I have been asked to respond to recent Nation articles by Christopher Hitchens (website, September 24; magazine, Oct. 8), and after refusing several times, will do so, though only partially, and reluctantly. The reason for the reluctance is that Hitchens cannot mean what he is saying. For that reason alone–there are others that should be obvious–this is no proper context for addressing serious issues relating to the September 11 atrocities.
That Hitchens cannot mean what he writes is clear, in the first place, from his reference to the bombing of Sudan. He must be unaware that he is expressing such racist contempt for African victims of a terrorist crime, and cannot intend what his words imply. This single atrocity destroyed half the pharmaceutical supplies of a poor African country and the facilities for replenishing them, with an enormous human toll. Hitchens is outraged that I compared this atrocity to what I called “the wickedness and awesome cruelty” of the terrorist attacks of September 11 (quoting Robert Fisk), adding that the actual toll in the Sudan case can only be surmised, because the United States blocked any UN inquiry and few were interested enough to pursue the matter. That the toll is dreadful is hardly in doubt.
Hitchens is apparently referring to a response I wrote to several journalists on September 15, composite because inquiries were coming too fast for individual response. This was apparently posted several times on the web, as were other much more detailed subsequent responses. In the brief message Hitchens may have seen, I did not elaborate, assuming–correctly, judging by subsequent interchanges with many respondents–that it was unnecessary: The recipients would understand why the comparison is quite appropriate. I also took for granted that they would understand a virtual truism: When we estimate the human toll of a crime, we count not only those who were literally murdered on the spot but those who died as a result, the course we adopt reflexively, and properly, when we consider the crimes of official enemies–Stalin, Hitler and Mao, to mention the most extreme cases. If we are even pretending to be serious, we apply the same standards to ourselves: In the case of Sudan, we count the number who died as a direct consequence of the crime, not just those killed by cruise missiles. Again, a truism.
Since there is one person who does not appear to understand, I will add a few quotes from the mainstream press, to clarify.
A year after the attack, “without the lifesaving medicine [the destroyed facilities] produced, Sudan’s death toll from the bombing has continued, quietly, to rise…. Thus, tens of thousands of people–many of them children–have suffered and died from malaria, tuberculosis, and other treatable diseases…. [The factory] provided affordable medicine for humans and all the locally available veterinary medicine in Sudan. It produced 90 percent of Sudan’s major pharmaceutical products…. Sanctions against Sudan make it impossible to import adequate amounts of medicines required to cover the serious gap left by the plant’s destruction…. the action taken by Washington on Aug. 20, 1998, continues to deprive the people of Sudan of needed medicine. Millions must wonder how the International Court of Justice in The Hague will celebrate this anniversary” (Jonathan Belke, Boston Globe, August 22, 1999).