A week ago, it's reasonable to assume, 99.9 percent of Americans had never heard of Congressional Representative Gabrielle Giffords; even fewer knew of federal judge John Roll who died in that Safeway parking lot; and none (other than family and friends) had heard about 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, tragically shot down while learning firsthand how US politics works, or Daniel Hernandez, the congresswoman's intern, who ran towards the gunshots to offer help. Now, we all "know" them as if they were neighbors or friends. Victims of a nightmare, they have been memorialized repeatedly, giving us the feeling that there is something better to American life than Jared Loughner.
In the process, the coverage of the Tucson massacre has been, to say the least, unrelenting. From a media point of view, it's also had its ghoulish side: Think of it as the OJ moment—the discovery that focusing on a high-profile nightmare 24/7 glues eyeballs—meets the more recent massive downsizing of newspapers and TV news. All of this makes "flooding the zone" (covering a single, endlessly reported event) cheaper, less labor intensive, and far more appealing than blanketing the world.
On the other hand, the coverage of the "friendly fire" incident in Afghanistan has been, to put it politely, relenting.
Close to 100 percent of Americans knew nothing about that incident when it happened and close to 100 percent know nothing about it now. Of course, in the fog of war tragic mistakes are made, intelligence gets screwed up, targeting goes awry, deadly mishaps occur. So six local Afghan police mistakenly killed or wounded by a helicopter hardly turn us into slaughtering maniacs (though imagine the attention, had six policemen been shot down anywhere in the United States).
To put this incident in perspective, however, consider five similar "friendly fire" incidents reported from Afghanistan in the five weeks preceding January 10, none of which got significant attention here.
On December 8th in Logar Province, two missiles from a US air strike "mistakenly killed" two Afghan National Army soldiers and wounded five as they were moving to help NATO troops under attack. The Afghan Defense Ministry "condemned" the strike. ("As a result of a bombardment by international forces...two soldiers...were martyred...")
On December 16 in Helmand Province, another air strike killed four Afghan soldiers as they were leaving their base, yet again a case identified as mistaken targeting. Typically, an investigation was launched (though the results of such investigations are almost never reported).
On December 23, "in an attempt to intercept suspected insurgents," a "NATO helicopter" reportedly strafed a car in a convoy heading for "an event hosted by the head of a local council in [Faryab Province in] northern Afghanistan." A policeman and the brother of former parliament member Sarajuddin Mozafari, a local politician, were killed. Two policemen and a civilian were reported wounded. The governor of the province, Abdul Haq Shafaq, was among the guests and aided the wounded. Associated Press reporter Amir Shah quoted the governor this way: " 'We are so angry about this,' Shafaq said, describing the dead as innocents. He called for an investigation into the incident by the attorney general." (Said US Air Force Col. James Dawkins in response to the event: "While we take extraordinary care in conducting operations to avoid civilian casualties, unfortunately in this instance it appears innocent men were mistakenly targeted.... we deeply regret this incident.")
On December 24, there was a "night raid" in Kabul. (The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai regularly condemns such American night raids.) Evidently thanks to mistaken intelligence, two private guards were killed and three wounded when commandos from coalition forces raided the headquarters of the Afghan Tiger Group, "a supplier of vehicles to the United States military." (From the New York Times report on the incident comes the following quote: " 'It was murder,' said Col. Mohammed Zahir, director of criminal investigations for the Kabul police, who arrived at the scene shortly after the raid began and said both victims had been shot in the head.")
On January 5 in Ghazni province, another night raid resulted in the deaths of three Afghans whose bodies were paraded through Ghazni City by angry fellow tribesmen shouting "Death to America." Local officials indicated that the three were indeed innocent civilians; the Americans claimed they were "insurgents."
Massacres like the one in Tucson are more common than Americans like to imagine, but still reasonably rare. The repetitious deaths of "innocents" in Afghanistan are commonplace in a way that Americans generally don't care to consider. Add up the casualties from all six of these incidents between December 8 and January 10 and you get sixteen dead (and thirteen wounded).
Next, put together the mistaken targetings, the American denials or expressions of condolence, the predictable announcements of investigations whose results never seem to surface, as well as the minimalist coverage in the United States, and you have a pattern: that is, something you can be sure will happen again and again on as yet unknown days in 2011 to as little attention here.
And keep in mind that such "incidents" have been the norm of our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal borderlands for years. There have been hundreds or (who knows?) even thousands of them (not that anyone is counting). And yet, let's face it, if we were to look in the mirror, one thing is certain: we would not see a grinning, demented monster staring back at us.
Here's a question: Why don't the dead of our foreign wars register on us, particularly the civilians killed in numbers that, if attributed to our enemies or past imperial armies, would be seen as the acts of barbarians? After all, when a Taliban suicide bomber kills seventeen Afghans and wounds twenty-three in a bathhouse, including a senior police border-control officer, we know just what to think. It wouldn't matter if those who sent the bomber claimed that he had made a "mistake" in targeting, or if they declared the other deaths regrettable "collateral damage." When we attack with similar results, we hardly think about it at all.
I can imagine at least three factors involved:
Tribalism: Yes, we consider them the tribal ones, but we have our own tribal qualities, including a deep-seated feeling that what's close at hand (us) is more valuable than what's far away (them). The valorizing of your own group and the devaluing of those outside it undoubtedly couldn't be more human. Who doesn't know, for instance, that when it comes to media coverage, one blond American child kidnapped and murdered is worth 500 Indonesians drowned on a ferry?
Racism/The Superiority Factor: This subject is no longer raised in connection with American wars, and yet it's obviously of importance. If sixteen Americans had been killed and thirteen wounded in six mistaken-targeting incidents even in distant Afghanistan, we would be outraged. There would be news coverage, Congressional hearings, who knows what. If there had been the same number of dead Canadians or Germans, there would still have been an outcry. But Afghans? Dark-skinned peoples from an alien culture in the backlands of the planet? No way. Our condolences every now and then are the best we have on tap.
The American Way of War: Once upon a time, we Americans responded to air war, especially against civilian populations, as barbaric and, shocked by its effects in Guernica, Shanghai, London and elsewhere, denounced it. That, of course, was before air war became such an integral part of the American way of war. In recent years, American military spokespeople have regularly boasted of the increasingly "surgical" and "precise" nature of air power. The most impressively surgical thing about air war, however, is the way it has been excised from the category of barbarism in our American world. The suicide bomber or car bomber is a monster, a barbarian. Drones, planes, helicopters? No such thing, despite the stream of innocents they kill.
No wonder when we look in the mirror, we don't see the grinning face of a maniac; sometimes we see no face at all, quite literally in the case of the Pakistani tribal borderlands where hundreds have died (always "militants" or "suspected militants") thanks to pilotless drones and video-game-style war.