by Stephen Gowans
If you're looking for specious
reasoning, look no further than your daily newspaper. If it's like the
newspaper I read, the Toronto Globe and Mail, brace yourself for an
assault of logical horrors, forensic tricks, and a sophist's sleights of
hand. Twisted reasoning, untenable inference, unsubstantiated claims,
innuendo -- it's all there, a veritable clinic on how to produce
folderol and make it seem credible.
Ever ready to jump into the breach to
help administration officials deal with the danger of losing "the battle
for the hearts and minds of the world in general, and Muslims in
particular," the Globe's editorial writers have voluntarily signed on to
the war on terrorism. Which means they've enlisted as propagandists,
agreeing to question inconvenient facts, hide what "the public doesn't
need to know right now", and eschew critical questioning even more
vigorously than accustomed -- at least until the war is over.
Today's assignment: Deal with all
those pesky claims that American and British bombs are taking out scores
of innocent Afghans.
First, admit civilian deaths have
happened, but then minimize the number, while pointing out the Taliban
has a motive to inflate the number for "propaganda" purposes, a time-honoured
rhetorical trick. During the Gulf War a bomb that hit a marketplace and
killed civilians led CBS News correspondent Dan Rather to remark: "We
can be sure that Saddam Hussein will make propaganda of these
casualties." You could be sure he'd try to bring the deaths to the
attention of the West. Whether anyone in the West would hear about them
was another matter.
Echoing Rather, the Globe writes that
"Afghanistan's Taliban rulers will milk" the toll of civilian deaths
"vigorously." You can hear the Globe's editorial writers: "Aren't they
horribly unfair? Drawing attention to 16-year old Assudullah, who lost a
leg and two fingers when a missile slammed into a building near his
home. Pointing to Anab, whose head was severed, when a bomb struck her
home. They know perfectly well these deaths and injuries were
US Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld, not as stupid as some journalists who seem to think you can
bomb a country around the clock and not kill civilians, warned there
would be civilian deaths. He knows that civilian casualties, while
inconvenient, while undesired, while never wished for, are inevitable
outcomes of bombing campaigns. They were in the Gulf War. They were in
the war against Yugoslavia. Only a moron, or a propagandist signed on to
the war "for the hearts and minds of the world, and Muslims in
particular," would say otherwise. Take your pick as to which one of
these the Globe's journalists are. Both perhaps.
And is it fair to say civilian deaths
are accidental, when it's admitted that civilian deaths are inevitable?
You can't fire a shot gun at an armed suspect mingling with people in a
crowded room, and say the deaths of innocent bystanders were accidental.
And nor can you say anticipated civilian deaths are accidental, if you
know they're inevitable.
Still, reason has no place in
propaganda. Soon after the bombing began, a Globe reporter cast doubt on
the Taliban claim that civilians had been killed. The claim was
unverified, the reporter said. US and UK bombers were using precision
bombs. And Washington and London said civilians weren't being targeted.
He could have also pointed out, but
didn't, that the claims that US and UK bombers weren't targeting
civilians and were using precision bombs were equally unverified.
To be sure, a reasonable person would
conclude it's a pretty good bet the US and UK aren't deliberately
targeting civilians and are targeting as precisely as they can.
Nevertheless, it is the nature of bombing campaigns that civilians get
killed, and precision bombing isn't always that precise, something
anyone who paid even passing attention to the Gulf War and the war
against Yugoslavia would know. Accordingly, claims that there are
civilian casualties are not to be scoffed at, or denied.
It's also true that the US has had
few qualms in past bombing campaigns about targeting civilian
infrastructure, with full knowledge of the consequence in terms of human
U.S. Air Force General Michael Short
told the Washington Post in 1999 that NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia was
aimed at causing misery for the civilian population to achieve a desired
political end -- the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic. "If you wake up in
the morning," said Short, "and you have no power to your house and no
gas to your stove and the bridge you take to work is down and will be
lying in the Danube for the next 20 years, I think you begin to ask,
'Hey, Slobo, what's this all about? How much more of this do we have to
And Thomas Nagy, a business
professor at George Washington University, uncovered declassified
documents that show Washington knowingly violated Article 54 of the
Geneva Convention which prohibits any country from undermining "objects
indispensable to the survival of (another country's) civilian
population," including drinking water installations and supplies.
During the Gulf War, coalition forces bombed Iraq's eight multi-purpose
dams, destroying flood control systems, irrigation, municipal and
industrial water storage, and hydroelectric power. Major pumping
stations were targeted, and municipal water and sewage facilities were
Writing in the September 2001 issue of The Progressive, Nagy shows that
Washington was aware of the civilian health consequences of destroying
Iraq's drinking water and sanitation systems in the Gulf War, and knew
that sanctions would prevent the Iraqi government from repairing the
This has led to the deaths, by UN
estimates, of 500,000 Iraqi children, an inconvenient figure that Globe
columnist Margaret Wente dismisses as "propaganda," without bothering
to say why she thinks it's propaganda. It's just propaganda. End of
story. That too is a time-honored rhetorical device.
