The Other Scalae Naturae

Judging by the outpouring of grief and outrage in Canada over the unintended bombing deaths of four Canadian soldiers by a US warplane in Afghanistan, and the absence of grief and outrage over the bombing deaths of thousands of Afghan civilians, some lives must be more worth more than others.

The scale of worthiness, based on the depth and breadth of attention their deaths received, from bottom to top: Afghan soldiers, Afghan civilians, Canadian soldiers, American GIs and CIA officers. A parallel to the scalae naturae which ranked slugs and worms at the bottom and angels at the top.

The deaths of the four Canadian soldiers — mistakenly attacked by a US F-16 — touched off a firestorm of indignation across Canada. President George W. Bush’s failure to publicly express America’s condolences didn’t help, only elevating Canadians’ sense of outrage. In place of a Bush apology came this, from the White House’s chief fabulist Ari Fleischer: “As the President said when he went to the Congress on Sept. 20, this fight against terrorism will risk the loss of life.”

The scene was different, however, on December 11, when it was learned that three American GIs had been killed by friendly fire near Kandahar. During an Oval Office appearance, Bush commiserated:

“I, along with the rest of America, grieve for the loss of life in Afghanistan. I want the families to know that they died for a noble and just cause.”

Canadians may have wanted to believe their soldiers died for a noble and just cause, too. Now, they’re asking questions: “What are we doing there, anyway?”

And when CIA officer Mike Spann was killed in a prison uprising at Mazar-i-Sharif, he was turned into a hero, his death widely grieved. Yet, when thousands of Taliban detainees were slaughtered at the fortress prison, after US and British soldiers called in bombing strikes, the deaths, if they were acknowledged at all, were considered fitting and just, though they represented the aftermath of a heinous war crime.

And then in December, when Marc Herold, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, reported that he had accumulated documented evidence of 3,767 civilian deaths in Afghanistan, the reaction was one of indifference. The usual insincere platitudes about the deaths being regrettable were issued, almost invariably followed up by a callous, “But civilians die in war — what’s new?”

And so, too, in the Middle East, were another scalae naturae reigns: Palestinians at the bottom, Israeli Jews at the top. Far more attention is given to the Israeli victims of Palestinian bombs than to the considerably more numerous Palestinian victims of the collective punishment the Israeli army metes out by way of tanks, Apache helicopters and F-16s, paid for courtesy of American taxpayers

A story on Jenin — “the current state of the camp is ‘horrifying beyond belief’ says the United Nations envoy to the Middle East — runs in the back of newspapers, while Israeli victims of Palestinian suicide bombers get front page coverage. Condemning suicide bombing is obligatory; refraining from criticizing Israeli state terrorism is mandatory.

Alexa McDonough, leader of Canada’s social democratic party, the NDP, recently backed away from earlier comments she made that Israel was practising state terrorism, saying “I think it is not helpful in this situation to talk in those terms.” The party’s foreign affairs critic, Svend Robinson, who had earlier travelled to the occupied territories to express solidarity with the Palestinian people, was relieved of his responsibilities, denounced by a party luminary as a histrionic crank.

Presumably, the now chastened and cowed NDP would have considered it “not helpful in this situation” to have expressed solidarity with the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, preferring instead to take “a balanced approach” which recognized both Nazis and Jews “to be equally responsible for the violence.”

And yet, does Jenin not stand out as testimony to the terrorism of the Israeli army?

“Hundreds of homes were destroyed and at least 2,000 people left homeless,” writes journalist Paul Adams.

“At the camp’s centre is an area, perhaps 150 metres square, where dozens of apartment blocks have simply disappeared, replaced with a mound of pulverized rubble several storeys high. As everyone who sees it says, it looks like an earthquake hit. Many people are living in the wreckage of the surrounding buildings, some sitting in second-storey living rooms that have lost one, and sometimes even two walls. Some people are thirsty, everyone is hungry and many are sick. Turn a corner and you are suddenly slapped with the stink of rotting human flesh.”

But you’re slapped with the stink of rotting Palestinian flesh, and on the scale of worthy lives, Palestinians don’t matter much. Not here. Not where some human beings mean more than others.

Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.

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