from the Pakistan border, where refugees have fled the bombs. If we put these reports together, we get brief glimpses of the human tragedies in Afghanistan—the names of the dead, the villages that were bombed, the words of a father who lost his children, the ages of the children. We would then have to multiply these stories by the hundreds, think of the unreported incidents and know that the numbers go into the thousands. A professor of economics at the University of New Hampshire, Marc Herold, has done a far more thorough survey of the press than I have. He lists location, type of weapon used and sources of information. He finds the civilian death toll in Afghanistan up to December 10 exceeding 3,500 (he has since raised the figure to 4,000), a sad and startling parallel to the number of victims in the twin towers.
The New York Times was able to interrogate friends and family of the New York dead, but for the Afghans, we will have to imagine the hopes and dreams of those who died, especially the children, for whom forty or fifty years of mornings, love, friendship, sunsets and the sheer exhilaration of being alive were extinguished by monstrous machines sent over their land by men far away.
My intention is not at all to diminish our compassion for the victims of the terrorism of September 11, but to enlarge that compassion to include the victims of all terrorism, in any place, at any time, whether perpetrated by Middle East fanatics or American politicians.
In that spirit, I present the following news items (only a fraction of those in my files), hoping that there is the patience to go through them, like the patience required to read the portraits of the September 11 dead, like the patience required to read the 58,000 names on the Vietnam Memorial:
From a hospital in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, reported in the Boston Globe by John Donnelly on December 5:
“In one bed lay Noor Mohammad, 10, who was a bundle of bandages. He lost his eyes and hands to the bomb that hit his house after Sunday dinner. Hospital director Guloja Shimwari shook his head at the boy’s wounds. ‘The United States must be thinking he is Osama,’ Shimwari said. ‘If he is not Osama, then why would they do this?'”
The report continued:
“The hospital’s morgue received 17 bodies last weekend, and officials here estimate at least 89 civilians were killed in several villages. In the hospital yesterday, a bomb’s damage could be chronicled in the life of one family. A bomb had killed the father, Faisal Karim. In one bed was his wife, Mustafa Jama, who had severe head injuries…. Around her, six of her children were in bandages…. One of them, Zahidullah, 8, lay in a coma.”
In the New York Times, Barry Bearak, reporting December 15 from the village of Madoo, Afghanistan, tells of the destruction of fifteen houses and their occupants. “‘In the night, as we slept, they dropped the bombs on us,’ said Paira Gul, a young man whose eyes were aflame with bitterness. His sisters and their families had perished, he said…. The houses were small, the bombing precise. No structure escaped the thundering havoc. Fifteen houses, 15 ruins…. ‘Most of the dead are children,’ Tor Tul said.”
Another Times reporter, C.J. Chivers, writing from the village of Charykari on December 12, reported “a terrifying and rolling barrage that the villagers believe was the payload of an American B-52…. The villagers say 30 people died…. One man, Muhibullah, 40, led the way through his yard and showed three unexploded cluster bombs he is afraid to touch. A fourth was not a dud. It landed near his porch. ‘My son was sitting there…the metal went inside him.’ The boy, Zumarai, 5, is in a hospital in Kunduz, with wounds to leg and abdomen. His sister, Sharpari, 10, was killed. ‘The United States killed my daughter and injured my son,’ Mr. Muhibullah said. ‘Six of my cows were destroyed and all of my wheat and rice was burned. I am very angry. I miss my daughter.'”
From the Washington Post, October 24, from Peshawar, Pakistan, by Pamela Constable: “Sardar, a taxi driver and father of 12, said his family had spent night after night listening to the bombing in their community south of Kabul. One night during the first week, he said, a bomb aimed at a nearby radio station struck a house, killing all five members of the family living there. ‘There was no sign of a home left,’ he said. ‘We just collected the pieces of bodies and buried them.'”
