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PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
AND NORTH KOREA:
A TALE OF TWO STORIES
Two potentially huge news stories broke earlier this
week: North Koreaís nuclear
test and the shockingly high civilian death toll from the U.S. war in Iraq. The North Korea story continues to dominate the
headlines, while the Iraq
death toll story has quickly disappeared.
By all logic it should have been the other way around.
The North Korea story is
about a deadly attack on the U.S.
that might conceivably happen in the future, though itís extremely unlikely.
The Iraq story is about deadly
attacks perpetrated by the U.S.,
paid for by our taxpayersí money, every day.
Consider some simple math. According to the Johns
Hopkins study, there is a 95% certainty that the civilian death rate in Iraq has exceeded
the normal expected by at least 426,269 -- and probably much more, but letís
work with the low figure to be safe. The normal expected figure is based on the
death rate during the Saddam regime, which (according to a reputable
conservative source, The Wall Street Journal) killed as many as 14,500 civilians
every year for twenty years.
†The new Hopkins study also broke
down the excess deaths in categories based on cause: 56% from gunshots; 27% from
exploding bombs; 13% airstrikes. Itís that last
number that should still be dominating the headlines. Neither ďinsurgentsĒ nor Shiíites nor Sunnis nor Kurds have airplanes that drop
bombs. That 13% came completely from American military aircraft. Do the math:
13% of even just 400,000 (the absolute minimum figure) is 52,000. The study
covered the first 40 months after the U.S. invasion. Thatís 3.3 years.
52,000 divided by 3.3 gives us 15,777 dead civilians per year.
In other words, U.S. aerial bombardment alone has
killed Iraqi civilians at a faster rate than Saddamís killers -- at least 1000
more per year. Thatís the most conservative figure. If we use the actual number
of deaths the Hopkins study suggests -- 601,000
-- then we get 78,130 civilian deaths from U.S. bombardment. Divide that by
3.3, and we get 23,674 deaths per year. Thatís over 50% more killing than the
Saddamís regime 14,500 per year. And thatís just from aerial bombardment. No
one will ever know how many civilians were shot or beaten or tortured to death
Yet this story has all but disappeared from the
mainstream news. Thatís not just because the White House dismissed it so
quickly. The mainstream editors are not puppets of the Bush administration. Many
agree with over 60% of the public that the war was a mistake. Many agree with
the Democrats who say we need a firm plan for withdrawing our troops.
The story of the atrocious death count in Iraq
disappeared, I think, because it does not fit any plot that Americans are
familiar or comfortable with. The stories that Americans are willing to hear
have no room for their own soldiers as perpetrators of slaughter. They must
always feature Americans only as real or potential victims of monsters out to
destroy us. So when we destroy the monsters, we are still innocent victims,
acting only in self-defense.
Thatís why the story of North Koreaís attack stays in the
headlines. It has been shaped to fit the plot line Americans are so fond of.
Koreaís leader, Kim Jong-Il, is taking a lot
of risks to develop an atomic bomb. Why does think itís worth the risks?† In the mainstream American media there seem
to be only two possible answers. Maybe Kim is just another crazy dictator in
the mold of Saddam Hussein. But the more common answer is that heís a shrewd
bargainer, a wily dictator maneuvering to boost his power by manipulating
splits in the international community and showing the U.S. to be a
paper tiger. If you see the issue through either of those lenses, the Bush
administration's tough stance against North Korea can make a lot of
But overseas people get a different story, because
their news is often written by real journalists who go out and get facts rather
than just repeating the official U.S. government line.† Donald Greenlees, a
reporter for the International Herald Tribune, called a bunch of people who
really know something about North
Korea and asked them why Kim is so dead set
on having atomic bombs.
Itís not about any desire to grab attention or gain
leverage in negotiations, he found. Itís about Kimís fear that his conventional
military forces arenít strong enough to withstand an attack from outside.† Kim ďis not trying to make foreigners dance
to his tune,Ē one expert told Greenlees.† ďIn many ways, the foreigners are irrelevant.
He decided many years ago that he has no friends, and he needs a nuclear weapon
in order to survive.Ē
Kim has seen how easily the U.S.
disposed of Iraqís
second-rate military. He canít afford to build a first rate conventional
military. So he has concluded, quite logically, that the most cost-effective
way to defend his country it is to have a nuclear deterrent. In other words, North Korea is doing just what the United States
has done, and what most Americans expect our own government to continue doing.
The New York Times website deserves credit for posting
Greenleesí story. And the Washington Post deserves
credit for running a brief commentary by Donald Gregg, the first President
Bushís national security advisor, who wrote: ďDonít panic. Kim Jong-ilís objective is survival ... not suicide.Ē But those
stories were posted only for one day, and they never made it to the print
editions, because they contradicted everything else you could read in the Times,
the Post, or any other mainstream U.S. source. Indeed, the Times ran
an op-ed asserting that North Koreans are "irrational" and
"suicidal." Rather than give us accurate analysis, our media
would rather disseminate Americaís
favorite story: the crazy or foxy monster who is out
to destroy us, the innocent victims.
That story was first invented to justify white Americaís
annihilation of Native Americans. In the 20th century it served to
legitimate our long wars against Germany
and the Soviet Union. Now it is pressed into
service for the Bush administration's long war against terrorism, which in turn
is supposed to justify the war in Iraq, where we kill people faster
than Saddam ever did. The same story is also used to justify planning for a war
If the Bush administration has its way, weíll soon see
it used to justify sanctions that will kill thousands of innocent North Koreans
who already live on the edge of starvation -- unless we protest loud and
strong, demanding that our government base its policies on the best information
that knowledgeable people can provide, not the best stories that our media can
spin. But the media will keep telling those stories, because they make money by
giving the people what they want. The long-term task is to get Americans to
understand how their own stories kill innocent people abroad and undermine our
own security here at home.