by Howard Zinn
The Nation magazine, February 11, 2002
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,
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
But how can this be done-this turning of ciphers into human
beings? In contrast with the vignettes about 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."
Listening to the repeated excuses given by Bush, Rumsfeld
and others, one recalls Colin Powell's reply at the end of the
Gulf War, when questioned about Iraqi casualties: "That is
really not a matter I am terribly interested in." If, indeed,
a strict definition of the word "deliberate" does not
apply to the bombs dropped on the civilians of Afghanistan, then
we can offer, thinking back to Powell's statement, an alternate
characterization: "a reckless disregard for human life."
The denials of the Pentagon are uttered confidently half a
world away in Washington. But there are on-the-spot press reports
from the villages, from hospitals where the wounded lie and from
the Pakistan border, where refugees have fled the bombs. If we
put these reports together, we get brief glimpses of the human
tragedies in Afghanistan-the names of the dead, the villages that
were bombed, the words of a father who lost his children, the
ages of the children. We would then have to multiply these stories
by the hundreds, think of the unreported incidents and know that
the numbers go into the thousands. A professor of economics at
the University of New Hampshire, Marc Herold, has done a far more
thorough survey of the press than I have. He lists location, type
of weapon used and sources of information. He finds the civilian
death toll in Afghanistan up to December 10 exceeding 3,500 (he
has since raised the figure to 4,000), a sad and startling parallel
to the number of victims in the twin towers.
The New York Times was able to interrogate friends and family
of the New York dead, but for the Afghans, we will have to imagine
the hopes and dreams of those who died, especially the children,
for whom forty or fifty years of mornings, love, friendship, sunsets
and the sheer exhilaration of being alive were extinguished by
monstrous machines sent over their land by men far away.
My intention is not at all to diminish our compassion for
the victims of the terrorism of September 11, but to enlarge that
compassion to include the victims of all terrorism, in any place,
at any time, whether perpetrated by Middle East fanatics or American
politicians · M- ~ ~A. ~ ~ AA A ~ AA ~` ~ ~
In that spirit, I present the following news items (only
a fraction of those in my files), hoping that there is the patience
to go through them, like the patience required to read the portraits
of the September 11 dead, like the patience required to read the
58,000 names on the Vietnam Memorial:
From a hospital in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, reported in the
Boston Globe by John Donnelly on December 5:
"In one bed lay Noor Mohammad, 10, who was a bundle of
bandages. He lost his eyes and hands to the bomb that hit his
house after Sunday dinner. Hospital director Guloja Shimwari shook
his head at the boy's wounds. 'The United States must be thinking
he is Osama,' Shimwari said. 'If he is not Osama, then why would
they do this?"'
The report continued:
"The hospital's morgue received 17 bodies last weekend,
and officials here estimate at least 89 civilians were killed
in several villages. In the hospital yesterday, a bomb's damage
could be chronicled in the life of one family. A bomb had killed
the father, Faisal Karim. In one bed was his wife, Mustafa Jama,
who had severe head injuries.... Around her, six of her children
were in bandages.... One of them, Zahidullah, 8, lay in a coma."
In the New York Times, Barry Bearak, reporting December 15
from the village of Madoo, Afghanistan, tells of the destruction
of fifteen houses and their occupants. "'In the night, as
we slept, they dropped the bombs on us,' said Paira Gul, a young
man whose eyes were aflame with bitterness. His sisters and their
families had perished, he said.... The houses were small, the
bombing precise. No structure escaped the thundering havoc. Fifteen
houses, 15 ruins.... 'Most of the dead are children, " Tor
Another Times reporter, C.J. Chivers, writing from the village
of Charykari on December 12, reported "a terrifying and rolling
barrage that the villagers believe was the payload of an American
B-52.... The villagers say 30 people died.... One man, Muhibullah,
40, led the way through his yard and showed three unexploded cluster
bombs he is afraid to touch. A fourth was not a dud. It landed
near his porch. 'My son was sitting there. . .the metal went inside
him.' The boy, Zumarai, 5, is in a hospital in Kunduz, with wounds
to leg and abdomen. His sister, Sharpari, 10, was killed. 'The
United States killed my daughter and injured my son,' Mr. Muhibullah
said. 'Six of my cows were destroyed and all of my wheat and rice
was burned. I am very angry. I miss my daughter."'