Reporter Catherine Philp of the Times of London, reporting October 25 from Quetta, Pakistan: “It was not long after 7 pm on Sunday when the bombs began to fall over the outskirts of Torai village…. Rushing outside, Mauroof saw a massive fireball. Morning brought an end to the bombing and…a neighbor arrived to tell him that some 20 villagers had been killed in the blasts, among them ten of his relatives. ‘I saw the body of one of my brothers-in-law being pulled from the debris,’ Mauroof said. ‘The lower part of his body had been blown away. Some of the other bodies were unrecognizable. There were heads missing and arms blown off….’ The roll call of the dead read like an invitation list to a family wedding: his mother-in-law, two sisters-in-law, three brothers-in-law, and four of his sister’s five young children, two girls and two boys, all under the age of eight.”
Human Rights Watch report, October 26: “Twenty-five-year-old Samiullah…rushed home to rescue his family…. he found the bodies of his twenty-year-old wife and three of his children: Mohibullah, aged six; Harifullah, aged three; and Bibi Aysha, aged one…. Also killed were his two brothers, Nasiullah, aged eight, and Ghaziullah, aged six, as well as two of his sisters, aged fourteen and eleven.”
From Reuters, October 28, Sayed Salahuddin reporting from Kabul: “A U.S. bomb flattened a flimsy mud-brick home in Kabul Sunday, blowing apart seven children as they ate breakfast with their father…. Sobs racked the body of a middle-aged man as he cradled the head of his baby, its dust-covered body dressed only in a blue diaper, lying beside the bodies of three other children, their colorful clothes layered with debris from their shattered homes.”
Washington Post Foreign Service, November 2, from Quetta, Pakistan, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran: “The thunder of the first explosions jolted Nasir Ahmed awake…. he grabbed his 14-year-old niece and scurried into a communal courtyard. From there, he said, they watched as civilians who survived the bombing run, including his niece and a woman holding her 5-year-old son, were gunned down by a slow-moving, propeller-driven aircraft circling overheard. When the gunship departed an hour later, at least 25 people in the village—all civilians—were dead, according to accounts of the incident provided today by Ahmed, two other witnesses, and several relatives of people in the village.
“The Pentagon confirmed that the village was hit…but officials said they believe the aircraft struck a legitimate military target…. Asked about civilian casualties, the official said, ‘We don’t know. We’re not on the ground.’
“Shaida, 14…. ‘Americans are not good…. They killed my mother. They killed my father. I don’t understand why.'”
A Newsday report on November 24 from Kabul, by James Rupert: “In the sprawling, mud-brick slum of Qala-ye-Khatir, most men were kneeling in the mosques at morning prayer on November 6 when a quarter-ton of steel and high explosives hurtled from the sky into the home of Gul Ahmed, a carpet weaver. The American bomb detonated, killing Ahmed, his five daughters, one of his wives, and a son. Next door, it demolished the home of Sahib Dad and killed two of his children….
“Ross Chamberlain, the coordinator for U.N. mine-clearing operations in much of Afghanistan…. ‘There’s really no such thing as a precision bombing…. We are finding more cases of errant targeting than accurate targeting, more misses than hits.'”
The New York Times, November 22, from Ghaleh Shafer, Afghanistan: “10-year-old Mohebolah Seraj went out to collect wood for his family, and thought he had happened upon a food packet. He picked it up and lost three fingers in an explosion. Doctors say he will probably lose his whole hand…. his mother, Sardar Seraj…said that she cried and told the doctors not to cut off her son’s whole hand…
“The hospital where her son is being cared for is a grim place, lacking power and basic sanitation. In one room lay Muhammad Ayoub, a 20-year-old who was in the house when the cluster bomb initially landed. He lost a leg and his eyesight, and his face was severely disfigured. He moaned in agony…. Hospital officials said that a 16-year-old had been decapitated.”
