Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

ARE DYING AFGHANS "COLLATERAL DAMAGE"?

At least 3700, so far. Thatís the number of civilians killed in Afghanistan by U.S. bombing, according to University of New Hampshire Professor of Economics Marc Herold. He spends all day, every day, scouring news reports from around the world and adding up the totals. If his research is confirmed, it means we have probably killed more civilians than they did on September 11. You can get his details at http://pubpages.unh.edu/~mwherold (then click on the "Afghanistan" link).

Where is good old "collateral damage" when we need it? Thatís the phrase the Pentagon used in the Persian Gulf War to describe civilians killed and wounded by U.S. bombs? "Collateral" means "alongside": the human beings killed, maimed, and scarred, not as the main event, but just as along the way, as an aside.

"Collateral damage" is a wonderful phrase because it makes plain just how little those civilian deaths and injuries matter to the generals and admirals: "Oh, by the way, though we set out to kill soldiers, along the way some civilians fell by the wayside." And of course the obligatory, "We regret that they got in the way." But they were just an aside. Irrelevant to the events that really matter. Nothing to get hung about.

Apparently, that level of honesty was old-fashioned 20th century stuff. In the first war of the 21st century, we donít hear the words "collateral damage." In fact, we rarely hear any words about the civilians crushed, gouged, and blown apart by the bombs our tax dollars buy. When the bombing began, we got a few reports of civilian deaths in Afghanistan. Then the Pentagon public relations machine kicked into high gear, and the civilian deaths evaporated, like trickles of water in a drought-stricken plain.

This is worse than treating civilian suffering as incidental. It is denying that the suffering even exists. It is denying that these millions of people exist. By the miracle of modern television, the Afghan civilian population has been disappeared. I would rather have "collateral damage."

Beyond the 3700 or more direct victims of the bombing are the indirect victims, dying from hunger and cold because relief efforts were suspended. Those victims are, quite literally, countless. No one will ever or can ever count them. We here constant reports that relief shipments are being "resumed," but the results so far seem meager. All the food dropped by U.S. planes would scarcely feed the needy Afghans for a single day. Where snow covers the grow, food drops are useless and starvation increases.

This puts the Pentagonís PR specialists in a bind. Can starving towns and villages really be disappeared from our newspapers and TV screens? On the other hand, can U.S. officials really speak the words "collateral damage"? "Oh, by the way, just as an aside, a million or more human beings fell by the wayside because they got bombs instead of food. We regret these deaths. But they are incidental, irrelevant to the business at hand." That level of honesty might be too embarrassing, even for the Pentagon.

Yes, the Taliban share in the blame. But now that the Taliban are gone, do we want to play the blame game? When George W. Bush was running for president, he told an interviewer,: "We've got a culture that says: ĎIf you have a problem in society, then blame somebody else.í What this country needs to do is to usher in what I call Ďthe responsibility eraí -- where you are responsible for the decisions you make." It seems the president wants us all to take responsibility -- when it is convenient.

The millions facing death do not need tortured debates about who is responsible. They need an end to the bombing and a beginning of massive aid shipments, now. Winter will not wait. If we want to stop terrorism, we should worry less about a few high-profile leaders holed up in the mountains, and more about the outrage that U.S. policies generate, quite understandably, throughout the Muslim world.

For once, I agree with Mr. W. It is time to usher in the responsibility era. We can not wait for a government whose highest moral act is to talk about "collateral damage." We must rise up together, confess that the whole world is responsible, and demand "Food, Not Bombs." United we stand.


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