I am personally opposed to the death penalty. Still, I’d be lying if I said I cared a great deal about the fate of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon bomber. Tsarnaev and his brother committed a hideous crime that cost three innocent people their lives, blew limbs off of seventeen others, and wounded two hundred and forty more. Please don’t ask me to shed a tear for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whose death penalty trial begins on April 21st.
What does bother me quite a bit is not so much the possibility that Tsarnaev may be sentenced to death (I hope he is not) as the utter failure of United States political and media culture to grant remotely serious moral attention to the important fact that Tsarnaev and his older brother decided to kill Americans in what they perceived as, in the words of The New York Times last week, “retaliation for American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The Times’ word choices were too mild. It would be much more accurate to say “retaliation for criminal, mass-murderous, and imperial US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Boston v. Bola Boluk
The Tsarnaev brothers’ crime was despicable. But let’s compare their transgression with another crime that occurred early in the presidency of Barack Obama. Before Boston, there was Bola Boluk. In the first week of May 2009, a U.S. air-strike killed more than ten dozen civilians in Bola Boluk, a village in western Afghanistan’s Farah Province. Ninety-three of the dead villagers torn apart by U.S. explosives were children. Just 22 were males 18 years or older. As the New York Times reported: “In a phone call played on a loudspeaker on Wednesday to…the Afghan Parliament, the governor of Farah Province, Rohul Amin, said that as many as 130 civilians had been killed, according to a legislator, Mohammad Naim Farahi…. The governor said that the villagers have brought two tractor trailers full of pieces of human bodies to his office to prove the casualties that had occurred…. Everyone was crying…watching that shocking scene.’ Mr. Farahi said he had talked to someone he knew personally who had counted 113 bodies being buried, including…many women and children” (NYT, May 6, 2009).
The initial response of the Obama Pentagon to this horrific incident—one among many mass U.S. aerial civilian killings in Afghanistan and Pakistan beginning in the fall of 2001—was to blame the deaths on “Taliban grenades.” Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed “regret” about the loss of innocent life, but the Administration refused to issue an apology or to acknowledge U.S. responsibility. By contrast, Obama had just offered a full apology and fired a White House official for scaring New Yorkers with an ill-advised Air Force One photo-shoot flyover of Manhattan that reminded people there of 9/11 (New York Daily News, April 28, 2009; Los Angeles Times, May 9, 2009).
The disparity was remarkable: frightening New Yorkers led to a full presidential apology and the discharge of a White House staffer. Killing more than 100 Afghan civilians did not require any apology. Nobody had to be fired. And the Pentagon was permitted to advance preposterous claims about how the civilians perished—stories that were taken seriously by corporate media. The U.S. subsequently conducted a dubious “investigation” of the Bola Boluk slaughter that slashed the civilian body count and blamed the Taliban for putting civilians in the way of U.S. bombs.
“Really Good at Killing People”
“Peace prize? He’s a killer.” So said a young Pashtun man to an Al Jazeera English reporter on December 10, 2009—the day Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize. “The man,” the reporter wrote, “spoke from the village of Armal, where a large crowd gathered around the bodies of twelve people, one family from a single home, all killed by U.S. Special Forces during a late-night raid. ”
Nearly three years later, the peace prize hero agreed with the young Muslim from Armal. "Turns out,” Obama said to White House aides while reflecting on the CIA drone assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, “I'm really good at killing people. Didn't know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine."
Al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, a U.S. citizen, was killed in a separate U.S. drone strike two weeks after his father.
Overseeing the expansion of the CIA’s targeted killing program, the peace prize idol has long personally managed the agency’s Kill List, which designates secretly selected “bad guys” for liquidation without the irksome obstructions of law. Call it same day imperial assassination.
Obama is a skilled murderer in a wide range of places. While his “cowboy” predecessor George W. Bush has him beat by far on total body count (thanks to “the American-led war in Iraq”), Obama takes the prize when it comes to geographical scope. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism last January, “At least 2,464 people have now been killed by US drone strikes outside the country’s declared war zones [Iraq and Afghanistan] since President Barack Obama’s inauguration six years ago.” The Nobel champion’s drones, bombs, missiles, and Special Forces have wreaked havoc in many more Muslim nations than were invaded by Bush’s troops, something that has helped Washington spread and intensify Salafist jihad across a much broader territory (including Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria) in the Age of Obama
Bola Boluk, Armal, and the Awlakis are just drops in the giant river of blood that the United States has created across the Muslim world since the September 11, 2001 jetliner attacks on “the homeland.” In his important 2011 book The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars (Oxford University Press), John Tirman, the Principal Research Scientist and Executive Director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, determined that the US invasion of Afghanistan led to as many as 35,000 civilian deaths, “including nonviolent ‘excess’ deaths, with about 9000 from direct U.S. military action, through the first half of 2010.” That’s the noncombatant death toll in what Obama considered Bush’s “good war,” actually no less illegal than the invasion of Iraq.
