In a safe in Jared Loughner's parents' house, investigators from the Pima County Sheriff's Department found documents with the words "I planned ahead," "My assassination," and "Giffords." The words of a madman. When a Taliban suicide bomber strikes, we know that we are staring off-the-charts brutality in the face. When it comes to our killings, it's always another matter.
And yet, even if every one of those Afghan deaths was "mistaken," there was nothing innocent about the killings. If something happens often enough to be a predictable horror, then those who commit the acts (and those who send them to do so, as well as those who have the luxury of looking the other way) are responsible, and should be accountable.
After all, week after week, month after month, year after year since September 11, 2001, the deaths have piled up relentlessly. Towers and towers of deaths. Barely reported, seldom named, hardly noted, almost never grieved over in our world, those dead Afghans, Iraqis and Pakistanis had parents who assumedly loved them, friends who cared about them, enemies who might have wanted to target them, colleagues and associates who knew their quirks. We're talking so many Safeways' worth of them that it's beyond reckoning.
Civilians repeatedly killed at checkpoints; 12 Afghans including a 4-year-old girl, a 1-year-old boy, and three elderly villagers shot down near the city of Jalalabad when Marine Special Operations forces, attacked by a suicide bomber, fired wildly along a ten-mile stretch of road in April 2007; at least twelve Iraqi civilians (including two employees of Reuters) slaughtered by an Apache helicopter on a street in Baghdad in July 2007; at least seventeen Iraqi civilians murdered by Blackwater contractors protecting a convoy of State Department vehicles in Nisour Square, Baghdad, in September 2007.
Any recent year has such "highlights": a popular Kabul Imam shot to death in his car from a passing NATO convoy with his 7-year-old son in the back seat in January 2010; at least twenty-one Afghan civilians killed when US jets mistakenly fired on three mini-buses in Uruzgan Province in February 2010; five civilians killed and up to eighteen wounded when US troops raked a passenger bus with gunfire near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan in April 2010; and ten Afghan election workers killed and two wounded last September in a "precision air strike" on a "militant's vehicle."
And that, of course, is just to scratch the surface of such incidents. Wedding parties have repeatedly been obliterated (at least seven in Afghanistan and Iraq), naming ceremonies for children wiped out and funerals blown away.
Bodies and more bodies. All "mistakes." And yet, knowing the mistakes that have happened and assured of the mistakes to come, our leaders are still talking about US "combat troops" staying in Afghanistan through 2014; our vice-president is pledging us to remain "well beyond" that year; one of our senators is calling for permanent bases there; our trainers are expecting to conduct training exercises in 2016; and in the meantime, our Afghan war commander is calling in more air power, more night raids and more destruction.
Nowhere do we see the face of a madman grinning, but the toll across the years is that of a cold-blooded killer. It's the mark of barbarism, even if we're not fanatics.
[Note: Let me offer a small bow of special thanks to three invaluable websites: Juan Cole's Informed Comment, Antiwar.com (including the prodigious Jason Ditz), and Paul Woodward's War in Context. Without them, it would be so much harder to follow the news about America's distant wars.]