Similarly, the Globe deals with the
claim that 200 Afghan civilians were killed when a US bomb struck the
village of Khorum, by saying "a figure of between two and three dozen
appeared more likely," without saying why. Again, having to back up your
claims is one of those burdens journalists who have signed on to the war
for the hearts and minds of the world, and Muslims in particular, have
relieved themselves of. It's so much easier that way.
And what if the death toll is lower?
Are two dozen to three dozen deaths more acceptable than 200? As if
anticipating the question, the newspaper says "it bears repeating that
all the civilians killed in recent days would still be alive had the
horror of September 11 never occurred," a cruel and insensitive argument
that seeks to pin the blame for the horrors of September 11th on the
starving and wretched of Afghanistan. "Well, if they weren't linked in
some oblique and indirect way to Osama bin Laden," the Globe seems to
say, "they'd all be alive today." This from the same newspaper that
denounces in no uncertain terms the callous idiots who say that the
6,000 who died in the September 11th attacks would be alive today were
it not for the blood-soaked history of U.S. foreign policy. The argument
is the same.
The real problem, the Globe tells us,
giving us a peek into the reasoning behind the propaganda campaign, is
that if we get too wrought up over the deaths of the innocent,
Washington may be pressured to call off the bombing, in which case the
objectives of the attack will never be realized. "Hugely regrettable as
those deaths are, they should not deflect attention from the current
long-term goals of the military campaign," which the Globe then forgets
to specify, but seems to think has something to do with hunting down bin
Perhaps the Globe 's editorial
writers forgot to read their own paper. Just days earlier, it quoted
White House spokesman Ari Fliescher saying , "this is not a war against
Osama bin Laden. ...If Osama bin Laden was gone today, the war would
Having missed that crucial quote, the
Globe soldiers on, assuming that all those Afghans are dying because
Washington needs to collar bin Laden. But there's an obstacle to
surmount. How do we know bin Laden is responsible? The Globe's evidence
is Abu Ghaith's latest videotaped rant about, "the storms will not calm,
especially the aircraft storm." Says the Globe's editorial writers: "If
those words do not acknowledge guilt for the mass murders, by warning of
more, nothing does." If that's true, then all the people, Christian,
Atheist, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Arab, European, American, and Asian who
have warned that the US and UK attacks on Afghanistan are going to
provoke more terrorist attacks, have also admitted guilt. A prediction
of future crimes by persons unspecified, is not evidence of culpability
for past crimes.
Having thereby dispensed with the
problem of civilian casualties -- the Taliban is exaggerating for
propaganda purposes, Washington and London are trying really hard to
limit civilian casualties, the dead probably deserved it anyway, and we
can't afford to be distracted from the main goal of getting our mitts on
bin Laden -- the Globe then moves on to those pesky people who warn
that draconian anti-terrorism legislation borders on fascism.
Using the favorite school yard
trick of "right back at ya" the newspaper charges that those who warn,
as Ben Franklin once did, that he who gives up civil liberties for
security, soon loses both, are themselves soft on fascism -- Islamic
fascism. Here again, the Globe conveniently pins the blame for the
September 11 attacks on Muslims, of the fundamentalist, or fascist
variety, as they've now become known, after Christopher Hitchen's
diatribe. At the same time, the Globe circulates every rumor and twist
in the story of Mohammed Atta, prime suspect in the WTC attack, a man
whose behavior -- strip bar patron, customer of prostitutes,
chain-smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages -- seems to rule out any
connections to Islamic fundamentalism.
But set your mind at ease about
anti-terrorism legislation, the Globe tells us. "Most [people] will not
be terribly inconvenienced. Instead, the cost will be borne by people
who find themselves targets of police suspicion because of their ethnic
background, radical political views or association with immigrant
communities that have ties with groups deemed to be terrorist fronts."
In other words, unless your name is Mohammed, or Moustapha, if you don't
wear a turban, and you don't think the abrogation of civil liberties
borders on fascism, you have nothing to fear.
In Nazi-era Germany, "good Germans"
had nothing to fear either. It was Jews, Gypsies and radicals who had to
watch out. And Nazi-era Germany wasn't fascist, was it? Nor was it
expansionist, hell-bent on a massive build up of its military, which it
was eager to press into service at the drop of a hat, or inclined to
persecute and single out a minority group.
Mr. Steve Gowans is a
writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.