As for Bush’s “bad war” (occasionally criticized as a “blunder” and “mistake” but never as an imperial or murderous crime in “mainstream” US media-politics culture), Tirman conservatively estimates that the orgy of violence conducted and unleashed by “Operation Iraqi Freedom” produced “hundreds of thousands of [Iraqis] deaths, perhaps close to a million” along with four million displaced and “a society in shambles.” It’s true that the US lost thousands of troops in Iraq but the US body count was tiny in comparison to the Iraqi one: the US to Iraqi death ratio was 1 to 200.
Who cares? Not the American people, at least not by Tirman’s account. The “casualty aversion” that tends to repeatedly undermine US public support for Washington’s global wars is always mainly about the deaths of U.S. military personnel, Tirman notes. It has little to do with the much bigger swath of humanity the US kills abroad (more than two million people in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975 and probably as many as 2 million in Iraq from 1990 through 2011). The West’s shocking “absence of concern,…absence of sympathy” and “collective autism” regarding civilian suffering in the Muslim world is shaped by a dominant “homeland” political discourse that refuses to seriously discuss “the deaths of others” at US hands and makes “even the scattered attempts to account for the [foreign] dead [i.e., Iraq Body Count]… [into] a highly charged endeavor” (Tirman)
Numb About Unreported Crimes
In Tirman’s view, this indifference is rooted in mass evolutionary-psychological responses of “denial,” “withdrawal,” “psychic numbing,” victim-blaming (“they brought it on themselves”) and other mental and emotional means (“it all turned for the best in the end”). These defense mechanisms function to “mitigate the horror of the outcomes we’re witnessing” and to reduce our perception that “the world is perhaps unjust, threatening, and random.”
Tirman may be on to something, but there’s a problem with his argument. Thanks to the imperial and nationalist ideological and related informational biases and deletions of reigning US corporate-state “mainstream” media, US citizens for the most part simply do not have much opportunity to witness the horror that the US Empire inflicts on others around the world. As Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky demonstrated in their classic text Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), one way that US “mainstream” reporters, editors, and commentators prove their “balanced” safety to those who wield power and keep their careers afloat is by respecting and enforcing a great doctrinal distinction between “worthy” and “unworthy victims.” Under dominant mass media rules, people killed and maimed by official enemies of the U.S. and its allies in the world geopolitical order are worthy victims. Their fates deserve serious investigation, empathy, mourning, and solemn efforts to identify and punish those who harmed and killed them. The vastly greater number of people the U.S. and its clients and allies have killed and maimed abroad receive no such heartfelt acknowledgement and grave concern. They are unworthy, largely uncounted, and anonymous victims in reigning U.S. media and politics culture. They are at best faceless and unquantified “collateral damage” in Washington’s inherently noble efforts to do “good” around the world, as far as the leading U.S. communications authorities are concerned. They do not merit serious attention. Their fate is generally ignored, their stories untold in US media.
It’s hard to respond with indifference and withdrawal to deaths you don’t even know about thanks to the propagandistic nature of the media on which you rely for accurate information about a vast and complex world.
Whatever the explanation, few Americans lose any sleep over the million or so Iraqis the US has killed since March 2003 – or over the 6 to 7 million mostly civilian people that Tirman estimates the US has killed in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq since 1950, (The rest of the humanity notices this unconcern and/or ignorance and much of the Muslim world would probably and understandably agree with Tsarnaev’s mother’s recent statement that “The terrorists are the Americans and everyone knows it.”) But what about the loss of innocent US lives to the terrorism that is provoked by US military actions abroad? Well before the 9/11 terror attacks, the late US historian Chalmers Johnson noted, CIA officers invented the term “blowback” to connote the dangers posed to Americans by “their” nation’s vastly over-extended Empire, “which insists on projecting its military power to every corner of the earth.” The September 11 jetliner assaults were the ultimate example of such “blowback,” a clear and forewarned (in all but technical and logistic specifics) response to Washington’s heavy and blood-soaked imperial footprint in the Middle East and the Muslim world. There have been many smaller examples since, including the Boston Marathon bombing, fed by the also predictable (and predicted) U.S. response to 9/11 – by Washington’s decision to double down on the very imperial presence and aggression that provoked the al Qaeda attacks in the first place. The US escalation has brought into being the hideous Islamic State, among other terrible developments.
US policymakers undertake provocative and mass-murderous military adventures abroad with full knowledge that their actions are certain to generate “blowback,” including terrorist attacks killing innocent U.S. citizens on “homeland” soil. The policymakers don’t care. If anything, it seems that many in the US imperial establishment welcome such attacks because of their “Pearl Harbor” and “Remember the Maine” role – 9/11 was a classic example – of convincing millions of US citizens to rally around the flag, cower under the umbrella of the so-called national security state, and support further U.S. aggression in the name of revenge and the false promise of security. The aggression only fuels more “blowback,” which in turn only deepens the nation’s commitment to a permanent global war of (“on”) terror that guarantees super-profitable cost-plus contracts for Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and other blood-drenched corporate masters of war. That everyday U.S. citizens confront a world more dangerous than ever even in the “homeland” is at most a minor concern for the US imperial establishment.
Paul Street (email@example.com) is a writer and author in Iowa City, IA.