From the Washington Post, October 24, from Peshawar, Pakistan,
by Pamela Constable: "Sardar, a taxi driver and father of
12, said his family had spent night after night listening to the
bombing in their community south of Kabul. One night during the
first week, he said, a bomb aimed at a nearby radio station struck
a house, killing all five members of the family living there.
'There was no sign of a home left,' he said. 'We just collected
the pieces of bodies and buried them."'
Reporter Catherine Philp of the Times of London, reporting
October 25 from Quetta, Pakistan: "It was not long after
7 PM on Sunday when the bombs began to fall over the outskirts
of Torai village.... Rushing outside, Mauroof saw a massive fireball.
Morning brought an end to the bombing and. . .a neighbor arrived
to tell him that some 20 villagers had been killed in the blasts,
among them ten of his relatives. 'I saw the body of one of my
brothers-in-law being pulled from the debris,' Mauroof said. 'The
lower part of his body had been blown away. Some of the other
bodies were unrecognizable. There were heads missing and arms
blown off....' The roll call of the dead read like an invitation
list to a family wedding: his mother-in-law, two sisters-in-law,
three brothers-in-law, and four of his sister's five young children,
two girls and two boys, all under the age of eight."
Human Rights Watch report, October 26: "Twenty-five-year
old Samiullah...rushed home to rescue his family.... he found
the bodies of his twenty-year-old wife and three of his children:
Mohibullah, aged six; Harifullah, aged three; and Bibi Aysha,
aged one.... Also killed were his two brothers, Nasiullah, aged
eight, and Ghaziullah, aged six, as well as two of his sisters,
aged fourteen and eleven."
From Reuters, October 28, Sayed Salahuddin reporting from
Kabul: "A U.S. bomb flattened a flimsy mud-brick home in
Kabul Sunday, blowing apart seven children as they ate breakfast
with their father.... Sobs racked the body of a middle-aged man
as he cradled the head of his baby, its dust-covered body dressed
only in a blue diaper, Iying beside the bodies of three other
children, their colorful clothes layered with debris from their
Washington Post Foreign Service, November 2, from Quetta,
Pakistan, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran: "The thunder of the first
explosions jolted Nasir Ahmed awake.... he grabbed his 14 year-old
niece and scurried into a communal courtyard. From there, he said,
they watched as civilians who survived the bombing run, including
his niece and a woman holding her 5-year old son, were gunned
down by a slow-moving, propeller-driven aircraft circling overheard.
When the gunship departed an hour later, at least 25 people in
the village-all civilians-were dead, according to accounts of
the incident provided today by Ahmed, two other witnesses, and
several relatives of people in the village. "The Pentagon
confirmed that the village was hit...but officials said they believe
the aircraft struck a legitimate military target.... Asked about
civilian casualties, the official said, 'We don't know. We're
not on the ground.'
"Shaida, 14.... 'Americans are not good.... They killed
my mother. They killed my father. I don't understand why."'
A Newsday report on November 24 from Kabul, by James Rupert:
"In the sprawling, mud-brick slum of Qala-ye-Khatir, most
men were kneeling in the mosques at morning prayer on November
6 when a quarter-ton of steel and high explosives hurtled from
the sky into the home of Gul Ahmed, a carpet weaver. The American
bomb detonated, killing Ahmed, his five daughters, one of his
wives, and a son. Next door, it demolished the home of Sahib Dad
and killed two of his children....
"Ross Chamberlain, the coordinator for U.N. mine-clearing
operations in much of Afghanistan.... 'There's really no such
thing as a precision bombing.... We are finding more cases of
errant targeting than accurate targeting, more misses than hits."'
The New York Times, November 22, from Ghaleh Shafer, Afghanistan:
"10-year-old Mohebolah Seraj went out to collect wood for
his family, and thought he had happened upon a food packet. He
picked it up and lost three fingers in an explosion. Doctors say
he will probably lose his whole hand.... his mother, Sardar Seraj...said
that she cried and told the doctors not to cut off her son's whole
"The hospital where her son is being cared for is a grim
place, lacking power and basic sanitation. In one room lay Muhammad
Ayoub, a 20-year-old who was in the house when the cluster bomb
initially landed. He lost a leg and his eyesight, and his face
was severely disfigured. He moaned in agony.... Hospital officials
said that a 1 6-year-old had been decapitated."
