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."