A New York Times report on December 3 from Jalalabad, Afghanistan, by Tim Weiner: “The commanders, who are pro-American…say that four nearby villages were struck this weekend, leaving 80 or more people dead and others wounded…. The villages are near Tora Bora, the mountain camp where Mr. bin Laden is presumed to be hiding. A Pentagon spokesman said Saturday that the bombing of civilians near Tora Bora ‘never happened.’
“Eight men guarding the building [a district office building]…were killed, [mujahedeen commander] Hajji Zaman said. He gave the names of the dead as Zia ul-Hassan, 16; Wilayat Khan, 17; Abdul Wadi, 20; Jany, 22; Abdul Wahid, 30; Hajji Wazir, 35; Hajji Nasser, also 35; and Awlia Gul, 37…. Ali Shah, 26, of Landa Khel, said, ‘There is no one in this village who is part of Al Qaeda.’
“Witnesses said that at least 50 and as many as 200 villagers had been killed.
“‘We are poor people,’ [Muhammad] Tahir said. ‘Our trees are our only shelter from the cold and wind. The trees have been bombed. Our waterfall, our only source of water—they bombed it. Where is the humanity?'”
The Independent, December 4: “The village where nothing happened…. The cemetery on the hill contains 40 freshly dug graves, unmarked and identical. And the village of Kama Ado has ceased to exist…. And all this is very strange because, on Saturday morning—when American B-52s unloaded dozens of bombs that killed 115 men, women and children—nothing happened…. We know this because the U.S. Department of Defense told us so…. ‘It just didn’t happen.'”
The New York Times, December 12, David Rohde, writing from Ghazni, Afghanistan: “Each ward of the Ghazni Hospital features a new calamity. In the first, two 14-year-old boys had lost parts of their hands when they picked up land mines. ‘I was playing with a toy and it exploded,’ said one of them, Muhammad Allah…. a woman named Rose lay on a bed in the corner of the room, grunting with each breath. Her waiflike children slept nearby, whimpering periodically. Early on Sunday morning, shrapnel from an American bomb tore through the woman’s abdomen, broke her 4-year-old son’s leg and ripped into her 6-year-old daughter’s head, doctors here said. A second 6-year-old girl in the room was paralyzed from the waist down. X-rays showed how a tiny shard of metal had neatly severed her spinal cord.”
Reported in the Chicago Tribune, December 28, by Paul Salopek, from Madoo, Afghanistan: “‘American soldiers came after the bombing and asked if any Al Qaeda had lived here,’ said villager Paira Gul. ‘Is that an Al Qaeda?’ Gul asked, pointing to a child’s severed foot he had excavated minutes earlier from a smashed house. ‘Tell me’ he said, his voice choking with fury, ‘is that what an Al Qaeda looks like?'”
Reuters, December 31, from Qalaye Niazi, Afghanistan: “Janat Gul said 24 members of his family were killed in the pre-dawn U.S. bombing raid on Qalaye Niazi, and described himself as the sole survivor…. In the U.S. Major Pete Mitchell—a spokesman for U.S. Central Command—said: ‘We are aware of the incident and we are currently investigating.'”
Yes, these reports appeared, but scattered through the months of bombing and on the inside pages, or buried in larger stories and accompanied by solemn government denials. With no access to alternative information, it is not surprising that a majority of Americans have approved of what they have been led to think is a “war on terrorism.”
Recall that Americans at first supported the war in Vietnam. But once the statistics of the dead became visible human beings—once they saw not only the body bags of young GIs piling up by the tens of thousands but also the images of the napalmed children, the burning huts, the massacred families at My Lai—shock and indignation fueled a national movement to end the war.
I do believe that if people could see the consequences of the bombing campaign as vividly as we were all confronted with the horrifying photos in the wake of September 11, if they saw on television night after night the blinded and maimed children, the weeping parents of Afghanistan, they might ask: Is this the way to combat terrorism?
Surely it is time, half a century after Hiroshima, to embrace a universal morality, to think of all children, everywhere, as our own.
Published in The Nation • February 2, 2002