A New York Times report on December 3 from Jalalabad, Afghanistan,
by Tim Weiner: "The commanders, who are proAmerican. . .say
that four nearby villages were struck this weekend' leaving 80
or more people dead and others wounded.... The villages are near
Tora Bora, the mountain camp where Mr. bin Laden is presumed to
be hiding. A Pentagon spokesman said Saturday that the bombing
of civilians near Tora Bora 'never happened.'
"Eight men guarding the building [a district office building]...were
killed, [mujahedeen commander] Hajji Zaman said. He gave the names
of the dead as Zia ul-Hassan, 16; Wilayat Khan, 17; Abdul Wadi,
20; Jany, 22; Abdul Wahid, 30; Hajji Wazir, 35; Hajji Nasser,
also 35; and Awlia Gul, 37.... Ali Shah, 26, of Landa Khel, said,
'There is no one in this village who is part of Al Qaeda.'
"Witnesses said that at least 50 and as many as 200 villagers
had been killed.
"'We are poor people,' [Muhammad] Tahir said. 'Our trees
are our only shelter from the cold and wind. The trees have been
bombed. Our waterfall, our only source of water-they bombed it.
Where is the humanity?"'
The Independent, December 4: "The village where nothing
happened.... The cemetery on the hill contains 40 freshly dug
graves, unmarked and identical. And the village of Kama Ado has
ceased to exist.... And all this is very strange because, on Saturday
morning-when American B-52s unloaded dozens of bombs that killed
115 men, women and children-nothing happened.... We know this
because the U.S. Department of Defence told us so.... 'It just
The New York Times, December 12, David Rohde, writing from
Ghazni, Afghanistan: "Each ward of the Ghazni Hospital features
a new calamity. In the first, two 14-year-old boys had lost parts
of their hands when they picked up land mines. 'I was playing
with a toy and it exploded' said one of them, Muhammad Allah....
a woman named Rose lay on a bed in the corner of the room, grunting
with each breath. Her waif-like children slept nearby, whimpering
periodically. Early on Sunday morning, shrapnel from an American
bomb tore through the woman's abdomen, broke her 4-year-old son's
leg and ripped into her 6-year-old daughter's head, doctors here
said. A second 6-year-old girl in the room was paralyzed from
the waist down. X-rays showed how a tiny shard of metal had neatly
severed her spinal cord."
Reported in the Chicago Tribune, December 28, by Paul Salopek,
from Madoo, Afghanistan: "'American soldiers came after the
bombing and asked if any Al .Qaeda had lived here,' said villager
Paira Gul. 'Is that an Al Qaeda?' Gul asked, pointing to a child's
severed foot he had excavated minutes earlier from a smashed house.
'Tell me' he said, his voice choking with fury, 'is that what
an Al Qaeda looks like?"'
Reuters, December 31, from Qalaye Niazi, Afghanistan:
"Janat Gul said 24 members of his family were killed
in the predawn U.S. bombing raid on Qalaye Niazi, and described
himself as the sole survivor.... In the U.S. Major Pete Mitchell-a
spokesman for U.S. Central Command-said: 'We are aware of the
incident and we are currently investigating."'
Yes, these reports appeared, but scattered through the months
of bombing and on the inside pages, or buried in larger stories
and accompanied by solemn government denials. With no access to
alternative information, it is not surprising that a majority
of Americans have approved of what they have been led to think
is a "war on terrorism."
Recall that Americans at first supported the war in Vietnam.
But once the statistics of the dead became visible human beings-
once they saw not only the body bags of young GIs piling up by
the tens of thousands but also the images of the napalmed children,
the burning huts, the massacred families at My Lai-shock and indignation
fueled a national movement to end the war.
I do believe that if people could see the consequences of
the bombing campaign as vividly as we were all confronted with
the horrifying photos in the wake of September 11, if they saw
on television night after night the blinded and maimed children,
the weeping parents of Afghanistan, they might ask: Is this the
way to combat terrorism?
Surely it is time, half a century after Hiroshima, to embrace
a universal morality, to think of all children, everywhere, as
Howard Zinn is the author, most recently, of Terrorism and
War, forthcoming from Seven Stories Press.